12/01/2017 Roger Moore

Man of Steel

This magazine article is part of Fall 2017 / Issue 90

Robert B. Bachman ’43 at 94

It’s a pleasant summer day in New England, a Monday morning in mid-August, and Bob Bachman ’43 gets up and goes to work just like always—and just like almost nobody 94 years old would dream of doing.

He drives north to Manchester, N.H., 65 miles from his retirement home just west of Boston, then drives 65 miles back. On Tuesday morning, he gets up and does it again, logging 140 miles to call on a customer at a shipyard in Rhode Island. Wednesday’s stops keep him around Boston. It’s shaping up to be an easy week.

Normally? Well, he says, “I own a car that’s one year old and has 25,000 miles on it. My longest trip is to Bridgeport, Conn., 150 miles from my residence, and I also go to Portland, Maine,” 125 miles away. He doesn’t stay overnight. He likes to come home to Libby, 88, his wife of 64 years.

Bachman sells steel, has for 70 years, the first four decades covering New England for Lukens Steel and the next three as a manufacturer’s rep. Why stay at it? “I love people,” he says, relishing the gift. “I have some relatively new accounts, but I’ve known most of these people for 30 or so years—in one company, I’ve known four generations—so it’s like calling on friends.”

His kids joke that he’s a “man of steel.” He’s clearly a man of modesty. “Don’t make some big shot out of me. I’m just a salesman.”

‘Incredible Tenacity’

Like skipping stones across a pond, Bachman can quickly hit his life highlights. Born Dec. 6, 1922, raised in Coatesville, Pa., wonderful parents, worked Saturdays in his dad’s store, played tennis, graduated early from F&M to serve in World War II. But when he slows down to describe a serendipitous event or hard-won success, he invariably concludes, “I’ve been very fortunate.” Satisfaction is deepened by gratitude; absent is the faintest whiff of braggadocio.

His son, Bob, third of four children, credits his dad’s endurance to “incredible tenacity.” Bachman has weathered a stroke, prostate cancer, a jarring career shift, a daughter’s death, a drunk driver hitting the car and shattering his nose, navigating his ship through a typhoon in the Pacific, and almost dying in a fire—yet he keeps getting up and getting back in the game, still mentally sharp and physically active. So tenacity, yes.

Then there’s the extrovert’s affinity for social engagement and the athlete’s love of competitive sport—both energizing contributors to Bob Bachman’s remarkable vitality.

From Coatesville to F&M

Emory, Bob’s father, of Swiss ancestry, was born in Strasburg, a little farming village south of Lancaster. His mother, Willamena, whose parents emigrated from Germany, was “Minnie,” the “life of the party.” When World War I began, Emory enlisted, made sergeant in the infantry, fought in the trenches.

Home from the war, Emory founded the Lukens General Store in Coatesville, selling groceries and dry goods to millworker families for 50 years. Jane was born in 1920, and two years later, Bob.

Bob can’t remember not working. “I sold the Saturday Evening Post, delivered the Ladies Home Journal and Country Companion. I worked in Dad’s store for seven years on Saturdays.” He also played competitive tennis.

“The main reason I went to Franklin & Marshall,” all-male then but just down the road, “is because I had a girlfriend a year behind me in high school. I came home most weekends to see her and work at Dad’s store and make 50 cents an hour.”

Bob joined Sigma Pi, majored in economics, served as business manager of Oriflamme, and played on the tennis team. “I would have been captain my junior year except they had no team because of the war,” he says. Eager to join the service, he compressed his education into three years and graduated in 1943. He was just 20.

Riding the Waves

With his bachelor’s degree in hand, and having picked up a few leadership skills, Bob was officer material. His next stop was midshipman school at Northwestern University.

As a freshly pressed ensign, “I was on a SC 437 sub-chaser in Norfolk. Then I was up in Newfoundland for eight months on a YO-61 oiler, the U.S.S. Driller,” impatient to see action.

As Lieutenant Bachman, he was sent to Leyte Gulf in the Philippines for 18 months in command of the 94-foot APc-96. He’d just missed the October 1944 naval battle, largest of the war, and now, as hundreds of ships came and went, his duties included harbor patrol as well as carrying men, supplies and mail from island to island.

After Japan surrendered, Bob’s war was over. In May 1946, it was time to bring his little ship back to San Diego for decommissioning. “We waited for two weeks for the weather to be perfect. We were out less than a day when we hit one of the worst storms they’d ever seen in that part of the world [probably Typhoon Charlotte]. Half of the crew were seasick. Going from Leyte Gulf to Guam would normally be a five-day trip, but the weather was so bad it took us two weeks in this storm…. I didn’t get seasick, but I had a chief petty officer who never got out of his sack for two weeks.”

From Lieutenant Bachman to Lukens Salesman

Bob came home to figure out his future. Lukens Steel had flourished during the war by making plate steel for ships and submarines. And it was right next door.

Once he’d learned the business and trained in sales, Lukens sent him to the Manhattan office for four years. “For the first eight months I lived in a hotel for $16 a week, all I could afford.”

From another Lukens man, he learned about a place “equivalent to a fraternity” in Westfield, N.J., so he joined “15 or 20 fellows—all college graduates—who had a house, a cook, a maid, even our own basketball team.”

They also had a fire. After everybody was out, his roommate noticed Bob was missing, and the firemen rushed back to rescue him. He was found unconscious on the bedroom floor, passed out from smoke inhalation so bad he had to spend the next week recovering in an oxygen tent.

But going to church in Westfield brought good fortune. He met Elizabeth “Libby” Frolich, a recent Mount Holyoke graduate and chemist, when she hosted a church cookout. They dated and talked of marriage, but her father said to wait. Libby took a new job with DuPont in Wilmington, and when Lukens transferred Bob to Boston, he made sure to see her every other weekend.

Boston: Marriage, Children, Success

In June 1953, they married and settled in “a beautiful apartment on the waterside of Beacon Street, $128 a month.” He can still tick off details: “…a six-story building—and it had an elevator! We lived there for five years and loved it.” They were very active in the Old South Church, and, after they’d moved west to suburban Wellesley, in the Village Congregational Church.

For Lukens, Bob doubled sales the first year, doubled it again the second. His thorough preparation and enthusiastic, high-trust, humor-loving personality made friends left and right and carried him to top levels of customer organizations. A five-handicap golfer by then, sharp from tournament competition, he played with corporate CEOs, General Electric President Jack Welch, entertainer Bob Hope, and the legendary amateur Francis Ouimet.

And he sold big tonnage: to General Dynamics and the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard for building submarines, to Bath Iron Works for destroyers, and to General Electric plants in Schenectady, Fitchburg, Pittsfield and Lynn.

But by the mid-1980s, cheap foreign steel had grabbed 33 percent of the U.S. market. President Reagan refused to impose quotas or tariffs. Lukens lost millions and cut its white-collar staff in half.

Bob, at 64, had no desire to retire—and still had all those invaluable relationships. So in 1986, he reinvented his business and began picking up new steelmakers to represent.

Achievers All

As his sales and sales territory had expanded, so had his family. They bought a home in Wellesley, where Libby immersed herself in raising their four children and community volunteering. Bob moved his growing office nearby so he could be there to catch the kids playing their high school sports.

Do hard-working, high-performing parents have hard-working, high- performing offspring? In this family, yes. Bambi, Jeb, Bob, and Pete all graduated from excellent colleges, married happily, achieved success in their chosen fields, and have delighted their parents by giving them 12 grandchildren. The three sons live not more than 10 minutes away, and the entire family gathers for a several high-spirited days at Christmas. But this year without their beloved Bambi, who died of pancreatic cancer in June.

For the Love of the Game

What shapes a life you love?

Values matter. Honesty, hard work, loving people, being generous, helping others—for decades Bob has helped people find new jobs. Still does.

“A close-knit family” matters, and friends, school, work, war, worship—but let’s not forget tennis, squash, badminton, and golf. It seems impossible to overstate the kinetic pleasures of competitive small-ball striking (and let’s include shuttlecock) in Bob’s life, and the relationships built through it.

He joined clubs for athletic and social reasons wherever he’s lived, worked, vacationed, or traveled often. Tennis gave way to golf, first at Coatesville Country Club. Membership followed at clubs like Brae Burn near Wellesley, Mohawk near Schenectady, Mid-Ocean on Bermuda. He’d also discovered squash at a Philadelphia club and later joined the University Club in Boston, where he switched to badminton and, at 50, won the national championship in his age class.

Libby played, though not a Bob’s level. Yet for seven years, she and her son Bob won the annual mother-son tournament at Brae Burn, where he and Jeb also belong.

Looking Ahead

As he prepares to hit the road for his next trip, the modest man of steel still has no plans to retire.

“Somebody said, ‘retirement is when you get up in the morning with nothing to do, and at the end of the day you’re half done.’ I don’t know what I’d be doing if I didn’t do this,” Bachman says. “I enjoy every day. Of course, I’ll have to face that situation sometime in the near future.”

But not yet. Not just yet.

 

 

  • man of steel Image Credit: Illustration by Chad Gowey
  • 1943 1943 Image Credit: Office of Communications
  • 1966 1966 Image Credit: Courtesy of Bachman
blog comments powered by Disqus
Story 12/1/2017

Going ‘Head Over Healey’ for a Record

History Lesson, Fall 2017 How many Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity brothers can fit into a 1955...

Read More
Story 12/1/2017

Beyond Borders

Humanitarian crises drive Jason Cone '99 with a sense of purpose — and at times, a bit of outrage,...

Read More
Story 12/1/2017

​Seismic Station

F&M's seismic station gets a new home 

Read More