Bob Cole wasn’t one to sit idly and let others improve his corner of the world.
A staunch believer in the importance of community, he dived into local causes, often pulling family and friends along in his wake.
His enthusiasm was infectious, recalls friend Don Gorman, who ended up running the Valley Optimist Club that Cole founded.
“He somehow conned me into being the president,” Gorman said. “He was very persuasive in a noninvasive way.”
Cole rallied citizens to push for Valley incorporation and initiated forming Spokane Water District No. 3. In the early 1980s, Cole chaired a citizens advisory committee, which worked with Spokane Transit Authority to expand bus service in the Valley. By 1989, STA had not only expanded service, it built a bus station at Fourth and University and named it the Pence-Cole Valley Transit Center.
Never one to do things halfway, Cole carried a tape measure at all times and used it to measure a perfect 13-inch prime rib to cook over the rotisserie on Christmas. While most sports fans know one college fight song, Cole sang tunes from universities around the country. Known to loved ones as a “consummate storyteller,” he knew Washington state geography and history better than some professors.
“He was pretty avid at everything he did. Bob was just never, never boring,” said Charlotte Cole, Bob’s wife of 21 years.
Cole, a man who made life interesting for those around him, died of heart failure on June 15 at the age of 72.
Born in Spokane, Cole later attended Washington State College, where he met his first wife, Dayle Nelson. He graduated with a bachelor of arts degree in history in 1954 and that June the couple wed. Cole, an ROTC member, enlisted in the Air Force and the couple lived in California and Texas.
In the midst of raising two children, Cheryl Barkdull and Bob Cole Jr., Cole worked full time as an industrial engineer manager for Kaiser Aluminum, a job that took him throughout the United States.
Although he wasn’t considered a risk-taker, Cole accepted a position as one of several Americans managing a new Kaiser Aluminum plant in West Germany. His two children spent the next five years exploring medieval castles and Roman ruins.
“That whole time, we actively traveled through Europe extensively. He somehow must have calculated that would be a good thing and I am eternally grateful to have had those things ingrained there at such an early age,” said Cole Jr., who was 7 when the European adventure began.
When the family moved back to Spokane, Cole Jr. recalls that his parents got involved in numerous community causes.
When the kids were in their early 20s, Bob’s wife, Dayle, died of cancer.
After mourning Dayle, Bob Cole married Charlotte Reger, and instantly became a stepdad to her six kids. Years later, Bob and Charlotte became grandparents to 12 children from their collective eight children.
Linda Stumbough, a teacher at Sunrise Elementary School, recalls how her stepfather always made time for her.
“We would go fishing out at the cabin and he would teach me how to put a fishing line out and sing to the fish,” Stumbough said.
“Things that my real father couldn’t have done, my stepfather really picked up the pieces. He never asked for anything other than to just let him be my dad.”
Charlotte Cole said her husband encouraged her to develop outside interests. When she wanted to quit a dance class because she couldn’t brave icy streets at night, he insisted on driving her to class.
“That man would sit down in that dumb car by himself without complaining. He absolutely championed everything I did. He was a fine man.”
Cole was instrumental in gathering support for Valley incorporation.
“He was absolutely and totally thrilled when incorporation passed. Bob strongly felt, because of the size of the group in the Valley, that they ought to be represented,” Charlotte Cole said.
Bob Cole Jr. gained an appreciation of community involvement from watching his father’s lifelong commitment to local causes. “He was a person who believed in local control and lived thinking of the big picture and acting locally and getting local control.”
He once asked his dad why he didn’t run for the state Legislature and his dad replied, “I don’t want to because I don’t think I can do much in Olympia. I want to do things locally.”
Instead of running for office, Cole helped candidates like State Sen. Bob McCaslin get elected. However, after forming Spokane Water District No. 3 with two other Valley residents, Cole was elected water commissioner, in 1986. He served in that position for the rest of his life.
After a brief retirement from Kaiser, Cole cheerfully tackled a hair-raising job that’s frayed the nerves of lesser men.
Known as “Bus Driver Bob” to children in the West Valley School District, he spent nearly a decade between the ‘80s and ‘90s shuttling busloads of rambunctious kids to and from school and extracurricular activities — braving ear-splitting noise and adolescent attitudes.
Kids responded to the same qualities that made Cole endearing to adults, Stumbough said. “He just had a kind heart and he was funny and he had a good spirit about him.”
Cole Jr. said his dad was driven to care for others and that made him a good fit with people of all ages. “There’s no question that he cared deeply for everyone around him.”
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