Ray Duckler: Donnie Robb was an ace on the field and in life
Donnie Robb (left) and Steve Horne hold the Concord Coed Softball League's frist place trophy in 2011.
Don and Brenda Robb pose for a photo alongside the Kancamagus Wighway in October 2009.
Ask those who played with and against him in the Concord Coed Softball League, and it’s impossible not to notice one common denominator.
Forget his competitive nature and his curveball and his ability to humble players half his age and his smile and his jokes and his caring nature and his chicken legs and his white tube socks.
It’s his name.
No one, other than his two children, of course, seems to say it any other way.
“Our team always referred to him as Donnie Robb,” says Megan Rheinhardt, a local nurse and longtime teammate of, well, Donnie Robb. “For us it was always Donnie Robb. That’s it.”
Mention the name, first, last or both, and smiles mix with tears. Robb left his fingerprints all over the softball community here, before a car crash killed him, his wife, Brenda, and another senior couple, from Peterborough, driving in a separate car.
It’s been just four months since the wreck, which happened in Hillsboro, on Route 202/9, and is still under investigation. It’s too soon to speak about Robb without pausing to fight a quivering lip or reaching for a hanky.
It’s not too late, though, to dedicate this season to Robb. The league began playing early last month, and there are fundraisers planned, like poker and golf tournaments, with college scholarship money going to a Concord High softball player.
A bench or plaque, thanks to Swenson Granite Works, will be placed at Memorial Field when and if people like Rheinhardt and Donna Plumb, another fixture in the league, break through the red tape and secure city approval.
“Our softball league really wants to remember Donnie Robb,” said Plumb, who works in Concord at the Interscholastic Athletic Association. “What can we do and what are we going to do? When it was confirmed that it was Donnie Robb and Brenda in the accident, everyone jumped into action and the wheels started turning.”
The crash happened Jan. 27, a Sunday, about 5 p.m. The Robbs had spent the weekend at their Concord home with one of their two grandchildren, 7-year-old Ella.
Don and Brenda then met their daughter, Erin Scaggs, and her family at a convenience store, halfway between Erin’s home in West Chesterfield and Concord. After dropping off Ella, Don and Brenda were driving home when they collided with a car driven by 69-year-old Richard Monahon. His wife, Mary, 71, was in the passenger seat.
All four people died. It’s not clear yet which vehicle crossed the center line, as the couples were heading in opposite directions. What is clear is that two communities were rocked by the news.
The Monahons were well-known architects and community members in Peterborough, prompting Mike Robb of Concord, Don and Brenda’s 40-year-old son, to say at the time, “It’s not lost on us that another set of people are feeling the way we are feeling.”
Which led Erin to say last week, “That blew me away, that my brother had the wherewithal to say that while talking to the papers. I admire him so much to be able to think like this, to be cognizant of that. I was so proud of him for sharing that.”
The siblings, separated by eight years, were always close; now, they’re closer.
“He’s been a huge support for me, and I hope me for him, since this has happened,” said Erin, 32. “It’s only natural that it brings you closer when you’ve lost half your family immediately. The remaining half, of course, holds each other a little closer.”
Erin is a nurse at Cheshire Medical Center in Keene, Mike the manager of a paintball park in Weare. They’re still dealing with lawyers and their parents’ estate, still cleaning out Don and Brenda’s house and fighting to recall their good life, not their awful death.
Erin is asked about closure.
“To be honest, I don’t even know what that would mean to me right now,” she says. “I have a point in my mind when I can look at their picture and think about some of these memories and have it not be painful, but have it be comforting, or have it make me smile instead of cry. I have that kind of point in my mind, like someday I’ll get there. So it’s not exactly closure, but it’s something I think about.”
She and Mike think about a man who, as a laid-off construction worker, refused to apply for unemployment, choosing instead to sell vacuum cleaners door to door. They mention those days a lifetime ago, when Robb took them to Memorial Field so they could watch him compete in the men’s league and play with the other kids under the bleachers.
“My dad was a hero, and it was intoxicating,” Mike said. “It was past my bedtime and I could see the glow of the bats in the light and my dad was a small man, but he was a giant to me.”
They mention his friendships, seemingly with everyone, from the ex-cons he met as a longtime sergeant at the state prison, to the lawyers in town, to the lawmakers at the State House, to the truck drivers and so on.
And, of course, they mention his skill as a softball pitcher. Robb wasn’t big, maybe 5-foot-8, with skinny legs. But his pitches moved, he was tough as a two-dollar steak and he loved the sport more than most.
“The most selfless, team-supporting, amazing man I think I’ve ever met,” Rheinhardt says. “A true competitor, and he took the game seriously, but he had a fun time doing it. He was the biggest cheerleader on the team. Not a game would go by where someone on the team at some point in time would say, ‘Let’s do this for Donnie Robb.’ ”
Now, this summer, they’re doing more than simply trying to win a game in which Robb is pitching. Essentially, they’re dedicating the season to him, in a variety of ways.
His children say they’re overwhelmed by the league-wide love. The plan is to gather at Memorial Field two weeks from today, on Fathers Day, and pay tribute to Robb. Erin will say something.
“I have not made final plans on what I will say,” she admits. “I really don’t know.”
About two months later, at the end of August, the playoffs will begin, with teams playing for the league championship.
The winner will earn a trophy, yet to be designed.
“We’re going to call it the Donnie Robb Cup,” Plumb said. “It’s something the teams will pass on from year to year.”