By Chris Lisinski
TOWNSEND — Bob Tumber turned 90 on June 1, and he has spent almost all of those nine decades as a West Townsend resident. He earned the nickname “Mayor of West Townsend” for being so involved and well-known, and he has a résumé to back that up: he owned the West Side Package Store in town for several decades; he volunteers at high-school athletic contests; he played a special role in numerous Memorial Day parades; he was presented with the William E. May Endowment Fund Award in recognition of his service to Townsend and its seniors, and more. We asked him to reflect on his time in town.
Q: So tell us: how did you get that nickname?
A: “The selectmen’s meetings were on Tuesday night, but they weren’t televised way back then (around 1960). (The town clerk) was always at the meetings. I would call her up Wednesday morning and ask her how did the selectmen’s meeting go, and she would tell me how they went. And one day, she said, ‘You know, you always ask me what’s going on. I’m going to call you the Mayor of West Townsend.'”
Q: This was when you were running West Side Package Store, right? How did that start?
A: “I worked in it part-time for two years (around 1952), and then the owner passed away. In his will, he left me a portion of it. I bought the rest of it myself … I quit in 2000, closed the store and sold the building and the land to a local businessman … Probably a little over a year ago, they tore the building down and put up a new building that is now a bus depot for Dee Transportation school buses.”
Q: Did you see a lot of familiar faces?
A: “When they tore the store down, I was put online on Facebook or whatever you call it. They said it’s an icon that Townsend will miss. How’s that for a pat on the back?”
Q: You’ve been involved in a lot of other town activities, right?
A: “I was involved in the fire department for 16 years, registrar of voters for six years, cemetery commissioner for six years. I was on the regional school committee for one year.”
Q: What’s been your participation in Townsend’s annual Memorial Day parade?
A: “I carried the colors for about 25 to 30 years. I was the carrier of the American flag. Then, when my legs started to get bad and I couldn’t march any more, I took up the work of laying the wreath and the American flag in each cemetery while the band played.”
Q: What was that experience like for you, especially as a World War II veteran yourself?
A: “I was very proud of doing it … What I tried to do, and they still continue it, I got a Boy Scout and a Girl Scout to help me, and that way, if God forbid something were to happen to me and we couldn’t get some of the posts to participate, the Scouts could take it over. … What I was trying to teach them was how important that particular day is because it’s in memorial of all the men and women who passed away and have helped save this country and keep it going so far. I always felt that you’re honoring all those who are protecting our country.”
Q: What was your wartime experience like?
A: “I served in the Navy from 1944 to 1946 on an aircraft carrier called the Boxer, CV-21. When I got on it, it was just coming off the shipyard at Portsmouth, Virginia. We were the first crew on it … We went down through the (Panama) Canal and over to the Pacific. We had gun tubs on each side of the ship, and those were so wide, you couldn’t put them on before you hit the canal. We had to stop in San Francisco and put the guns back on in their shipyard out there. Then we headed out for Pearl Harbor. We were in the 5th fleet. As each island was being taken, we were a portion of the fleet that moved along. If one portion had problems fighting or they served their time, they moved out and the next portion moved up … We were going to be the invasion of Japan. But the (atomic) bomb(s) came out at the end, and we stayed out (at Iwo Jima) for another two or three months, and then went into Japan after that.”
Q: You also sold tickets at North Middlesex athletic events for a number of years. How did you enjoy that?
A: “I loved it. I met a lot of people when I was at the store. Those people who I met at the store came to the games to see their sons play basketball or football, and they’d come up to the window and say, ‘Bob, how are you?’ I’d recognize them, and we’d just have little conversations. It made it an interesting job to do. They would say to me, ‘You remember me when I was 10 and my dad would come in?'”
Q: What’s your secret to staying so active through nine decades?
A: “I just enjoy doing it … I’ve met a lot of people and they’ve all cared for me. Sometimes, when you’re just down but not out, there are a lot of people you never realized are your friends. I have a lot of friends in Townsend.”
Q: And have you made a point of reciprocating that? After all, you did win the senior center’s William E. May award a few years ago.
A: “They knew I had done a lot in town to help out. It was a big honor for me, you know. It was a big surprise to see it be called because I’m just a regular guy … My wife passed away six years ago. I don’t actually live alone — I have another friend that stays with me, and he’s out working. I did that because I was trying to help him out. He was trying to find a new apartment, and I said, ‘I’ve got this house full of room and heat. Come up and enjoy it.’ … I consider myself a lucky guy. Everything has always been on the plus side for me. Somewhere along the line, if I have a problem, somebody comes along and we solve it.”