The American Red Cross prevents and alleviates human suffering in the face of emergencies by mobilizing the power of volunteers and the generosity of donors.
Red Cross Volunteer of the Month, Bob Wallace, is an accomplished eclectic: a scientist, a writer, a photographer, a teacher, a beekeeper, a singer, a parent, a grandparent, and quite an adventurer. His deep sense of place joins these diverse streams and brings him back to Memphis and to the Red Cross.
Born in Birmingham, his family moved to Memphis when Bob was eight years old. After graduating from Harding Academy, Bob’s inner voice, powered by curiosity and opportunity, called him away from home. He met his wife Lana (also a Red Cross volunteer) in Arkansas during college, and they have since traveled in many directions and to many places. It was not until Bob retired from New York University, where he was a professor, that he and Lana moved their base back to the Southwest corner of Tennessee and the seventy-acre family farm where he keeps his bees. “Memphis always felt like home to me,” Bob says.
Like a planet on an unseen trajectory against fixed stars, Bob’s career path has wandered, but it is a story of “there and back again.” He left Memphis to go to college. He met Lana, they married and had two sons before the family returned to Bob’s home in Memphis. Then twenty-seven and with a PhD in Biochemistry, Bob came back as a researcher at St. Jude Hospital. After five years, the family moved to Birmingham where Bob became a tenured Associate Professor at the University of Alabama Medical School. Restless and bored, he gave up his tenured position (think about giving up the closest thing to immortality) to explore the possibility of more satisfying work. “It took several years before I found a new direction,” Bob said. “I tried a number of things.”
For a couple of those years he worked as a drug discovery scientist for a pharmaceutical company, “Hated the corporate,” he laughs. His next step was to fund his own sabbatical, to go to New York University and earn a Masters degree in their Science and Environmental Reporting program. “As I was floundering around trying to find a direction, I stopped and asked myself, ‘what had I enjoyed the most and gotten the most satisfaction from?’ and I realized, it was from writing.”
As a freelance writer, he worked for a number of science journals. He brightens when he remembers one in particular, an online publication called HMS Beagle. Bob believes Darwin’s Origin of the Species is the most influential academic book in history. “Everyone should know the work of Charles Darwin,” he says. “It’s from Darwin’s insight that we first began to achieve a realistic understanding of humankind’s position and relationship to the rest of the world.”
As a Master Teacher of Science, Bob taught science courses in the Liberal Studies Program at NYU for thirteen years (History of the Universe, Life Sciences, as well as Seminar on the Life and Work of Charles Darwin). Teaching original texts required him to draw together his many talents and passions: science, story telling, writing, research, and sharing knowledge and understanding, a tributary to making the world a better place. Bob says, “Sometimes classes fell flat, so it was time to reevaluate and do something different, but other times I succeeded and it was very satisfying, a real high.”
A Red Cross volunteer since 2011, Bob says:
“I was looking for something meaningful to do. I looked at a number of different places, but I thought of the Red Cross because I had been a Red Cross Water Safety Instructor. As a kid, I learned how to swim through the Red Cross. In college, I went to one of their national aquatic schools in North Carolina and became qualified to teach their Water Safety Instructor Course. While I was there, I was approached by a national staffer to see if I was interested in working for the Red Cross, but at the time I wanted to go to graduate school. That was a fork in the road, and you have to wonder what would have happened if I had taken the other fork. So now that I’m retired, I’ve taken that other fork.”
For the Mid-South Red Cross, Bob is Lead Public Affairs Volunteer and an Advanced Instructor. In these roles he handles media inquiries, maintains Facebook as well as the blog that he created, and facilitates a number of Red Cross courses. At the national level, he serves as a Public Affairs Manager during relief operations and is a member of the selective Advanced Public Affairs team, where he speaks for the organization to the national media during large-scale disasters, telling stories of Red Cross clients, volunteers, and staffers. Even so, he hesitates when asked if he enjoys being interviewed as this month’s Volunteer of the Month. “I’m not sure I’m familiar with doing an interview of this type,” he says. “When I think of an interview, I think of being interviewed by the media, and usually those are fine, and I do enjoy being interviewed, being on camera . . . but then, I’m not talking about me.”
Since joining, Bob has added photography to his notable storytelling skills. “When you are going into a national disaster in the public affairs arena, it’s such an important aspect to capture images.” Bob believes a picture, too, should tell a story. “I walked into a Red Cross shelter recently in Houston, and there was a baby . . . it looked like a new born baby to me, in a bassinet, curled up on a Red Cross blanket. I immediately started taking pictures.”
Ever gracious, he says he’s been fortunate. “The Red Cross has some fantastic photographers, volunteers who are at the professional level, and I’ve worked with a number of them, have been coached by them, and learned a lot.”
Bob seems to realize that communities are fragile and that their maintenance depends on ethical community service by volunteers. Serving his community began with teaching children to swim, and continues, most recently, as a member of the disaster relief work in South Carolina. He says, “Amazingly most people there were willing to talk, even though their lives were in total disarray. I truly realized that there is such a responsibility to treat people and their stories fairly.”
It is no surprise that Bob and Lana continue to travel. They have been to locations as conventional for world travelers as London and Paris, as exotic as the Galapagos, or as joyful as trips to visit sons Wade and Kreg, daughter-in-law Amanda, and grandchildren Delaney (14 yrs.), Carter (11yrs.), and Riley, who is 8, but when it is time to come home, they return to Memphis.
There is idealism, and maybe even a soupcon of utopianism in his belief that “home” is a place one can find, a place one can go to reconcile the real world and the world as it ought to be, a place where scientific rigor, warm-heartedness, and noble intention are the norm, a place where one can rest in the world’s curiosities, away from confrontations with its very real disasters.
“I am passionate about what I do with the Red Cross, looking for stories to tell about the ordeals people are going through. They can be terrible stories, but it is amazing how often the people are able to muster the ability to go forward. The Red Cross can give them immediate help. We can give them a place to go, a place to get a meal, a place to get some rest.”
. . . sounds a bit like home.
Story Credit: Kathleen Bradley/American Red Cross
Bob Wallace’s Reading List for Curious Non-scientists:
David Eliot Brody and Arnold R. Brody, The Science Class You Wish You Had: the Seven Greatest Scientific Discoveries in History and the People Who Made Them
Charles Darwin, The Voyage of the Beagle, Origin of Species
Adrian Desmond, The Life of a Tormented Evolutionist (Darwin biography)
James D. Watson, The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of DNA
Elizabeth Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History
Daniel Dennett, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea
Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene
Eve Curie and Vincent Sheean, Marie Curie: A Biography
Galileo Galilei, Starry Messenger
Ervin Schrodinger, What is Life?
Steven Weinberg, The First Three Minutes
Rachel Carson, Silent Spring
Robin Marantz Henig, The Monk in the Garden: The Lost and Found Genius of Gregor Mendel, the Father of Genetics
Jonathan Weiner, The Beak of the Finch: A Story of Evolution in Our Time
Kitty Ferguson, Tycho and Kepler