By Paul V. Palange
SMITHFIELD – Former local educator Robert J. “Bob” Salisbury had a positive impact on hundreds of people during his life, leaving a legacy rooted in a conversation he had with his mother, Marguerite “Peg” Salisbury.
After “Bob” completed his freshman year at Providence College (PC), he told his mom that he hated chemistry, which happened to be his major.
“Bobby, I think you would be a great teacher,” was Peg’s reply, according to Bob’s son James (“Jim”). That advice wasn’t well-received as Bob told his mother that he wanted to major in economics, not education.
But when Bob was filling out the paperwork to change majors and wrote the ‘e’ in economics, he heard his mom’s voice and instead entered education as his major.
“She was right. He was a born teacher,” Jim said. “He loved helping kids.”
Bob Salisbury, who passed away on June 22 at the age of 80, went on to have an outstanding career as a teacher, guidance counselor, assistant principal, principal and coach.
Jim said one of his dad’s fondest memories was seeing Jackie Robinson of the Brooklyn Dodgers hit a triple at Ebbets Field, which was fitting since it is Robinson who first said, “A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.”
“He lived an impactful life,” Jim said of his father.
One of the many former Smithfield High students who agrees with that and fondly remembers Salisbury is Steve Smith of the rock band Steve Smith and the Nakeds. “He has a place in my heart,” Smith said of the late educator. “He is one of the all-time great motivators. He was always out for your best interest.”
As a freshman, Smith thought Salisbury didn’t like him. “I thought he was out to get me, but he just wanted to get me to my potential.”
Smith benefited from Salisbury’s demeanor and encouragement as a student – he also graduated from PC — athlete and musician, and he credits his fellow Smithfield Heritage Hall of Fame inductee with helping the Nakeds’ longtime trumpet player Steve DeCurtis enjoy careers as a musician and teacher. DeCurtis agrees.
DeCurtis said he started playing full-time with the Nakeds while a senior in high school, but that it was impossible to meet his obligations to the band and make the start of classes each day. As DeCurtis’ guidance counselor, Salisbury engineered a school-approved plan so the trumpet player could continue to perform and graduate on schedule in 1974. It worked.
DeCurtis’ association with Salisbury didn’t stop then. After DeCurtis earned a teaching degree in social studies from Rhode Island College (RIC) in Providence in 1993, he connected again with his former guidance counselor and eventually landed a teaching job at SHS. Asked if he knew the reason for Salisbury’s interest in him, DeCurtis said:
“That’s a very good question. It was just his nature. He cared for the students and people of Smithfield. …He thought, ‘If I can help him pursue his career, why not?’ He did that for a lot people, not just me,” DeCurtis said.
Those individuals included students for whom Bob penned letters of recommendation. He wrote most of the letters on Sunday afternoons alone at the high school, according to Jim, adding that each document was unique to reflect a student’s accomplishments and strong points.
Joe Bennett, 56, remembers Salisbury for his compassion, thoughtfulness, loyalty and coaching ability. “Bob had a huge impact on me,” Bennett said of his former cross-country coach at Smithfield High School.
“His motivational speeches used to get me fired up, really fired up,” Bennett said. “Smoke would be coming out of my ears. … I would have run through a wall for him.”
What impressed Bennett even more than Salisbury’s coaching techniques was the educator’s concern for Bennett’s well-being after he was in an automobile accident.
“When I broke my neck, he came to see me a lot,” Bennett said of Salisbury. “Let’s face it, no one wants to go to the hospital. Going to Providence was one thing, but coming up to Boston to see me, that was something else. … A lot of coaches forget about their athletes … It meant a lot to me that he came to see me so much while I was at (Boston) University Hospital … Bob stuck with me: He saw me at my worst.”
Bennett was 19 when the accident occurred. He was on the basketball team at Nichols College in Dudley, Mass., and the injury ended his playing career. Following intensive rehabilitation, he went into coaching and the human services sector. He got married, and when his son Reilly was born, Bob gave the baby a baseball with the inscription, “I hope you can be as good and as tough of an athlete as your dad.”
Messages on the guest book for Bob on the Anderson-Winfield Funeral Home website also speak to what Jim characterized as “boundless affection” for the Town of Smithfield and its residents. One guest book visitor wrote:
“Mr. Salisbury dedicated his life to educating, helping and mentoring so many young people in Smithfield. There are thousands of us who are better off today for having had the opportunity to have Mr. Salisbury as a coach, principal, CCD (Confraternity of Christian doctrine) teacher and mentor.”
Another stated, “Your dad was an inspiration and touched the lives of everyone who came in contact with him. Throughout my career he was my counselor, mentor and friend. He will be … missed and fondly remembered.”
A Providence native, Bob came to the Esmond section of Smithfield at age 7 or 8 and considered the move a blessing. He never relocated and whenever he left, “he couldn’t wait to get back,” Jim said.
After graduating from PC with a bachelor’s degree, Bob earned a master’s degree from RIC. He began his career in education as a teacher at Smithfield Junior High School on Old County Road, where he started the School Department’s first interscholastic baseball team.
Despite having close to no knowledge of basketball, he also started a hoops team at the junior high, using two practice drills he learned from a couple of friends who played on the PC men’s team. “No challenge was ever too big for him … which helped drive him to be a great father,” Jim said.
Bob moved to SHS upon its founding in 1966. He started as a guidance counselor, became assistant principal and finished his career as the school’s principal, retiring in 1997.
Salisbury was the school’s first athletic director. He coached the baseball team for 20 years and was inducted into the Rhode Island Interscholastic Baseball Coaches Hall of Fame.
Salisbury was a member of the first Little League baseball team assembled in Smithfield in 1951, and his affiliation with Smithfield Little League continued for 70 years.
“He had so many loves,” Jim said of his dad, and family was at the top of the list. He was married to the late Mary V. (Riordan) Salisbury for 38 years, and they had three other children: Amy, Jeffrey and Robert J. Jr.
Salisbury was fortunate to share many pursuits, accomplishments and joys of life with his late wife, children, grandchildren, siblings, colleagues, residents of Smithfield and his longtime companion and best friend Andrea Gledhill of Greenville.
“It was a real great journey for him,” Jim said. And for many other people he met along the way.