Bob Armantrout rose to his bare feet when I entered the cavernous building, stepping over books and gift bags to embrace me before settling back into the wing-backed chair. The cluster of former co-workers rose as well and greeted me as Bob went back to signing copies of Backyard Biodiesel, a book he wrote with Lyle in 2015.
The space seemed so much larger now without the enormous biodiesel tanks. Lyle had left the high perimeter catwalk in place, power-washed the thick coat of grease off the metal steps, and converted the second-floor lab into a bar. Matt, Bob’s former boss at SCS Global, had been Piedmont Biofuels Coop’s Executive Director for Lyle back in the day and it seemed the perfect venue for Bob’s retirement party.
Thirty-five SCS Global employees had flown in from the Americas, Europe, and Asia for a three-day retreat and to celebrate Bob’s illustrious stint with the company. Every one of them were garbed in a Hawaiian shirt to match the one Bob wore. Many had brought snacks from their country, strange-tasting cookies and candies, coffee, clothing, and even something for me: a bass-relief plaque of the white church at Suchitoto, El Salvador.
There was plenty of local color as well—close friends and people we hadn’t seen in years. Only two wore Hawaiian shirts and that was happenstance. The atmosphere was joyous. Bob holding court, the crowd swelling, cups of free beer, handshakes and hugs, laughter echoing from the high steel ceiling, bouncing off the catwalks, people balancing plates of food on their laps.
Matt took the mic and welcomed everyone, then turned it over to Bob. Lyle, standing beside me leaned over and said, “Uh oh, here comes Bob. Get the hook!”
“If anyone has a story,” Bob began, “of the stupidest thing you heard me say or the stupidest thing you saw me do, I invite you to come up and share it.”
Andy was already walking forward with his hand in the air. Bob went and sat off to the side on the stage. “Bob is the only person I’ve ever seen work the phrase, ‘anal leakage’ into a business meeting with people he didn’t know.” I searched Bob’s face for signs of chagrin as everybody roared.
Lyle went next, making us all laugh with a story about needing Bob to retire so he could sell more beer. Matt read a retirement tribute in the style of Kurt Vonnegut that he’d crafted with the help of ChatGPT. Trip teased Bob about his early bedtime. Ina told us how she came to realize that Bob wasn’t just a guy who liked to talk a lot, but that he was weaving a story, like a tent, and bringing her and everyone else inside.
Eddie from Brazil spoke about his first virtual meeting with Bob in which he was confounded by casual attire, and how he came to appreciate Bob’s informal approach. “He was normal,” he said. Normal, not formal. Colorful, not drab, allowing others to relax and be real human beings.
And that is what Bob does, he shows up barefoot in a colorful shirt, puts you at ease, allows you to be human, envisions a better world, and invites you to join him.