At 100 years old, Dr. Robert Bair has spent the majority of his life helping others — as a surgeon, in the service, supporting community arts and as a mentor for local youths.
Born Jan. 14, 1920 in New Hope, Bucks County, he arrived in the midst of a snowstorm. His parents were uneducated, blue collar people. It was his mother’s dream for her children to get an education.
“My mother used to say she wanted a minister, a doctor and a lawyer. She got a doctor,” Dr. Bair said, adding his brothers became a banker and an engineer.
A few years after graduating from high school, Dr. Bair was on the receiving end of a good turn that changed the trajectory of his life, according to his daughter Nancy.
With his father out of work for four years during the Great Depression, his son took a job at a local factory. One night, he went to the soda fountain to get a Coke and ran into Dr. Higgins, who was leaving. They greeted one another, and Dr. Bair congratulated the older man on earning his doctorate and becoming a professor at Franklin & Marshall University.
They ended up talking for three hours. Before saying good night, Dr. Higgins encouraged the young man to apply for admission to Franklin & Marshall. He was accepted and received a scholarship that would cover two-thirds of his tuition and provide him with a job at the university.
“He and his wife were very good to me. They took me to Lancaster and introduced me to individuals who hired college students,” Dr. Bair recalled.
With $300 saved during two years working at the factory, Dr. Bair packed all his belongings in two suitcases, boarded a train and found a room in a boarding house with another young man from New Hope. They each paid $5 a week for the room, which included three meals a day.
After buying books and essentials, Dr. Bair had not found work and was down to his last $5. Regretfully, he told his landlady he would be returning home the following week unless his circumstances changed.
The next day he noticed a “flurry of activity” in the building across the street, stopped in and discovered a restaurant would soon open. Dr. Bair spoke to the owner, who hired him to wash dishes from 6 in the evening until every dish was clean. In addition, he found a second job in a milk bar, working weekends, which paid $10 a month.
In July 1942, he enlisted in the U.S. Army as a first lieutenant to fight in World War II. He was part of the 77th Division in the Central Pacific and participated in six invasions: Makin Atoll, Guam, Leyte, Kerama Retto, Okinawa and Ie Shima. He was discharged Dec. 31, 1945.
He planned to return to the university that spring, but in the interim helped his parents install indoor plumbing — which he paid for with his Army earnings — and traveled by train with a friend. On that journey, he met Grace, his future wife who accompanied his friend’s girlfriend. They went to a dance, had a burger after and then the other couple dropped Dr. Bair and Grace off at the rec center, where he politely said good night and walked away.
“I didn’t know it was a date,” he said.
Grace, who kept journals, wrote an addendum to her entry dated Jan. 25, 1946. It had been the luckiest day of her life, she wrote, the day “L.B. Austin introduced me to Bob Bair.”
He returned to Franklin & Marshall and completed his degree. He then went to medical school, graduating on June 9, 1950. The next day, he married Grace, a music teacher, and he began his surgical residency.
They discovered Wellsboro in 1952. A planned vacation with Grace’s parents was postponed when his father-in-law fell ill. Instead, the couple and Dr. Bair’s parents traveled north to the Pennsylvania Grand Canyon in late August. Despite a frost “so thick it was like a snow storm,” the couple enjoyed the stay and returned the following year.
Looking for work after his residency, Dr. Bair found an opening in Wellsboro and was hired. In 1955, the family moved to Wellsboro. They had five children: Robert Jr., William, Susan, Sally and Nancy.
It was during the years when his children were young that Dr. Bair began helping other area children. He found them in times when they needed help, and took them under his wing. The Bairs accepted the children as part of the family, taking them to ball games, on family trips or even a home if the situation demanded it.
He gave them direction and even helped a few through college. Dr. Bair modestly downplays his role.
“I just got to liking them,” he said.
However, daughter Nancy said there were many through the years. He would hire his own children and others to clean his office.
“He always overpaid his kids; he overpaid everybody,” she said.
It was Grace who was the spirit of the family and supported his decision to reach out to kids in need.
“She kicked me in the pants when I needed to be kicked and gave me a hand when I needed a hand,” Dr. Bair said.
Outside of work and home, Dr. Bair served as a deacon and an elder for the Presbyterian Church in Wellsboro, was president of the Wednesday Morning Musicales, president of the Wellsboro Community Concert Association, served on the county Human Services board of directors, served on the Northern Tier Children’s Home Board of Directors, served on the Bache Foundation, chief of staff at Soldiers + Sailors Memorial Hospital (now UPMC Wellsboro) and sang in the church choir for 45 years.