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The Arctic Cat's Nine Lives

Updated: Apr 22, 2020

Bob and me on his front porch in Blaine, Washington in 2018- he always grew the most beautiful flowers!

Shortly after my youngest sister, Molly graduated from high school, my mother, Franny and she headed to North Pole, Alaska to visit our family there. “It’ll only be for a couple of weeks, “ Mom assured me. “Then we’ll move back to Texas so we can be near you.”

As it turned out, Franny’s visit altered all of our lives in the most incredible way. You see, it was during this time she fell in love with Robert (Bob) Probert—also known as The Arctic Cat.

Like my mother, Bob was divorced and his kids were grown. He was in his late fifties when they met and was about to retire from his job with Civil Service.

A true gentleman, Bob, smitten with Franny, asked my sisters for their permission to court our mother. Of course, the answer was a resounding yes!

I made a trip to Alaska to meet Bob shortly after he and Franny were married. It didn’t take long for me to see why everyone loved him. He was handsome, humble and without question, the most amazing person I’d ever met. The more I learned about Bob, the more intrigued I became with his story—there were just so many layers to his life! I remember teasing him once that I was going to write a book about all of his adventures entitled, The Arctic Cat’s Nine Lives.

“Well, I hope you don’t plan on it being a best-seller!” Bob quipped, his bright, blue eyes twinkling mischievously, “I’m sure I’m not that fascinating!”

“Bet me!” I replied. (This was one of his favorite things to say and I loved throwing it back at him!)

“Will you write about when I homesteaded in Alaska?” he asked, amused that anyone besides those who knew him would be interested in his story.

“Of course!” I assured him. “But I think it’d be best to start at the beginning . . .”

The Arctic Cat’s First Life – The Early Years

It was 1932, during The Great Depression when Robert W. Probert was born in Sargent, Nebraska. Bob’s father, Alfred, a champion lumberjack, later found work at a lumber mill in Northern California and moved the family of nine there. They lived in the camp for years. These were tough times—with little money and many mouths to feed, there was a lot of pressure to simply survive. I would always marvel when Bob would share about this time of his life. Although raised by an alcoholic father, my stepdad was never bitter about his difficult childhood. I remember Bob telling stories about how his dad would line he and his five brothers up and turn a hose on them in lieu of a bath—sometimes when it was freezing cold outside.

One thing that kept the family entertained was boxing. Bob’s younger brother, George, used the sport as an outlet to vent some of his frustrations and was greatly revered as a fighter throughout high school. It wasn’t long before all the boys became bitten by the boxing bug and Alfred began pitting his sons against one another in matches. Bob, nimble-footed and quick, excelled at boxing, and was awarded multiple Golden Glove Championships.

The Arctic Cat’s Second Life – The Military Years

Bob was extremely proud to have been in the Marines Corps and was a member of Semper Fi. Fudging his age, enlististing was his ticket out of a poverty-stricken home life and on to new adventures. He spent many months on the USS Rochester. Bob enjoyed telling stories about how the Marines had a higher status on the ship than the Navy guys, yet he had a deep respect for all branches of the military and was a true patriot. Years later my husband, James and I were with Bob in Gulf Shores, Alabama where we toured a heavy cruiser similar in size to the USS Rochester. Bob took great delight in educating us on the challenges of living with so many men in such tight quarters. Again, he never complained. For him it was just how it was and he was grateful for the opportunity to serve.

The Arctic Cat's Third Life - The First Family

Bob was still in the Marines when he met his first wife, Joan. They were living in Spokane, Washington, but some of Bob’s brothers had already headed north to Alaska. Once he’d completed his military service, Bob packed up his young family and headed there, too, excited about staking his claim.

At the time, his father thought he was crazy. “Why do you want to own useless land in Alaska?” Alfred asked his son. “What are you going to do with it?”

Bob was steadfast in his resolve. “I’m going,” he told him. “What do I have to lose?”

Eventually all of the Probert sons and their father ended up in various parts of Alaska, immersing themselves in the many challenges and great rewards of living in the Land of The Midnight Sun.

The Arctic Cat’s Fourth Life – The Homesteader

Using his military service, Bob was able to secure the title to a sizeable tract of land located in North Pole, Alaska. The Richardson Highway (a 368-mile road connecting Valdez to Fairbanks) ran through the property. Bob had built a small Quonset hut on his land and was dismayed when the state came in and presented him with a sizeable tax bill for the modest structure. Not long after this, he was notified that the highway was to be paved and the hut would have to come down. Since they’d assessed the value of the hut far above it’s actual worth, the state was forced to pay him their appraised value—Bob loved that he came out on top of that situation!

Bob subdivided part of the property into lots and built his home in a heavily wooded section. He and Joan raised their three sons in Probert Subdivision. He took a lot of satisfaction in naming the residential roads after his family members.

Never one to sit idle, Bob and his younger brother, Roger, who’d opened a snowmobile repair shop in Fairbanks, began racing. Ever the competitor, Bob invested in high-speed, high-performance machines—Arctic Cats to be more specific. He used Arctic Cat as his CB handle and later in his email address. Fearless and perhaps a little manic, Bob went on to win many titles, flying across the frozen tundra, throwing caution to the wind as he set his sights on finishing first. It was during one of these wild races that he got the worst frostbite of his life when he ended up driving his snowmobile into a partially frozen river.

In contrast to the daredevil racer he was on a snowmobile, Bob also possessed a domestic side. He’d spend hours gardening and was well known for his green thumb. He won many gardening competitions and held the state record for growing the largest number of potatoes in a single mound.

Bob with his record-setting potato crop

One of Bob’s biggest passions was woodworking. He was a master carpenter and used his exceptional skills to construct everything from furniture to buildings. Visitors to Bob’s house were always quick to notice that his workshop was far larger and grander than his home. His shop was Bob’s happy place and he was very careful about storing and caring for the many tools and gadgets he owned. There was nothing the man couldn’t build—many times he’d draft out his own plans to create something he had in his mind’s eye.

I know, if he were here, Bob would object if I didn’t include something about his induction into The Ole Sourdough Club based in North Pole. To be acknowledged as a member, you must have lived in Alaska for at least thirty years and you must have a beard! (Sorry ladies—I don’t make the news, I just report it!)

Bob was also very active in the local Lion’s Club and served as President for many years, volunteering countless hours of community service blessing others with his time and talents.

The Arctic Cat’s Fifth Life – The Civil Servant

Not long after he’d settled in Alaska, Bob began working in Civil Service, based at Eielson A.F.B. about thirty minutes south of Fairbanks. With his strong worth ethic and problem-solving skills, Bob quickly moved up the ladder and upon his retirement in 1987, was the highest-ranking civilian on the base. At his party he was awarded The Outstanding Civilian Career Service Award, which he graciously accepted in front of a large audience of his co-workers, friends and family.

A major accomplishment for Bob during his time at Eielson was building ice bridges. These structures were used for military arctic training maneuvers. Each carefully calculated structure had to be engineered to handle enormous amounts of weight and pressure without failing. Regarded as an authority on ice bridges, Bob was happy to share this skill with the military and did so for years.

Anyone who’s ever lived in Alaska knows that mosquitoes are a real problem in the spring and summer months. Fortunately for Eielson A.F.B., Bob was there to help wage war against these pesky insects. In addition to taking several courses on pesticides, he also did extensive research and experiments on his own. Under Bob’s direction, the base began using the pesticide and application systems he’d created which greatly decreased the mosquito population. Bob would later write a book on pest control, once again sharing his knowledge with others.

The Arctic Cat’s Sixth Life – Shot At Point-Blank Range

There was only one person I can recall of who didn’t hold Bob in high esteem. This was a young man under his supervision on the base who suffered from mental challenges. One day the guy walked into Bob’s office and told him he was unhappy about a directive Bob had given him. Before Bob knew it, the employee had pulled out a gun and shot Bob at point-blank range in the shoulder, narrowly missing his heart. My stepdad could have easily died that day, fortunately he survived, thus adding to his collection of scars—and incredible life stories!

The Arctic Cat’s Seventh Life – The Lone Star State

Franny and Bob in Coppell, Texas in 1988

I’m not sure how she talked him into moving to Texas, but Mom and Bob arrived in Dallas in 1988. He’d sold most of his property in Alaska and was ready to start the next chapter of his life with Franny. They bought a home in Coppell, and Bob, not ready to fully retire, took a job with a large North Texas school district heading up their maintenance department. His primary responsibility was building handicapped ramps for the schools’ portable buildings.

In Bob’s spare time, he built things—lots of things! He always looked for opportunities to do for others and rarely charged for his services. If he knew someone was having a hard time, Bob would cover the cost of materials. In lieu of payment he’d tell his friends and family they could pay him in cookies.

Bob in Coppell, Texas standing in front of the parade float he built using a flat-bed trailer as it's base. Then-Governor George Bush, Jr. attended this 4th of July parade and told Bob how impressed he was with his handi-work.

It was during this time, I really got to know The Arctic Cat. Never have I met anyone so comfortable in their own skin. Bob had a joy for living that would make you question your own gratefulness for the blessings in your life. He loved to tell stories of the years he’d spent in Alaska and had countless tales of his adventures there. He could definitely spin a yarn and hearing him tell about his escapades with his brothers was beyond awesome. My personal favorites were Bob’s bear stories. Be it bears, moose, lynx—whatever; the man had a gift for storytelling, keeping you at the edge of your seat until he’d finished his tale.

Family was everything to Bob. He doted on Franny and his many children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. He adored large family get-togethers, sitting at his place of honor at the head of the table. I can’t tell you the number of times we heard him remark, “You know, it just doesn’t get any better than this!”

My mom and Bob were married for over twenty-six years. Although they found each other late in life, theirs was a union marked with great joy and many collaborative accomplishments. In addition to building and painting arts and craft projects together, Bob made custom frames for Franny’s oil paintings.

Sadly, we lost Franny in 2011 and Bob, possibly for the first time in his life, found himself at loose ends. He decided to make a trip to Blaine, Washington where his brother George lived.

“Don’t worry, I’ll be back,” he told me. “I just need to get away for a little while.”

The Arctic Cat’s Eighth Life - Blaine Bound

After a few months, Bob did return to Texas, but only to tell us he’d made the decision to move to Blaine. None of us wanted him to go, but we all knew The Arctic Cat belonged in the north.

Me, Bob and James at Ross Lake National Recreation Area in North Central Washington

Bob bought a modest home situated on nearly two acres in Blaine and quickly went to work on the property. By the time we visited him, he’d built a huge greenhouse and cleared areas for his many gardens.

Not long after Bob moved to Blaine, Bob was introduced to the woman who would later become his third wife. When Bob told us he was going to remarry, we weren’t surprised. I remember him calling to tell me about a special someone he’d met.

That “special someone” was Noi. Of Thai descent, we’ve all come to love her as part of our family’s inner-fold. Bob also adopted her daughter, Nasa who, as he put it, “kept him young!”

Bob with friends and family in March 2020 when he was recognized for his military service with a special ceremony at his home

The Arctic Cat's Ninth Life - The Final Peaceful Cat Nap

We all knew the end was drawing near for Bob, when he was put on hospice. That being said, The Arctic Cat never let go of his joy in living. James and I were with him not long before he died and we marveled at his upbeat spirit and capacity to stay positive. We chuckled watching him “dance” with Noi as she led him off to his bedroom one evening, supporting my rail-thin stepdad with both arms.

I was back in Texas when Noi called to tell me Bob was struggling to breathe. She thought we were losing him.

A surge of panic swept over me as I remembered the hospice chaplain sharing with me that Bob had recently told her he was agnostic. I knew at one time my stepdad was Catholic, but his father had been an atheist and Bob struggled with truly committing his life to Christ.

I asked Noi to hold the phone up to Bob’s ear so he could hear me.

“Dad,” I said. “You are one of the most generous and kindest people I’ve ever known and you know I love you. But, all of this is not enough to get you into Heaven. Will you please pray with me? This might be the last time we talk, and I need to know we’re going to see each other again one day.”

Bob prayed The Sinner’s Prayer, slowly and meaningfully repeating the words after me in his soft, raspy voice. After a lifetime of uncertainty about his Creator, he was finally willing to commit his life to Christ.

Bob passed away quietly at home on April 17, 2020 with sweet Noi by his bedside. He leaves behind so many who loved and admired him. Many of us have wonderful, handcrafted items lovingly made by this exceptional man and most of us will never forget his bright, sky-blue eyes.

I think of him now, knowing he’s in Heaven, spending eternity with Jesus and all those who’ve gone before us. And there’s no doubt in my mind as he’s strolling down those streets of gold, he’s telling someone up there, “You know, it just doesn’t get any better than this!”

I hope this special tribute to my Bob Dad has touched you! If you're reading this and need someone to pray with, I'm happy to do so - just email me and I'll be in touch!

Love to all, and remember - God is in control and hope is on the move!



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