Unlikely friendship grows over the years, leading to fruitful harvest
UNL alumnus realizes, in that end, that planting seeds of kindness can change people’s lives.
The boy was an only child. The big red barn on his parents’ farm near Fairbury, Neb., was one of his best friends. So was the garden, which was next to the barn.
The boy spent many hours playing alone in the barn and tending to his garden. He planted tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchini …
He watched his garden grow.
Out of high school, he went for a stint in the Navy and then he returned to Nebraska and enrolled at the university in Lincoln. He studied accounting. He earned his Ph.D. and became an economics professor at his alma mater. He bought a house in Lincoln.
He had friends from his fraternity days. But after his parents died, he kept to himself for the most part. Maybe because he was so used to being alone, he liked it that way – only him and his house in town and those few friends.
Only him and his farm.
The neighbors on his street in Lincoln watched him pull his pickup into the driveway. The back of the truck was loaded with produce from his garden. Tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchini …
But those neighbors stayed away. The man seemed to be a character, and he barked sometimes at their kids.
About 17 years ago, a new family moved in next door to him. They saw his pickup pull up, and as he was unpacking the back of it one day, they said hi. They asked about his garden.
At the time, the woman also was teaching at the university, as an adjunct. Her husband had been in the same fraternity as the man – Sigma Phi Epsilon. Maybe those bonds helped break the ice, and the new neighbors learned the man’s name, Robert Carstens.
And his nickname, “Bobbers.”
Bobbers learned their names, too: Kelly Jo and Mark Hinrichs.
He started offering his garden’s produce to the Hinrichses, and they’d all sit on the tailgate of his pickup and have a cold drink and talk while the two Hinrichs girls ran around on his grass.
Other neighbors started to see this, and they’d stop by, too.
“One thing led to another,” Kelly Jo said, “and the world started opening up to him.”
They learned his history. He loved to tell stories of his Navy days.
He invited Kelly Jo and her family to his farm near Fairbury. They saw the big red barn, the garden. They saw an old metal chair where he liked to sit and look at his garden.
Bobbers grew to love the Hinrichs girls and the two Fordham boys who, like bookends, lived in the other house next door. The people on the street grew to love him, too. He’d still bark at the kids sometimes, but you could tell he loved having them around now. He made wooden puzzles and little clackers and toys for them in his workshop out back. He became part of their holidays.
Maybe he started to see that he needed other people, too, Kelly Jo says.
One summer, Bobbers had an especially bountiful harvest. With his blessing, the Hinrichs family and their friends – who by then had become his friends, too – took the produce back to their homes and returned later with dishes for a neighborhood potluck feast. They set it all up on his driveway, which he’d covered with white plastic tables he’d bought for the occasion from Sam’s Club.
“We had everything you could think of,” Kelly Jo says. “Zucchini, spaghetti, stuffed tomatoes, grilled tomatoes. Somebody made a bean salad. He grilled chicken breasts, and we did kebobs with some of the vegetables on it.
“It was a good Nebraska farm picnic.”
About five years ago, he phoned Kelly Jo one afternoon to tell her good news – he’d survived cancer! But his health continued to fail. She and Mark took him to the ER. When he couldn’t live alone anymore, they helped him move into Madonna Rehabilitation Hospital and then to Tabitha Health Care’s long-term care unit.
They visited him at Tabitha a lot. One Christmas Eve, they brought him Bloody Mary’s and played bartender for him and a bunch of other residents who’d gathered in the living room area, not realizing that the minister was just about to arrive for the Christmas Eve service.
When he came, they were toasted. And Bobbers thought it was hilarious.
Kelly Jo smiles at the memory.
“I saw a tear roll down Bobbers’ cheek.”
He died in August of 2012. He was only 69, Kelly Jo says, but his body gave out.
She tells this story to honor her friend, and to highlight what he did before he died.
“I’ll never forget this moment,” she says. “Bobbers had his lawyer and I come over to sign documents, get things (in his estate) set up. And he mustered the energy to say, ‘I’ve realized at this point in my life, that giving to others of your time and resources can change their lives. And my life has been changed by you and your family. So let’s do something to change people’s lives. What should we do?’”
Kelly Jo suggested that he leave money to send young people to college, because education had been so important to him. She also suggested that he help people who going through tough times, as he did with cancer.
Bobbers left Kelly Jo in charge of handing out the money from his estate, which to her surprise came to a significant amount. So she gave his money to students studying agriculture – significant, life-changing amounts. She gave his money to do random acts of kindness for people with cancer. She gave his money to a cancer fund at UNMC.
Recently, she gave a significant amount of his money to his alma mater’s Nebraska Legends program, which provides scholarships to help recruit and retain top students to UNL – students from Nebraska and the nation who show great potential but missed out on top academic scholarships.
She gave the gifts in his name. She feels blessed that her family got to know him, and to share his story.
And she imagines her friend now, sitting on his metal chair beside the big red barn, watching the seeds he planted grow.
If also you would like to help support the Nebraska Legends program at UNL, please go to nufoundation.org to give online to the Nebraska Legends Scholarship and Recruitment Fund or contact the University of Nebraska Foundation’s Kaye Jesske at 800-432-3216.