Posted on: July 22, 2019
What goes around the world and stays in one corner? If you know the answer (a stamp), you probably know or have met Dr. Robert Van Cleve.
Born in St. Louis, Missouri, on December 1, 1931, to Catherine and Bill Van Cleve, Bob had an older brother William (Bill) and younger sister Cornelia (Connie). It delighted Bob to be related to Daniel Boone and the Wright Brothers. His father was the editor and co-owner of Bob’s local hometown newspaper, The Moberly Monitor-Index. When General Omar Bradley, who grew up in Moberly and was a hero of World War II and the last five-star general, returned to his hometown for a visit, he went to the newspaper office where Bob happened to be. The general treated him to a game of catch, which Bob never forgot. He followed up on that game by playing catcher for the local Ban Johnson baseball team and for a local softball team. To earn money, Bob spent summers working as a paperboy, a trackman for the Wabash Railroad and a garbage collector, which his sister loved because he would bring her trinkets from the trash. Bob saved enough money from these endeavors to buy his true love an engagement ring years later. Bob and his brother had pneumonia several times as young children before the discovery of penicillin.
To keep them safe, their mother took them to Tucson, Arizona for the winter when Bob was in third grade. He tried to run away but ended up having a good time riding horses and having new experiences. During two summers in his boyhood, his mother took him and his brother to the Vassar Summer Institute, where he stayed in a cabin with other boys and only saw his mother for an hour a day. It was like a camp for Bob and school for his mother, who learned the latest theories in child development. It was a life changing experience for Bob and led to his going to Phillips Academy Andover MA prep school when he was 16. At first, he was very homesick, but he ended up loving it. Bob was nicknamed Mobe after his hometown and was known as the defender of the “common man.” Most boys there were from wealthy families, but Bob wasn’t. He got The Monitor-Index delivered regularly and it became more popular on campus than the New York Times as a source for news.
When he graduated, Bob’s parents bought a new Buick Roadmaster for the long trip from Moberly to Massachusetts as a surprise. Upon arriving, they suggested he drive them around campus. Bob seemed a little sheepish about this. All of a sudden, a fellow student named Howard Johnson, who was from a famous family of restaurant and motel owners, ran out in the middle of the road, put up his hands and yelled, “Behold the little man driving a 4-hole Buick!” Then his parents understood why Bob was embarrassed about driving the car!
Bob graduated from Andover in 1950, Princeton University in 1954 and Columbia’s College of Physicians and Surgeons in 1958. He became a board certified internist and cardiologist and practiced for 50 years. Early in his career, he served as Lieutenant Commander at Balboa Naval Hospital in San Diego. There he conducted a double-blind study and wrote the lead article in the leading medical cardiology journal, which showed that patients could come off Coumadin. Letters asking for copies of the article poured in from all over the world, including from Iron Curtain countries.
When he left the Navy, 200 officers who were his patients gave him a farewell dinner and gift. Bob then accepted the Harvard cardiology fellowship at Massachusetts General Hospital with Paul Dudley White, President Eisenhower’s doctor. In 1965, Bob and his growing family moved to Jacksonville where he joined the Riverside Clinic. He was the second board certified cardiologist in North Florida. He wanted to do three things in his profession: give his patients the best possible medical care (including limiting the number of patients he treated so he could spend more time with each patient); treat people who couldn’t pay; and teach doctors and nurses in training. Bob accomplished the latter two by regularly volunteering at Duval Medical Center (now Florida Health) where he was appointed an adjunct professor of the University of Florida. In Jacksonville, he helped Dr. Roy Baker create the first responder program, training firemen to perform cardioversion (which Bob called “zapping”) and other medical techniques. He also admitted the first black patients to Riverside Hospital.
For 50 years, Bob knew all of his patients, their families, their religious affiliations, their pets, and always listened carefully to their concerns. He prayed with them and for them and they became his friends. At his retirement, he celebrated by giving a party for his patients. Bob’s religious life was even more important to him. As a child, Bob did not go to Sunday School regularly until he wanted to join the church softball team. As an adult, he attended infrequently until his wife and best friend, Mayor Ed Austin, coerced him into attending Cursillo in 1985. The Lord took over his life after that and used him in many ways: as a healer of body and soul, as a mentor to youth, as an elder and trustee in the First Presbyterian Church and as a messenger of the Gospel to others through his riddles and jokes. He even gave a prize of a $2 bill to those who could answer correctly.
His other community activities included life membership on the Salvation Army Board, being a board member at Episcopal School of Jacksonville (where he gave the commencement address in 1982, a few years after John McCain), serving as chairman of the Jacksonville Recreation Advisory Council, and being a captain and king of Ye Mystic Revellers.
Last but by no means least in importance to Bob was his family. He met his wife, Sarah Towers, when they were seniors in college and told a friend after the first date that he was going to marry “that girl.” A year later, he proposed when he went to her classroom at Fishweir Elementary school and wrote on the chalkboards, “Will you marry me?” They were ideal lovers and friends, ready for any adventure, often with their four children and, later, the spouses and grandchildren. They camped all over the country, including their beloved Cumberland Island where they had a home. They celebrated Thanksgivings there, caught and released armadillos, hunted shark teeth, and made many indelible memories. Their family experiences ranged from bears eating their candy in Yellowstone Park to getting lost overnight on a canoe trip in Apalachicola National Forest to rappelling down mountains to bungee jumping in New Zealand to sharing scary stories around campfires.
At home, Bob organized Sunday afternoon touch football games, which became legendary. He also played golf (winning the Timuquana Pow Wow championship), tennis (winning many Yacht Club and Timuquana championships), ping pong (winning the doubles city championship), checkers (winning church championships from 1995 to 2003, except for one year when he was out of town and his son won for him), basketball and volleyball. Renewing his childhood love of softball, he played catcher on the Riverside Hospital team. All were played with extreme competitiveness. Bob usually won and gleefully reminded others of his victories on the yearly Christmas cards, which included everybody’s scores. In later years, the board game Sequence was Bob’s competitive outlet. He often won and when he didn’t, he kept playing to even the score, making for very late nights at the Sequence table. Bob and Sarah loved to travel and went to all the continents except Antarctica. With children and grandchildren in tow, they went on cruises, on scuba adventures, on visits to Mayan ruins and many other trips, all the time enriching the lives of their offspring. On his 80th birthday in St. Augustine, he zip-lined over alligators and crocodiles, which greatly impressed his grandchildren. They also shared many memories of their grandfather, particularly being mentored by Bob for confirmation into the church. His enthusiasm for religious discussion and his sincere interest in what the young people thought and felt made that one-on-one experience with him a treasured time.
Bob Van Cleve marched to his own drummer. A Democrat until he was 40 (including attending the Democratic National Convention in 1952), he became a proud Republican and loved sparring with any willing Democrat. He loved his childhood, the schools he attended, his patients, his church, his family, playing tennis, and interacting with others through his jokes and conversations. At the center of it all was his love for Sarah, his wife of 64 years. Saddened by his loss is his family, Drs. Beth and Alan Weldon (Sarah and Jeff Chilson, Murphy, Polly and Mac), Catherine and Greg Bauman (Katie and Anna), Sis Van Cleve Miller and Tib Miller (Pepper and Gram), and Robert and Elizabeth Van Cleve (Sally, Tucker and Meg), his sister, Connie Williamson, and his nephews and nieces.
In lieu of flowers, please send donations to The Salvation Army, the First Presbyterian Church, or the Dr. Robert B. Van Cleve and Elizabeth Towers Scholarship Fund at Episcopal School of Jacksonville.