The last time I saw Sylvester “Cobby” Cobbs was on his birthday. It was in the food court of Cony, and the middle-school students were eating lunch. They had just serenaded their beloved substitute teacher with a rousing rendition of “Happy Birthday.”
I reminded Cobby, whom I’d known for more than 20 years, that I always remembered how old he was because he was born in a “zero” year, like a number of my friends and family members. My mother was born in 1920, Cobby in 1930, another friend in 1940, my husband, Paul, in 1950, and my sister, Maggie, in 1960. Cobby laughed, of course — he had a great sense of humor. Little did I know this birthday would be his last.
Cobby was one of the best-known people in the Augusta area, a local celebrity, really. Through his work as a photographer and his involvement with the American Legion, the VFW and the Elks, he touched many lives. I knew him through the school department, where we worked together at Buker Middle School until it closed; then at Hodgkins Middle School, until it closed; and finally at Cony.
On Facebook, as the news of Cobby’s death spread, teachers and students — both past and present — expressed their sorrow. Many of the young adults, such as state Rep. Matthew Pouliot, who is a Buker graduate, remembered him from their now-distant middle-school years.
His nickname alone demonstrates the affection he engendered. When I first started working in the Augusta school libraries, I’d correct kids. “It’s Mr. Cobby,” I’d say. It never worked. He was, and always would be, just plain Cobby.
At Buker, he often came into the library to work with small groups of students. He had an easy, non-judgmental way with kids. Cobby loved to tell stories about his long and eventful life, and the kids enjoyed listening to him. He had a big smile and a big laugh. Sometimes he’d even joke about his race. “I’ve got a suntan but you can’t tell, can you?” he’d say to me. Or, “I saw you and I honked, but you ignored me. What am I, black?”
At first I didn’t know how to respond to these comments, but I soon learned I was supposed to laugh, and did.
One time at Buker, Cobby was sitting at a table with several students, helping them with a reading assignment. It was a quiet afternoon, and I was at my desk, filing papers. I leaned over a bit too far in my swivel chair and landed on the floor with a loud crash.
I was breathless for a second. The room was silent. Then I pushed myself up and peered over the desk. Cobby and the students were staring my way, their mouths slightly open. “I’m fine,” I croaked, and everyone burst into laughter.
Cobby never let me forget that incident. “Remember that time you fell right off your chair?” he’d say. “You hit the floor hard.” Then he’d guffaw.
At Hodgkins, I was the advisor to the school newspaper, the Husky Times. The staff wanted to do a survey, and then a story, about the “best” teacher. I nixed it. “That will just hurt teachers’ feelings,” I said. The students grumbled, but I didn’t relent. We moved on to other subjects. At the end of the period, though, I couldn’t contain myself any longer. “If you did do that survey, who do you think would win?”
“Cobby, of course,” the editor said, shooting me a look of disdain.
Sometimes I’d see Cobby at school all dressed up and wearing a variety of military insignia. At least once a year, I’d forget myself and say, “Wow, you’re all gussied up. What’s the occasion?” He was always going to a funeral, representing the American Legion.
I learned a lot about Cobby’s life through the stories he told me. Once, a flowered dress I wore reminded him of his mother, and set him off on a long trip down memory lane. Another time he told me about his recollections of the Hindenburg disaster. The blimp exploded when he was seven.
Whenever we’d had a good, long conversation, he’d say to me, “Liz, I’m always glad to see you. You are a nice person.”
The truth is that I am often crabby and sometimes even downright misanthropic. But Cobby brought out the best in people. It was impossible to respond to his warm greetings, his silly jokes and his booming laugh without a smile. I will miss him, and remember him fondly — especially on his birthday.
Liz Soares welcomes e-mail at email@example.com.