Bob Wright has been our Senior Museum Attendant for 27 years, I have known him for 2.5 of those years. Most of you have known him for much longer than I have, so I can only assume he has made a similar impression on you.
I first met Bob in December 2012, when I delivered my application form to the gallery for the post of Education Officer. He wished me luck with a firm handshake. It must have done the trick.
When I took up the post a month later, I really had to learn on my feet. We had a diary full of upcoming school visits and I could not disappoint. Bob helped me enormously. He guided me through the main areas of the gallery and gave me the confidence to develop the learning programmes into what they are today.
Bob Wright is one of those special people in life who take great pride in all they do. He greets every visitor to the gallery and offers to explain the exhibits, drawing on his experiences to embellish his stories of the war, the blitz on Belfast and times past.
You would often see Bob leading a tour for 50 people, climbing up a ladder to fix lights, chasing after the postman with an undeliverable letter or standing on cardboard boxes, flattening them for the recycling bins.
Last year, over 2400 children visited the museum, taking part in our half-day Primary School programme. Bob is a huge hit with the schoolchildren, telling them about his real life experiences and teaching them about what life was like during the war.
Bob was Talbot Street’s very own lollypop man as he stopped traffic to ensure the children got off their bus and safely into the War Memorial building. Primary Schools begin their visit in the foyer where I welcome them and read them the riot act. The trip continues in our education room on the second floor, and then in this gallery. Before the class comes into the gallery, I tell them that they are going to meet Bob, and that he is, as they would put it “a real life soldier!” I tell them his age (sorry Bob) and make them promise not to tell him I told them.
When we walk into the gallery, this revelation about Bob can be felt in the air, as the children look at him in awe with bucketsful of respect and a great sense of wonder. We often have to change the regular programme to allow for a questions and answers session with Bob, as they are so interested in his stories, and no longer want to listen to me.
His stories include raiding Japanese Saki stores, the comradeship he felt in Burma and Hong Kong, and the difference between a Sten gun, a Bren gun, and a Lee-Enfield rifle. He would often challenge Chinese children to count to ten in Chinese, and he took great delight in teaching them what they didn’t know. During our dressing up activity, Bob would show the children the correct way to put on a helmet (chin in first). He even fashioned a pretend rifle with an old flag pole, and the boys would fight over who got to pose with it next. When talking about rationing, dried eggs and the Dig for Victory campaign, Bob would teach the children to sing Hey Little Hen, explaining that it was a popular tune in the 1940s. Bob is 92 years young!
Besides work, Bob and I just became great friends. As you all know, Bob shares great stories and gives sound advice on life. Prior to his 27 years at the NIWM, Bob held a similar role in the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum, where I also teach, so we have lots in common, and plenty of people to talk about. Bob would give Kerry and me at least one chocolate bar a week, so we’ll miss that too!
I will really miss Bob, his support and his stories. There are too many stories to retell now, but I will share this funny one. I remember his story about when he returned to Northern Ireland and was demobbed in Victoria Barracks (in 1950 or thereabouts). Bob had to take off his uniform and find civilian clothes to fit him, from a limited wardrobe in the barracks. Apparently the only thing that fitted was an obnoxious striped suit. Bob told me he was so embarrassed wearing this suit, that he ran up the back alley to his house on Hunter Street (Sandy Row), snuck into the house, raced upstairs to change, and then came downstairs to present himself to his mother. He told me the striped suit made him look like radio comedian Charlie Chester. I laughed politely, but I admit, I had to go upstairs to do a Google search for Charlie Chester. Then I laughed again.
Bob, it has been an honour to work with you, and I would now like to read a few thank you letters we have received from Primary School children recently.