Missouri has lost a true treasure of a native son, and I have lost another piece of my heart.
Bob Fiedler passed away on March 18th.
I don't even know how to begin to describe what this man meant to me.
In 2003, in order to continue my research on Bertha Gifford, I took a trip to Missouri—by myself. Nine years before, I'd gone there with my mother. Together, we had discovered all the old newspaper clippings that would later become the basis for the chapters in Tainted Legacy about Bertha's trial. We had also snooped around and found out that the farmhouse on Bend Road (where Bertha lived and where Ed Brinley died and oh, so much more) was owned by Robert A. and Claire Fiedler. At that time, I thought I'd procured their address. Turns out I had the city wrong. All my letters were returned.
So in '03, when I returned, I simply picked up the phone and dialed the number in the phone book. Mind you, this was extremely difficult for me—as an introvert, as a very private person who was being intentionally intrusive, and for the obvious reason: How does one begin the awkward conversation which must include this fact—"So, my great-grandmother lived in your house... and allegedly killed a few people while there..."?
And yet, when I got Bob on the phone (after I convinced him I was not a telemarketer—this conversation occurring just one month after the National Do Not Call Registry had opened), he was so kind and personable that we sailed right through the awkwardness and began navigating a friendship that would last for years. As soon as I identified myself as Bertha's great-granddaughter, he invited me to come to the farmhouse.
And I did. I spent five hours at the farmhouse the next day with Bob, his wife Rosella (Claire having passed away some years before, I was sad to learn), and Tim, Bob's son. I did not then nor do I now understand why Bob was so gracious to me, a stranger (from California, no less, so immediately suspect in the eyes of most Missourians), but he was, sitting down to openly share family history, offering me a tour of the house, the barn, the property where my mother spent "the happiest days of her life." And he offered me something more that day. He handed me a copy of St. Louis magazine from 1981—a magazine he had kept carefully preserved for twenty-two years. In it was the most comprehensive article (to that date) about Bertha Gifford. "Darkness 'Round the Bend," by Joe Popper, contained several pertinent facts regarding what happened to Bertha leading up to her trial. It also included where Bertha had been buried. So on that same trip, I was finally able to visit her grave, then call my mom to let her know.
Bob was so trusting (of this strange woman from California he'd just met), he allowed me to take his magazine so that I could have Joe Popper's long article photocopied before I left Missouri. I returned it two days later, which gave me another chance to hang out with him for awhile.
By then, he was already in his late 70's, but I would have guessed his age at ten years younger. He was vibrant and amiable, with a great sense of humor and an open heart that really was unusual for a mid-Westerner of his generation. (Read that to mean, he was nothing like my mother.) I loved him from the first day I met him.
As the years went by, I visited Missouri as often as I could, especially after Tainted Legacy was published. Always, if I let the Fiedlers know I was coming, they'd make time to meet me at the farmhouse. Tim still continues to do so. After Bob was diagnosed with dementia a few years ago (and the crack in my heart began), it became difficult for him to be included in our annual reunions.
Bob lived to be 93. And what a life. He raised a wonderful son and daughter who are as kind and gracious as he was and who will continue to maintain the farm. And when I reached out to him, he reached right back, gathering me into the circle of his family. I will never, ever forget him.