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UPDATE | Bainbridge Island mourns passing of legendary teacher, mentor and author

As a longtime teacher at Bainbridge High, Bob McAllister made a lasting impression on a generation of students. - Photo courtesy of the McAllister family
As a longtime teacher at Bainbridge High, Bob McAllister made a lasting impression on a generation of students.
— image credit: Photo courtesy of the McAllister family

It can be extremely difficult to summarize one dedicated man’s importance to his community.

In the case of Bainbridge Island’s Bob McAllister, it is impossible.

How do you briefly describe to the perhaps uninformed the impact of a teacher who, by his own students’ admissions, positively affected nearly everyone he came in touch with?

How do you break down the importance of a loving father? Of a husband? A friend?

McAllister, a Bainbridge Island teacher, poet, performer, carpenter and Island Treasure, passed away at his home on Bainbridge on Monday, Aug. 18. He was 73.

He moved to the island in 1968, and taught English and drama at Bainbridge High School for 35 years. During that time, he produced more than a hundred stage productions, averaging two a year.

McAllister also taught English and communications at Olympic College, and volunteered as a set-builder for Bainbridge Performing Arts.

He is survived by his wife, Merry, and his four daughters, Anna, Kristin, Heidi and Molly.

Within hours of breaking the initial news of McAllister’s death, the Review’s website and Facebook page were flooded with passionate reactions to his passing, reflecting in a way that no official tribute or obituary ever could, the surety of his legacy.

“Such an amazing man,” wrote Linda Jagger Jensen. “He was loved and will be truly missed. By so many. R.I.P. my friend.”

“He’s a huge part of why I decided to be a theatre major,” posted Tommie English. “He was amazing and I’m sad more students won’t get the opportunity to hear his stories.”

The appreciation and homage continued, from students and peers alike.

“He was an amazing man,” remembered long-time Bainbridge High School coworker and friend Marie-Elena Baker. “He was larger than life, but quiet and humble.”

Baker especially remembered McAllister’s way of involving students in his theater projects who may otherwise have been less likely to participate.

“He would expand casts so that everyone got a chance to be a part of it,” she said, remarking that one year’s crop of particularly talented young thespians gave McAllister cause to simply produce the play twice: once with an underclassmen cast and once with seniors.

“He was wonderful with the kids,” she said. “He would even hire kids to do jobs, maybe work around the house or work with him in his carpentry during the summer.”

Baker also recalled McAllister’s trademark way of interacting with his students, an open and frank demeanor that never failed to earn him respect and trust.

“The kids trusted him, and went to him with everything,” she said. “He had a suggestion box in his room. Kids could write any question down anonymously and put it in that box, and Bob would discuss the questions with them in class.”

His progressive and innovative teaching style earned McAllister the respect of students and other teachers alike.

“He was lively and engaged and enthusiastic and innovative teacher,” said fellow BHS teacher Everett Thompson.

Thompson remembered that the reading list required by McAllister in class was especially divergent from the norm of the era.

“’Crime and Punishment,’ and ‘Catch-22,’” he said. “Things that weren’t read very much in high school back then. It was really progressive for the age and off the beaten track.”

Even outside of the classroom, Thompson recalled, McAllister was a daring and fearless individual.

Thompson remembered once, during a construction project, McAllister again showcased his hands-on way of doing things.

“He was building a house for himself over at Fay Bainbridge Park,” Thompson said. “We were doing the roof over the second story.”

Thompson remembered there was a particularly high pole that needed to be notched so as to make a place where a beam could be fit later.

“He was shimmying up [that] pole out into nowhere with a chainsaw,” laughed Thompson. “Nobody else would have dared do something like that. He was a little nuts, but wonderfully so.”

Ralph Cheadle, who joined the BHS faculty one year after McAllister, came to know the man as both a coworker and neighbor, and remembered him as a truly unique and inspiring individual.

“I rented a house that happened to be across the driveway from his house,” he said. “We were both English teachers, so we an had immediate official as well as personal relationship.”

“He was very good at validating who his students were,” Cheadle explained. “If there was a hallmark in his extraordinary career. He’s the most charismatic, significant teacher I’ve ever encountered.”

McAllister’s influence on the island was unavoidable, Cheadle explained.

“Two of the EMTs that came, as he was dying, were his students,” he said.

“He was philosophically, as a teacher and really just as a public person, he was at war against philistinism,” Cheadle said. “I think maybe that’s about the best label to put on his tact as a teacher. He was really committed to teaching students to appreciate language and, as a poet, the guy was drunk on words.”

Cheadle recalled that McAllister’s personalty shone through in his wardrobe as well as his writing.

“He had maybe 160, 170 pairs of Keds high-tops,” he laughed as he remembered his friend’s trademark gym shoes. “Every color, and he wore these outrageous socks. His personal style, his sartorial style, just flew in the face of convention. He had outrageous neckties.”

“In the hospital he had red satin pajamas,” Cheadle added. “He didn’t want a hospital gown.”

Bainbridge Performing Arts also celebrated McAllister’s bold and unique legacy with an official condolence message released Wednesday, Aug. 20.

“Bob had an abiding love of theatre, and he had an unshakable commitment to the community of artists he mentored, loved, and collaborated with at Bainbridge Performing Arts and the Island’s entire theatre community,” the tribute read. “Bob’s voice will live on in the community of directors, actors, staff, board, and audience members who witnessed his dynamism and the kindness he brought to each and every role, whether on or off stage.”

There is no curtain call for legends, however, and McAllister’s is more than assured in the collective memory of his family, friends and students.

He was a man ahead of his time, and maybe time has yet to catch up.

According to Cook Family Funeral Home, a memorial service — previously arranged and described as “directed by” McAllister himself — will be announced at a later date.

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