Bob “Father Bob” Paxton outside Pizza Castle on 55th Street. --Supplied photo

Bob “Father Bob” Paxton outside Pizza Castle on 55th Street. --Supplied photo

Tears, cheers for ‘Father Bob’

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Friends recall colorful character, loving heart

(Editor’s note: this story appeared in the March 2, 2018 edition of the Southwest News-Herald.)

By Anthony Caciopo

It was a sweet sendoff for a sweet man.

With the uplifting melody of “Amazing Grace” filling Hope Covenant Church in Orland Park, about 75 friends and loved ones of Robert “Father Bob” Paxton gathered to read from Scripture, share memories, laughs and even some tears last Sunday about one of the Southwest Side’s most unforgettable and curious characters.

“I met him only a couple years ago when he started coming to church,” said Nick Windle, one of several people who stood at the front of the congregation and offered testimony.

“It was the middle of summer and he had, like, eight jackets on,” Windle recalled, sending a ripple of knowing laughter through the crowd. “Bob prayed for me every day. You just don’t really know how big someone is going to be in your life until they go,” he said, choking back tears.

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Bob “Father Bob” Paxton outside Pizza Castle on 55th Street. –Supplied photo

Father Bob—also known as Bible Bob, the Pope, Brother Bob and many other names—was not actually a member of the clergy, but was familiar to countless Southwest Siders for more than 50 years.

Mr. Paxton, 76, died Feb. 13 at Manor Care Health Services/Palos Heights West. He had been suffering from esophageal cancer and other conditions at the time of his death.

His unusual attire, his direct and unexpected questions to friends and strangers, and the wide territory he traveled made him somewhat of a local celebrity. Many people who hadn’t met him at least recognized him, sometimes walking, sometimes riding the bus and sometimes taking his life into his own hands on busy streets.

“There was Bob, pushing his walker around midnight, marching diagonally across the intersection of 55th Street and Kedzie,” said Tom Jensen, who worked at Pizza Castle nearby. “Despite the blaring horns and (motorists) yelling, Bob went on his way. God was looking out for him.”

Jensen said that when Father Bob acquired a motorized wheelchair, his brushes with danger grew even closer.

“He’d be zooming up and down our streets, flying down 55th Street as if he was driving a car, the King of the Road,” said Jensen.

Father Bob was developmentally disabled and grew up near 56th and Paulina. For a number of years, he lived in a Catholic charitable residence known as St. Joseph’s. His parents were the late Helen and Harry Paxton. His cousin, Margaret Grisz-Dow, said that Bob could not speak intelligibly until he was 10 or 11 years old.

“Your dear heart suffered for that,” she said in a letter that was read aloud in the church. “When your speech became coherent, you certainly made up for lost time in greeting and chatting with everyone in the neighborhood for 50 years. Good job, Bobby. What a gang of fantastic friends you have gathered.”

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Longtime friend Kathy Jensen and Evan Goranson, former pastor at Hope Covenant Church, hang poster boards with photos at a memorial service for Robert Paxton, known fondly as Father Bob. He died Feb. 13 at 76 years of age. –Southwest News-Herald photo by Anthony Caciopo

The Gage Park community was where Father Bob called home for decades, particularly an apartment on the corner of 53rd Place and Homan, according to friends.

From that base, Father Bob would travel around the neighborhood and into other communities.

“In 1974 he just walked in, an eccentric type of character, and he always hung around,” said Richard Jensen, brother of Tom Jensen and the owner of Pizza Castle, 3256 W. 55th St.

“Who is this guy? He was very friendly, very outgoing,” said Jensen. “We knew he had some issues. We took him under our wing. He’d hang around and sit out front. We would say he was our security guard,” Rich Jensen said, with a laugh.

We’d take him home at nighttime; and then an hour later while we were cleaning up, we’d see him walking by the store.”

And the price for Father Bob’s “security” services?

“A slice of pizza and an RC,” said Tom Jensen.

Father Bob “wore shorts in the wintertime before it became a thing,” said Jonas Cepkauskas, an old friend from the neighborhood who attended the memorial service. “He wore 15-20 necklaces and he asked me many times about wearing socks with sandals.”

Father Bob’s “Are you wearing socks?” queries to nearly everyone he met over the years inspired the title of a Facebook page “Father Bob Fan Club (no socks required).” There are nearly a thousand members.

Despite his gentle nature, Bob did not always have friendly encounters as he traveled about.

“Lots of kids in the neighborhood were kind of mean to him,” said Cepkauskas.

A recollection from someone during the memorial referenced a possible forced drug overdose when Bob was a young man and Father Bob’s pastor at Hope Covenant Church, Evan Goranson, noted that Bob sometimes had to fight for himself.

“I saw ‘fierce Bob’ a couple of times,” said Goranson. “He learned to be protective of himself. There were many opportunities throughout his life for Bob to be a vulnerable person, and he was a victim from time to time, but inside of him at the core of his being was a love for people I’ve never encountered before.”

Father Bob left the Southwest Side almost 10 years ago due to a hospitalization and then became a resident at Symphony of Crestwood rehabilitation facility, where he lived for seven years until Goranson met him a couple years ago.

“A few people from this congregation had it in their hearts to go to Symphony (to minster),” said Goranson. Because of that, Bob began coming to Hope Covenant Church in Orland Park.

Goranson left his position of pastor at the congregation last fall to become spiritual care coordinator at Heartland Hospice.

“I was privileged to be a friend to Bob,” said Goranson at the memorial. “I’ve never struggled so hard to find something to say by way of summation about a person’s life as I have in preparation for this service today.”

Goranson told of Bob’s rough road recently with declining health.

“He was in church every Sunday unless he was in the hospital,” Goranson said. “The last Sunday he was here, was in the summer.”

On that day, said Goranson, Father Bob became dizzy and fell down in the parking lot.

Bob requested that his pastor take him to Advocate Christ Medical Center in Oak Lawn, where Goranson described a classic Father Bob scene.

“I’m wheeling him through the emergency room. He had on his big crown and about 15 pounds of jewelry,” said Goranson with a smile.

Father Bob’s stay at Advocate Christ would last seven weeks.

“Who stays in the hospital for seven weeks?” Goranson asked the crowd. “There were nights when I thought, ‘This is the night they’re going to call me and tell me Bob is dead.’”

But Father Bob survived.

“I’ve never met a tougher human being in my life,” said Goranson.

From the hospital, Father Bob was admitted to Manor Care in Palos Heights where, as usual, he turned heads and drew people to him because of his personality.

One of those people who became close to Father Bob at Manor Care was Cindy Bettenhausen, medical records coordinator.

“He’d spend the whole day with me,” she said. “We’d talk about family, faith, his love of God, books, movies and music. He loved music of all kinds.”

Bettenhausen said she’d help Father Bob with soup, applesauce and puddings, because of the cancer in his esophagus.

“He’d always say “Let me do something for you,’ so he’d push my cart,” as Bettenhausen made her rounds.

“I pushed his wheelchair, he pushed my cart,” she said.

Father Bob stayed at Manor Care for about six months until his death. Bettenhausen and Goranson were at his side when died. “Amazing Grace” was playing.

“I miss him not being there,” Bettenhausen said. “I was blessed to know him and I wish I had known him longer. I miss him in my heart.”

“I’ll see you in heaven,” Father Bob’s cousin Margie wrote in his online obituary. “As you used to love to say, ‘with bells on!’”

Father Bob’s body was cremated, and his ashes will be inurned later this month at Holy Sepulchre cemetery, next to his mother’s grave. Arrangements were with Becvar & Son Funeral Home, Crestwood. He is survived by his brother, Harry (Linda) Paxton.

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