BROCTON – Robert Dean Klassen, 93, died peacefully on May 21, 2022 at the Chautauqua Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Dunkirk, NY, following a brief illness.
Robert was born on September 14, 1934 in Oakland, California, the son of the late Herman and Ruby Jewel Klassen. His parents were raised Mennonites and, like so many others, escaped the impossibility of farming the cracked red earth of Oklahoma for the promised land of the West Coast. His father had a fifth-grade education and his mother attended the little school available, twelve years of perfect attendance and perfect marks on every assignment – abruptly taken out of school to help look after the younger brothers at home. Somehow his parents managed to raise their only son with a fervent work ethic, endless curiosity and a compulsive desire to read every word ever printed, the urge to talk about it also seemed wired: a teacher is born.
Bob became a popular school athlete, more important than a scholarship in begging Oklahoma. An indifferent student, not enjoying college until, like many of his generation, he spent two years as a draftee in the U.S. Army. He returned an extremely motivated student, enjoying his subsidized education, gravitating towards some kind of eventual career in business.
Around this time, Bob went on a double-blind date and fell in love with his friend’s date, a very lively redhead named Rosie Marie. His attention was mutual. Rosie was 17 at the time and was majoring in speech and acting. She would go on to become one of the top debaters in the country, putting the lowly Panhandle A&M on a par with the Ivy League schools. She had no trouble convincing Bob that he too should become a theater student and that as soon as she turned 18, crossing the border into New Mexico and getting married would be a lot of fun.
They crossed the border and got married with the change in their pocket and returned to class on Monday. Parents, teachers and peers were outraged. Everyone knew that such a foolish and impulsive marriage couldn’t last. Fifty-two years later, separated only by death, everyone was wrong.
In 1969, Robert became “Dr. Bob” when theater students sought a form of address with equal respect and affection for their favorite teacher – a newly created doctorate. The nickname has followed him through his 20-year, seven college teaching careers.
During these 52 years of marriage, they have moved several times and launched many projects. Partly because the two have been naive about the tenure system for too long. They also produced two sons: Kristopher, a professional soccer player turned coach and referee, and Eric, a multi-talented musician tapping into his father’s business genes, making a living doing the unlikely thing he does.
Bob taught briefly at the universities of Georgia and South Carolina, and six years at Michigan State. He began and developed a theater program at Marquette University before ending his teaching career at SUNY Fredonia, where he served as Chair of Theater and Dance from 1984 to 1999.
When Bob was ready to begin his research, he took out a student loan and was free to focus on his project, interviewing and documenting the few survivors of a traveling theater company that had thrived for years in the dusty towns of his youth. True believers who maintained the sets, costumes, posters and press clippings of TOBY’s plays. Bob was captivated by the people he interviewed and intrigued by the plays themselves. Predictable plots and familiar characters that have survived from Roman times, both at home in the American Southwest and in Shakespeare’s time. Bob’s interest and affection for these types of comics resurfaced years later when in 1973 he was able to stage the modern equivalent: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way To the Forum, taking a group of student performers on a USO tour, 145 appearances in Germany. , Italy, Belgium and Azores.
One last noteworthy fact. Bob Klassen is probably the only person in the history of higher education who has enjoyed writing his thesis. He and Rose had worked throughout their college careers. Teach when they could and take any job that would keep them in school. Worst, scouring toilets in a gang at best, elementary school teacher; in an affluent Los Angeles suburb with supportive administration, grateful parents, and enthusiastic students. If public education paid a living wage, they might have stayed.
Per Bob’s wishes, all funeral arrangements will be private.
Funeral arrangements were taken care of and provided by Morse Funeral Home, 51 Highland Ave., Brocton, NY