Mike Wilson: The story of Big Bob and Hampden-Sydney

Published 12:00 pm Thursday, January 18, 2024

It was with considerable distress that I recently discovered in a Christmas card from an old friend that another, Robert Eugene Wells, had passed away in 2022 in Goshen, Virginia. Though I had more or less lost touch with him after moving to North Carolina thirty-some years ago, my memories of our time together are as vivid as though no time had passed at all.

He was introduced to me as “Big Bob” –I later called him Newgene in a nod to our favorite comedian Jerry Clower–when I first arrived at Hampden-Sydney in 1981. He, in some ways, was too big: as a Marine, he had injured his back in a training jump when his chute did not slow him down enough. The resulting disability ended his military career, but did not seem to slow him down much in other ways.

His wife Marianne was the postmistress (can I still say that?) at the college, and they lived in a great log cabin on numerous acres down a long gravel driveway just past where the state blacktop ended. When his family grew, he built another log cabin alongside the first and connected them.

We bonded over our love of shooting and the outdoors, and he regaled me with tales–often somewhat outlawish– of his youth. For example, as a teen he would hunt geese on the James River at night by finding his muzzle on the moon and then swinging toward the honking…

I was forewarned not to hand him a loaded gun because it would be handed back empty and/or broken. I found this claim to be untrue: they were almost never broken. He greatly admired a single-shot H&R 10 gauge shotgun I had and begged me to trade for a well-used Ruger Old Army revolver. I agreed and he set to work developing Pyrodex buckshot loads, which he filled with as many .36 caliber balls as he could pack in the shell, buffered with dry Cream of Wheat. We sat together on the bank of a creek on his sister’s land in Nottoway County one day, and a doe came running down a trail on the other side. Just as it leapt, he fired, creating a huge cloud of smoke. When it cleared, there was nothing but silence. He crossed the creek on a convenient log, and the next thing I knew, he was on the way back holding the doe by the back legs and slung over his shoulder. When he dressed it, he found almost all the pellets flattened against the opposite ribcage.

He kept that gun handy on hooks above the front door. One New Year’s Eve, they gave a party and his mother, an inveterate world traveler, called from China with holiday greetings. He looked out the kitchen window and saw a buck rubbing down a pear tree he had planted in the backyard. Though international long distance rates were astronomical in those days, he asked her to wait a moment and then quietly raised the window and shot the vandalous deer. “What were you saying, Mama?” I was less surprised than the other guests. 

That piece was also kept handy during the turkey season. One day I was following him and his boy Rusty in his little Nissan pickup to get some reloading supplies at his place. Suddenly the brake lights came on and I saw Rusty’s head go down. In another second a long muzzle stuck out the passenger window and fired, all of this clearly a well-rehearsed drill. Turns out there was a nice gobbler strutting about on the edge of the woods.

Judging by the firearms he inherited, his family was somewhat wealthy. We were dove hunting one day, again in Nottoway, and we stationed ourselves about 150 yards apart by utility poles. He had brought a very light and fancy Italian over-and-under that weighed just over five pounds. Even from that distance, I could see his entire spinal column shudder every time he pulled the trigger. I don’t remember how many doves I got, but the kick for me was watching him: a flock would fly by, two doves would crumple and fall, and then two reports would sound in rapid succession.

He had a number of careers in his lifetime. He earned an M.Ed. in Supervision at night at Longwood and was soon appointed Assistant Principal in charge of In-School Suspension in Charlotte County. I am unsure what the job description actually said, but in practice he sat in a closed room with a bunch of knuckleheads all day. He tried to teach them something useful by bringing his duck call to school and coaching them on the calls of different species. 

He later worked as Director of Facilities at Hampden-Sydney and then VMI and also at Virginia Tech since he possessed every conceivable mechanical skill and a firm yet genial management style. At the end of his life, he realized the ambition of owning and operating a large beef and poultry farm in Goshen. He passed suddenly; I hope I do, too. Thanks for the memories, Newgene. 

Mike Wilson is a former Hampden-Sydney Spanish professor and 13-year resident of Prince Edward County, who now calls North Carolina home. He can be reached at jmwilson@catawba.edu.