By Billy Watkins
She still talks to him.
“I had a nice time today.”
“The days are OK. The nights are awful,” said Pam Cleveland, whose husband Bobby died April 28 from injuries suffered in a two-vehicle accident at age 67. “I wake up during the night, breathing those short breaths that Bobby breathed before he died.”
She has good friends who are helping her through this — Mary Ann Hood, whose husband Orley died in 2014, and Ann White, who lost her husband Hal in 2013.
“They’ve reminded me that there is no right or wrong way to grieve,” Pam said. “I stayed in bed one day until 2 o’clock in the afternoon. I felt bad about it. If I haven’t cried in two days, I feel bad about that. They tell me that tears will come. They’ve made me understand that I’m not doing anything wrong.”
She was ecstatic when told that the Pearl River Valley Water Supply District, which oversees the Barnett Reservoir, is naming Lakeshore Park in Brandon in honor of Bobby. The letters for the sign have already been ordered.
Few have done more for the reservoir than Bobby, first as a longtime outdoors writer with The Clarion Ledger, and then as public relations liaison for the Barnett Reservoir Foundation.
“Lakeshore was Bobby’s happy place,” Pam says. “He loved that park, loved the events that he helped put on there. We would ride around on Saturdays and Sundays to different places, but we always had to ride through Lakeshore.”
I went to Lakeshore Park late Monday afternoon to once again pay respect to my friend of nearly 45 years and co-worker for three decades. Thunderstorms were brewing and painting an eerie, beautiful sight. A cool breeze, the first I’d felt in weeks during this brutally hot summer, touched my face. Soothing, physically and mentally.
I left just before the rain came.
Whenever Bobby died — whether it was April 28 or 20 years later — he was going to leave a larger void than most. He was a big man. But his presence was gigantic. So, too, were his good deeds that few people knew about.
That’s why those closest to him are struggling so badly. Yes, this is a story about a death. But it’s also a story of family, of finding one’s soul mate, of how one person can positively affect so many people.
I recently asked my journalism brother, Rick Cleveland, how he was doing. “I don’t know,” he said. “I really don’t know how I’m doing. I just try to stay busy.”
Rick’s wife, Liz, was more blunt. “I’m angry,” she said. “I feel we got cheated. It’s one thing if your body gives out or there is some kind of disease. But to just be taken so quickly is the worst.”
Their children, Annie and Tyler, are devastated as well.
Liz did manage to laugh when recalling how Bobby used to check Tyler out of daycare and set out on adventures, which one day included going to see the movie South Park — not exactly age appropriate for Tyler at the time. “He wouldn’t tell us he was picking him up,” she said. “He’d just go get him.”
Susan Brashier, who worked with Bobby at the reservoir for 12 years, wrestled to find the right words.
“We saw each other almost every day,” said Brashier, a contract CPA. “He became one of my best friends. Me and my husband (Kerry) vacationed with Bobby and Pam. I just feel uncontrollable sadness, total disbelief, denial. Every time I see a white truck, I hope it’s Bobby driving up.”
And you can bet your best boots that hundreds and hundreds of hunters and fishermen across Mississippi are grieving. Bobby connected with them because he was one of them. And he gave them a voice and information they’d never had.
“Bobby talked The Clarion Ledger into putting a huge emphasis on outdoors coverage,” Rick said. “He told them, ‘On the same day when 60,000 people show up for the Egg Bowl and we put out a special eight-page section about it, there are 200,000 people out hunting and fishing across Mississippi. They’re starved for coverage.’
“The paper bought him a bass boat and those people read his stories. I’d go around the state to speak at different civic clubs and people would come up and say, ‘Aren’t you Bobby’s brother?’ Others would say, ‘I read your columns every Sunday, Rick. But I always read Bobby’s outdoor column first.’
“People read Bobby who had never hunted or fished a day in their lives. He was that good of a writer. He didn’t write at you, he was talking to you. It was a conversation, and people grew to feel like they knew him.”
Brashier recalled how angry the fisherman became when the reservoir had to be sprayed for salvinia, a moss that can aggressively take over a lake or reservoir.
“They would call and Bobby would talk to them, or he’d get in his boat and go out and visit with them,” Brashier says. “Bobby would explain that he didn’t like it, either, but that it had to be done and it would help the fishing in the long run. By the time Bobby got through, they were glad it was being done.
“That’s why I say that since Bobby died, we’re sorta lost. Nobody knew the reservoir like Bobby. Every inch of it. And nobody could talk to the people who use the reservoir the way Bobby could.”
Bobby and Brashier didn’t hit it off well.
“I’m a CPA and he was saying ‘Let’s go hire a band, put them at Lakeshore Park and see what happens.’ I said, ‘That takes money.’ But he knew what he was talking about,” Brashier said. “That became the sunset concerts at Lakeshore. He also started The Rez BBQ event, the Steak Cook Off.
“All these events have brought acknowledgement to the PRVWSD. People have always thought we were stuffy. Now they realize we’re about community.”
On the day of the accident, Bobby got up around 5 a.m.
“There was a fishing tournament going on at the reservoir,” Pam said, “and he wanted to go make sure they were launching and everything was going well with that.
“He came back home around 8:30 or 9. I had a meeting with a friend of mine that morning. I told him I was leaving, and he reminded me he was going to Lakeshore Park to set up for the sunset concert that evening.”
Not long after that, Pam received a call from Trevell Dixon, chief of the reservoir police department. “He told me Bobby had been in a wreck and that I needed to come on,” Pam recalled.
Brashier was driving to the park the same time as Bobby. “Just three or four minutes behind him,” she said. “When I drove up on the wreck and saw Bobby’s truck, I just parked in the road and took off running to him.”
Brashier climbed into the passenger seat as emergency personnel began cutting Bobby from the wreckage. The impact had smashed in the driver’s side of the truck.
“It was bad,” Rick said. “He had crushed ribs, a crushed hip, a badly broken leg. It was going to be a horrific recovery process if he lived.”
“I knew it was bad when I arrived,” Pam said, “because there were so many police cars and firetrucks there.
“I walked down and saw Susan beside him. She asked if I wanted to sit with him and I told her no, to just keep talking to him.”
“He was speaking clearly,” Brashier said. “We were having a conversation just like you and I are now. He even reminded me, ‘Don’t forget the hot dogs in the back.’ I was bringing up anything I could think of to talk about.
“But finally he said, ‘I love you, too, dear.’ That meant it was time for me to stop talking. He was in a lot of pain.”
When they finally removed him from his Chevrolet Silverado, Pam rushed toward him.
“They had him on a gurney and about to load him into the ambulance. I couldn’t get right beside him, but I told him, ‘I just want you to know I’m here!’ He said, ‘Yes, darling. I know.’ ”
Brashier began setting up for the evening concert. Pam, Rick, Liz and Tyler headed to St. Dominic Hospital. They were soon able to visit with him.
“He was in significant pain,” Rick said. “I knew he was in trouble because I was looking at his vital signs and they weren’t good.”
Bobby complained that he couldn’t breathe and began taking those short breaths that Pam hears in her sleep. Suddenly, those short breaths stopped. The family was asked to step outside. They were able to revive him.
But what no one knew was that one of his broken ribs had punctured a lung.
“The doctor finally came out and he was shaking his head,” Rick said. “He put his hand on Pam’s shoulder and said, ‘We just couldn’t save him.’ ”
People came to Bobby’s memorial service at Lakeshore Park from nearly every region of the country.
“It was a turnout like I hadn’t seen since (legendary writer) Willie (Morris) died,” Rick said.
Brashier was a mental mess and even more so because of the tent she was able to acquire.
“There were a million things going on in the Jackson area that week, and there wasn’t a tent to be found,” she said. “Finally, a guy said he had one. I didn’t realize it until we unpacked it … it was a circus tent. Red and white. I went straight to Pam and said, ‘I’m so sorry.’ She said, ‘Don’t worry about it. Bobby would love it. It’s perfect.’ ”
In the days since, as the phone calls have dwindled and life has moved on for the rest of the world, there has been the usual reflection.
“I had suggested to Bobby we go to lunch first, then set up for the concert,” Brashier said. “He wouldn’t do that, he wanted to get everything done and then go eat. Maybe I should have been more persistent. I don’t know …. it’s just something I think about.”
Pam is hanging onto the 22 years they had together. It all started when Bobby walked into North Liberty Grocery in Canton. Pam was working there. It was her ex-husband’s store, and it also had a bait shop.
“Bobby was so kind and funny and smart,” Pam said. “We laughed a lot. Living with Bobby was a ton of laughs because you never knew what he was going to do or say next.”
Bobby grew close to Pam’s children and grandchildren. Her grandsons Cooper (12) and Bo (9) Purvis became like Bobby’s own.
“Their dad, Kenner, wrote a really sweet thing about Bobby on Father’s Day,” Pam said. “And the boys have had a hard time. They loved their Boboo (pronounced bah-boo).”
Liz was friends with Bobby long before she started dating Rick. Liz and Bobby were classmates at Hattiesburg High School. Running buddies.
“He was the black sheep of his family, and I was the black sheep of mine,” Liz said. “We did a lot of crazy things. Whenever Bobby’s parents were out of town, we’d throw a big party at their house. Being the older brother, Rick didn’t like it. He used to call us thugs. He was always the good kid. I actually thought he was a nerd. I know that sounds crazy now.”
Rick is trying to cope with being the last living member of the family he was born into. His father, Ace, died at age 68 in 1995. He and Bobby lost their mom, Carrie, 18 months later.
Rick nearly lost his brother not long before Ace passed. Bobby suffered the type heart attack known as the “widow maker.”
“It’s a miracle he survived it,” Rick said.
For 27 years, it’s been Rick and Bobby. And they made the most of that time. If they were in town, they’d see each other at least three or four times a week. They’d cook, watch ballgames, sit and talk. They had come a long way from their boyhood days in Hattiesburg when they fought so much, Ace bought them boxing gloves so they could solve their differences without too much damage to one another.
As we talked, I could tell there were things Rick wanted readers to know.
“Bobby was a great athlete before health issues limited him,” he said. “At the old Van Hook golf course, the No. 11 hole was a 340-yard Par 4, and the last 70 yards of it were uphill. When he was still in high school, Bobby drove that green with a persimmon driver. Just so naturally strong. Great hands around the greens. He just wasn’t consumed by golf.”
Bobby’s passions were cooking, hunting and fishing. He and Rick both learned to cook from their dad. “Bobby really got into it. He could’ve cooked for a living,” Rick said.
He learned to hunt and fish from his mother’s stepfather, who lived in Houston, Texas. “He got really good at that, too, and could’ve won some of those tournaments he covered,” Rick said.
“But I’ll tell you what he was — he was a fantastic uncle.”
“Bobby took the time to have a personal relationship with every single one of us,” Liz said. “Yes, he’d go get Tyler out of daycare. And when Tyler was a baby and a toddler, Bobby would always show up at bath time — you know, the fun running-around-naked time.
“And he loved Annie. She brought out his sweet side. They were always going to lunch together. And when Annie was acting, I don’t think Bobby and Pam missed a single opening night, and that meant driving to Chicago and New Orleans.”
On the day when someone was supposed to pick up Bobby’s ashes from the crematorium, “nobody wanted to go,” Liz says. “But Tyler said he’d do it. He left and didn’t come home, didn’t come home. Didn’t answer his phone. Finally, he walked in and we were like, ‘Where have you been?’ He said, ‘I’ve just been riding around Rankin County with Bobby, listening to Pink Floyd and Bruce Springsteen. I figured it was the last time I’d have him to myself.’ ”
Bobby’s ashes will be spread from the reservoir to the mountains of Colorado. Brashier and her husband took a part of Bobby on vacation last week to St. Marteen and sprinkled him into the Caribbean.
Christmas will be tough this year. Bobby loved the holidays.
“We’d give each other gag gifts every year,” Liz said. “One year, he lost his wedding band. When Pam would ask him about it, he’d say, ‘I just took it off. It’s back there.’ Well, Pam found it on the floor one day and mentioned it to me. I said, ‘Don’t give it to him. Let me have it for Christmas.’
“I wrapped the thing in box after box. When he finally got to the ring, he was so mad. He realized he’d been caught and we’d had it all the time.
“He was good at it, though. One year, he gave me a gift card to Bass Pro Shop — knowing that I would never shop there. It’s just not my thing. Well, Rick was going to get some tennis shoes so I gave him the gift card. When he went to pay, the cashier told him, ‘Sir, there is only 99 cents on this gift card.’ Bobby had bought a card for $25 and spent just enough to leave 99 cents on it.
“Then one year, I got about 10 different gifts — all with big pictures of Bobby on them. A t-shirt, coffee mug, even some in beautiful frames.”
Those items have elevated in status, from gag gifts to precious memories.
The Clevelands sure have a lot of those. Bobby made sure of it.