Mr. Moore's Opus
In some ways, last August was no different from the rest of their 57 years together. Bob Moore and his wife, Maxine, spent each day together. He was the stubborn one. She was the strong one, telling him what needed to be done.
"You go home, you go eat dinner," she told him. Quit acting like a baby, she jokingly chided. Spend more time with the grandkids and take better care of yourself, Maxine advised him. And yes, Maxine assured, she would be fine.
But all was not well in the summer of 1998. Maxine was in the hospital with pneumonia and breathing complications. She was weak, and medical tubes invaded her body, leaving her unable to speak. Bob visited her every day. He bought a laptop computer for them to use to communicate, but she shunned it, preferring to compose her messages in traditional handwritten notes.
By all indications, Maxine knew -- in the way that only a wife of 57 years can know -- that Bob would not be able to stand going on without her. They had grown so close over the decades it was as if they shared one heart.
So, before she succumbed to her illness seven months ago at the age of 79, Maxine scribbled out a final directive for Bob.
"You live," she wrote.
Bob Moore, 78, tried to follow her deathbed orders. He'd been listening to Maxine and loving her since they'd met on a blind date at Reed College in the early 1940s. He knew Maxine would want him to keep going. So the veteran educator and beloved teacher of thousands of Houston schoolkids kept moving on in the world he had made for himself. He went back to teach again at The Chinquapin School, the respected college preparatory academy for low-income children he and Maxine had founded in 1969. He planned a road trip out west with friend and former colleague Arnold Mercado. He started tending the Chinquapin garden, as he had done during his years as the school's director. He took on several classes at Chinquapin, even though he feared he was not connecting with the students in the same way he had done before, both at Chinquapin and the elite St. John's Episcopal School.
It was at St. John's that he started touching lives. First as an English teacher, then as head of that department.
"He never lost connection with the sheer intensity of teenagers.... He loved the big, pimply kind, especially," says Molly Ivins, an author and nationally syndicated columnist who studied under Moore at St. John's. Although he was teaching at a fancy private school, Moore liked to shake things up. He would wiggle his ears to make students laugh during assembly. He wore Elvis socks and Alfred E. Neuman T-shirts. Although he was teaching the often unreachable teenagers, he could really listen to students confiding about a first love, without telling them they were simply going through a phase or would get over it. Although so many kids thought American literature could be boring, Moore turned Robert Frost, Ernest Hemingway, Ralph Waldo Emerson and J.D. Salinger into gifts that he bestowed on eager students.
"The kids that gravitated to him weren't just the top students, they were the students who didn't quite fit in with the in crowd," says Bill Heinzerling, Moore's pupil who became director of Chinquapin when Bob retired in 1983.
In his own way, Moore wasn't always part of the in crowd during his years at St. John's either. He declared himself the house liberal, organized food drives and was one of the few in the school community to support John Kennedy in his presidential campaign. Although he taught at a religious school, Moore didn't go to church or align himself with any faith. He was, as colleague Jerry Harper puts it, "a firebrand, a mover and a shaker." But he was also a connector. Students dropped by his house to hang out. They accompanied him and Maxine on school-sponsored trips to Europe. They stayed in touch years after graduation. And when Moore did his long "Bob Moore stride" across St. John's campus, students would imitate his steps behind him.
"If people are lucky, everybody has one teacher who changes their lives," says Bob Sussman, an attorney who was a St. John's kid. "He was a supreme mentor who instilled a love of books, of writing and beauty of the English language."
During the late 1960s, in the emerging movement to revolutionize education and overcome inequalities of the system, Moore got the idea to develop Chinquapin (named after a tree that grows in East Texas). With Maxine as his partner and with financial help from the St. John's community, he took 16 low-income boys (16 was the number of beds that were donated) and four teachers and moved to an old vacation home on Trinity Bay. Maxine did the cooking, the whole crew tended to the cleaning, and an old Greyhound bus shuttled the kids home on weekends. Teachers provided individual attention, and the project started to work. A year later, the operation moved to an old egg farm in Highlands. As other experimental schools closed in the following decade, Chinquapin thrived. Thirty years later, the original enrollment of 16 has grown to 108 boys and girls in grades seven to 12. All attend the school on scholarships. College admission is a requirement for graduation, and the seniors have gone on to attend Rice, Smith, Northwestern and Notre Dame.
As he did at St. John's, Moore used his unique teaching style to share his love of words with his students.
"You never knew which personality was going to walk into the classroom," says Craig Wade, a member of the Chinquapin class of 1982, who teaches at the school. It might be the Mr. Moore who read dramatically from Frost's poetry. Or the Mr. Moore who, during a tension-filled test, would jump on his desk, rip open his shirt and pound his chest. It could even be the Mr. Moore who, if a student was falling asleep, would simply pour a glass of water on the youngster's head.
Moore had strong ideas. He infuriated Chinquapin's board members by suggesting employees be paid based on what they needed, not on what they did. He had a temper. He had moods. He wanted things that should be taken seriously to be taken seriously. Sometimes if a Chinquapin youth did something Moore thought merited expulsion, he might yell that the kid should leave and start walking back home to Houston. Sometimes the offending youngster would actually start the 25-mile trek, and it was wife Maxine who would get in her car, drive after the student and talk Moore into letting him stay.
"He'd flare up, and she'd calm him down," says the school's director of development, Anne Smith, who knew the Moores since 1976.
Maxine was the quiet one, often in the background. But she was Bob's anchor. She'd had her individual successes as a pianist and tennis player at Reed College, before the two met. But she was primarily -- and proudly -- Bob's partner.
"She was incredibly strong, and she just wanted to be with him, no matter what," says their son Topper. "They adored each other."
The adoration only grew stronger once the couple retired in 1983 and moved to Palestine. He taught creative writing to local senior citizens; she volunteered at a hospital. Together they pored over crossword puzzles, and Maxine even created a few and sold them to magazines. At night they took walks. And when Maxine got sick and came back to Houston for treatment, he rarely left her side.
After Maxine's death, Moore tried desperately to regain a foothold by teaching again. He feared the depression eating at him was affecting his work at Chinquapin, but he refused suggestions from his family and friends to see a doctor. Those who were close to him knew he thought of taking his own life and that he might have tried it before.
Because, for Moore, life was simply not the same without Maxine. He still wrote letters to her every day. He placed copies of a favorite picture of her in nearly every room of the house. Of course, it was not enough. It seemed as if the same joyful intensity he felt for Maxine and his students had reversed itself into a depression that couldn't be cured. And it seemed, in a strange way, the grief became his friend, and he was almost afraid to get over it. Because that might mean getting over Maxine.
"Many of us expected him to snap out of it," says former student Molly Ivins. "But he was in terrible pain. And it would not stop for him."
On May 2 Moore drove his car to the side of his house in Palestine. He ran a hose from the exhaust pipe through a bedroom window, started the engine, went inside and killed himself by asphyxiation.
Moore left one final message behind. It was a note to his Maxine. He thanked her for loving him.
The memorial service -- a sad student reunion -- came last week at St. John the Divine Episcopal Church. Every age and color made up the packed crowd, representing all the avenues in Moore's diverse life. His three sons, Topper, Andy and Ricky, sat up front with their wives and children. The current crop of college-bound Chinquapin kids grouped together. Members of the elite St. John's community turned out in force for the farewell.
"It makes us angry to see he was not immune to the same demons that we are not immune to," says the Reverend Thomas Currie, a Moore student at St. John's. "But he knew what was at stake in living a life that mattered and how hard that can be."
Currie read from one of Moore's favorite poems, Robert Frost's Birches, which Moore had shared with countless students. It is a poem about life's path and the love created during that life.
"I'd like to get away from the earth awhile and then come back to it and begin over," Currie read to the quiet congregation. "May no fate willfully misunderstand me and half grant what I wish and snatch me away not to return. Earth's the right place for love.
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