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A Fine Pair of Pals
Writer Cynthia Bix
Photographer Nancy Rubin

A wandering jack-of-all-trades and a firmly “grounded” geologist might seem like a pretty unlikely pair of pals. But (former) Ashby Village member Bob Compton and volunteer Mary Lucas McDonald have found common ground in surprising ways.


From Chicago to India to California, Bob Compton has packed a lot of adventures—and the stories to go with them—into his 94 years. A native of the Chicago area, he began his adventures serving overseas in World War II. “I was a radio operator,” he recalls. “I went to England and then France, following D-Day. Then I was flying supplies behind the lines into Germany. We also brought prisoners back—all kinds of people, half of them were American airmen who had been shot down over Germany and were in prisoner-of-war camps.”


Back home after the war, Bob and an old Chicago buddy set out for California in 1946. He earned his degree in psychology from UC Berkeley. "Uncertain in my direction in life, “I had various jobs—I was a sheet metal worker, and I worked in a cannery in Berkeley. I even worked as an insurance adjuster. I went from one thing to another, trying to decide what I wanted to do.”


Finally he went to school at UC Berkeley and got a degree in social work. “I worked at Langley-Porter Psychiatric Hospital in San Francisco. At the time they were still performing lobotomies and doing electric-shock therapy. Then I got my masters and went to New York City and worked as a social worker at a mental hospital, where they discovered the drugs that could be used in place of the old therapies. So I saw both ends of the spectrum.”


After that, Bob went to work for the Veteran’s Administration, and for the next seven years he worked with VA patients and lived in Greenwich Village—a vibrant, fascinating scene in the 1950s, the years of the Beat Generation. Every year, he vacationed down in Florida’s Key West. “I loved that place.” he says with a twinkle.


Bob continues, “Around that time my aunt—who had grown up in India—wanted to go back to visit her one remaining sister there. So we both said, ‘I’ll go if you’ll go.’  This was in about 1956. So I went to India and stayed there for three months. I traveled third class on the trains—sometimes they were so crowded I had to ride hanging on the outside steps. It was pretty frightening going through tunnels! In those days I was fearless, I guess.”


After that, Bob made his way back to the San Francisco Bay Area, where he has settled at last. Bob worked for some years as the Activities Director at International House. He also continued to do social work at San Francisco’s Fort Miley VA Hospital, working with veterans suffering with PTSD.


Bob’s engaging way of telling his many stories is clearly part of the reason Mary has so enjoyed getting to know him over the past three years or so. Mary first met Bob when he called Ashby Village requesting someone to come and take out his garbage.


Mary, a geologist who makes her home in Berkeley, had turned to volunteering as one way to keep active. Mary works with a small company of five people to write environmental impact reports. “For example,” she explains, “we did the environmental impact study for the America’s Cup, and for the Golden State Warriors stadium, and a lot of San Francisco Public Utilities Commission jobs. When someone proposes a new construction or other project, we evaluate the potential impact on the environment from things like noise, traffic, and air quality, and we produce a document that goes out for public review.”


Mary works out of her home, and even though she is very busy, that can be isolating. Volunteering for Ashby Village and other organizations is a perfect antidote. “I welcome the social contacts I get from that,” she says. “Before I got so busy with other things, I used to manage the Ashby Village Facebook page—I was on the communications team.” 


Before becoming a member, Bob, too, had been a volunteer at Ashby Village. When he still had a car, he visited people and also volunteered in the office, and helping with computer issues. But then he had to stop driving, and he needed services himself.


After that first meeting, Mary began to help Bob with a variety of things, especially grocery shopping. Mary and Bob worked together to help Bob organize his needs so that he made less frequent demands on friends and Ashby Village volunteers. Bob laughs. “Oh, yes, that’s right! I’d keep thinking of one thing and then another, and finally she had to set a limit.” Mary laughs, "Volunteers do have to learn how to set limits!"


Mary’s character combines warm-heartedness with a firm hand when it comes to dealing with somebody like Bob. And her own adventurous side—as evidenced by her love of dragon boat racing—gives her something in common with the adventurous side of Bob.


“Dragon boat racing is one my biggest things right now!” says Mary. “I had joined the YMCA to work out and get in shape, but I found that paddling offered a social outlet on top of a physical workout.”


She explains that a dragon boat is typically about 40 feet long, propelled by a team of 20 paddlers and a steersperson. Dragon boat racing began in ancient China and is an enduring tradition in that country. In the Bay Area, there are over 2,000 participants racing locally and internationally. In fact, DragonMax, a Berkeley dragon boat club, has partnered with Ashby Village for the past two years in a fun, no-holds-barred Volunteer Play-It-Forward event. Of course Mary has hosted it on behalf of DragonMax.


The club is part of the Berkeley Racing Canoe Center (BRCC), a non-profit organization. “I’m currently on the Board of Directors as the Outreach Director,” says Mary. “We have a team that competes locally and around the United States. We also do a lot of community outreach.” She continues, “I’ve also gone with a different, pickup team to race in the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Hong Kong, which has really been fun! I love the social aspect of dragon boating, and I get great exercise at the same time.” Obviously, she’s hooked!


Bob himself is no stranger to the YMCA. At his present residence in San Pablo’s Brookdale Senior Living facility, he can be seen zipping around with his walker at top speed in the hallways and community social areas, chatting with other residents and visiting the garden outdoors. When asked how he keeps so active, Bob says, “I go into downtown Berkeley two or three times a week, so I can work out at the YMCA. I mostly work on the machines—you know, rowing and stationary bike.” It should be added that to get there, he uses his walker to get to the bus, which takes him to BART, and then walks to the Y. And home again, of course, the same way.


Because he had to move out of Berkeley into this affordable senior living apartment, Bob is now out of the Ashby Village service area and not officially part of the Ashby Village community. “Mary really shouldn’t be helping me,” he says with a wink. “So now she helps me as a friend.”


Bob and Mary used to get together every two or three weeks or so. Now that Bob is living in San Pablo, their meetings are necessarily less frequent. Still, the bond is strong. They get together sometimes by planning, and sometimes by accident.


“By an extraordinary coincidence we ran into each other in downtown Berkeley not long ago,” recalls Bob. “I was walking down the street with my walker and thinking of Mary and how much I had missed seeing her. And all of a sudden there she was, standing waiting for me on the opposite curb. That was astounding!”