Robert Williams Rigg, Sr. – 1930 to 2014 – Biography

YOUTH

1942 Dad on tractorRobert Williams Rigg, Sr., was born in Grand Island, Nebraska on December 1, 1930. His parents were James Paul Rigg and Ruth Magdalene Hargleroad.

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His grandfather, John Rigg, came from Missouri to mine for gold in Cripple Creek, Colorado in the late 1800s, and later took up farming in Palisade, CO.  Bob’s father, Dr. Jim Rigg, Sr., decided to move to Palisade and soon became a prominent Eye, Ear, Nose & Throat Doctor. Dr. Jim Rigg, Sr. was the only Board Certified physician on the western slope at this time.  As a little boy, Bob moved with his parents to the Grand Valley and became the third generation Rigg in that area.

Bob was the youngest of three boys, having two brothers,  Jim and Jack.  Bob was raised in a lovely home on Wellington Avenue, with a peach orchard and livestock.  While he grew up in the middle of the Great Depression and times were tough, Bob never remembered anything but lots of laughter and music in his family.  He loved to play cowboys and Indians and explore the fields and orchards around his father’s practice.  He would listen to the radio at night, and his favorite radio show was “The Shadow.”

Bob attended Tope elementary school in Grand Junction.  The same school his children, Bob, Bill and Jill would later attend.

During World War II, both brothers, Jack and Jim, enlisted in the military and were sent overseas to fight in the Pacific Theater.  Dad would describe these dark days, watching his mother cry at the table, worrying for the fate of her boys.  Fortunately, Jack and Jim returned home with relatively minor injuries.  Despite Bob’s desire to serve, his mother would have none of it, and the war ended before he was old enough to enlist.

Bob attended Grand Junction High School.  While tall and athletic, he liked speech and drama over sports.  His absolute passion, though, was hunting and working on his father’s “hobby” ranch, the “Flying W,” up in the Bookcliff Mountains.

In 1948, Bob graduated from Grand Junction High School.  He was a good student and senior class president.  High school is also where he met his first wife, Roberta Orchard, who signed his yearbook: “Luck always to a wonderful guy I thought a lot about. Yours as ever, Bert”

AVIATION

Airplanes and Aviation held a special place in Bob’s heart.  He practiced as an Aviation Medical Examiner, until the day he passed away.  He loved talking to pilots and learning about new adventures in aviation.

Bob had his first airplane ride in 1938 at the age of seven.  The owner of the plane, Eddie Drapela, told Bob  and his brothers that if they could come up with 5 pounds of rags, Eddie would give them a flight around town.  Bob and his brothers scrounged around town and rode their bikes back to the airport with the rags.  Bob took his first flight in a J-2 Cub and has been hooked on airplanes ever since.  As soon as the plane landed, Bob got back on his bike looking for more rags.  Growing up, Bob was a constant fixture at this early airport.

Coincidentally, a few years later, Eddie Drapela gave Bob his first check ride to become a pilot.  Bob soloed in a PA-11 during the early summer of 1948 when he only had two hours and forty minutes of logged “instruction” flight time.  Bob also took his flight check in the PA-11 and got his private license on August 14, 1948, in that same airplane.  Bob bragged that he could land that airplane anyplace.  Bob could do spins and loops and all the other “fun stuff” you do in a plane.

Bob flew the PA-11 throughout the late 1940s before upgrading to a Cessna 180 in 1968, that he affectionately called “Charlie.”  Later in life, Bob found the remains of the PA-11, and it is still housed in a hanger at Mack Mesa Airport.  In his last moments on Earth, Dad kept talking about how to get the  PA-11 repaired so he could keep flying in it.

In the late 1940s, a uranium boom hit the four corners area.  Bob used his pilot skills as an airborne prospector.  He would often fly low over the ground with a Geiger counter to determine where the uranium might be hidden.  He’d also take in supplies by horseback to the uranium miners in remote corners near Moab and the Colorado River basin, often sleeping overnight in the mines because it was so much warmer in there.  Bob often talked of riding out on horseback with chunks of radioactive uranium in his saddle bags.

Bob and his brother Jim did uranium exploration all over the Colorado river basin.  He’d fly up the Green River and around Moab, putting in uranium claims.  Bob has hiked all the major uranium bearing formations in the area.  Bob became part of a business called the Airborne Prospectors, owned by his brother Jim. Bob would say that these flights would give him the aviation skills he used his entire life, especially future flying and landing in dangerous conditions in Alaska.

RIVER RUNNING DAYS

Bob and his brother Jim loved to run the rivers in Utah and Colorado, at a time when only a handful of people had ever been down the Grand Canyon, and the Glen Canyon Dam had not yet been built.  Bob helped start and run the second commercial river guide outfit on the Colorado River, called Mexican Hat Expeditions.  This outfit was purchased from a good friend Norm Neville who later died in a plane crash.

Bob guided local starlets and B-Grade celebrities, musicians, artists and photographers, even politicians like Barry Goldwater down the Canyon.  During the summers between semesters of school, Bob and his brother would guide hundreds of people down the Grand and Glen Canyon. Bob was one of the first people to run a cataract boat from the Grand Valley all the way to Lake Mead.  For the rest of his life, Bob loved to reminisce about these special times.

~Bob is best known in the record books, however, for a speed run he made on June 12, 1951.  Bob and his brother were trying to predict how fast they would need to go to get an injured person out of the canyon.  They decided to find out and using wooden cataract boats they set a speed record for the fastest run from Lee’s Ferry to Lake Mead.  A trip that would normally take three weeks, took them two and a half days.  Bob and his brother navigated their flat bottom rowboat, 285 miles in 52 hours and 41 minutes.  They named the boat “The NORM” after their good friend Norm Nevilles.  At the time, the geodetric survey office called it “the most dangerous river run in the world” and they made the trip in a rowboat.

From 1952 through 1956, Bob and his brother Jim built 21-foot Chris Craft boats in their garage, and continued to run the rivers of Colorado during the summer breaks in college.

EDUCATION

After high school graduation, Gob first attended Colorado College in Colorado Springs, but he didn’t feel like he fit in, so he and high school pal, Johnny Harper, went to Caspar, WY junior college.

After wandering aimlessly and maybe a little too much fun, Bob decided to transfer to Colorado University Boulder, the same school that coincidentally Roberta Orchard was attending.

He transferred to CU Boulder the same year Roberta started in 1950, where she was on scholarship.   Roberta did not “date” Dad in high school, but they were friends and shared a few rides.  While at CU Boulder, Roberta was not impressed.  Bob dressed like a slob, in boots and jeans and plaid shirts.   Sixty plus years later, not much has changed.  Despite his appearance, Bob and Roberta were married in Las Vegas.

Initially, Bob wanted to be a veterinarian because he loves ranch animals, especially horses.  He attended the veterinarian school in Colorado State University at Fort Collins.  This was also where Roberta and Bob had their first son, Robert Jr., in January 1953.  It was also where Bob had his first encounter with Mormon friends that were very influential in his life.

In 1954, Bob decided to transfer out of veterinarian school and attend the University of Colorado Medical School.  Many years later, Bob’s oldest son Robert Jr., also graduated from this same medical school, and his grandson, Devin Rigg, is currently in his second year there (2014).  While at medical school, Roberta and Bob gave birth to three other children: Bill, Jill and Jeff .

Bob graduated from CU medical school class of 1958 and did a one year internship at St Joe’s hospital in Denver.  Bob then took the family to Detroit, Michigan for a three year Ophthalmology residency at Kresge Eye Institute at Wayne State University.  He talked about delivering hundreds of babies and had his eyes opened by the craziness of Detroit in the 1960s.  Bob even put the Criss Craft power boats on Lake Michigan.

Bob was the first one chosen to be Chief Resident his third year of residency, an honor bestowed on the best resident starting the final year.  Bob was popular with his patients and fellow residents.  It was during this Detroit residency that his daughter, Julia was born.

CONVERSION TO LDS CHURCH

During Bob’s ophthalmology residency, he was not a member of the LDS church, but had taken discussions about four years earlier.  When Bob arrived in Michigan with his small family, some of the first doctors in training seemed very friendly.  Bob asked where they were from and they said they lived in Idaho, Arizona and Utah.  Bob said “You must all be Mormons!”  The doctors said yes and asked if Bob was.  Bob said “of course not, but I had friends who were.”  One of Bob’s best friends in veterinarian school had been Mormon and was a good example to Bob.

About two years later and after much friendship with LDS friends and the influence of Roberta, who was a member, Bob was asked to attend a Stake Conference in Detroit.  George Romney, a local church leader and father of Mitt, was the speaker.  It was at that conference that Elder Romney said the Church was the “divine kingdom of God on earth,” and the “only true Church!”  Bob thought that was a very strong statement, but it stuck with him.

Several years passed, and Bob attended the local Presbyterian Church, but they told him the LDS church was a cult.  Bob didn’t think that was possible because of his great friends who were LDS.  Bob started pondering about the people he had worked with in the San Juan and Colorado River areas and his friend in Veterinarian school.  Bob found the box of papers with the LDS missionary pamphlets that had been in storage in the attic for the past four years.  Bob started reading the lessons, crouched over the box, and the spirit washed over him.  Bob said he sat in the attic and read every single pamphlet.  Years later, Bob would proclaim that was the exact moment he gained a testimony that the Church was true. For the rest of his life, despite many challenges, he never wavered from that knowledge.

On March 11, 1961, Bob, Sr. and his son Bob, Jr. were baptized.  The rest of Bob and Roberta’s children were given a baby blessing the next day at church.  On March 28, 1963, Roberta and Bob, and the children were sealed in the Manti Temple.

GRAND JUNCTION MEDICAL PRACTICE

After completing residency, Bob returned home to Grand Junction to open up a private practice.  Bob became Board Certified in Ophthalmology in 1968.  He worked for a year with his father, and later built a medical office complex near St. Mary’s hospital on 7th Street.  His sixth child, Sarah, was born upon returning to Grand Junction.

Bob was a very careful and fastidious surgeon with very few complications.  He always followed up with his patients.  He liked to make hospital rounds early in the morning…”before people could think of things to complain about”.  All of his children accompanied Bob to St. Mary’s Hospital for rounds, bounding up the stairs because he hated elevators and watching him from outside the room while he spoke to his post-op patients.

Bob was known throughout the Western Slope as an outstanding medical professional and treated his patients with warmth and compassion, frequently providing services without charge to those in need.

At his peak, Bob was the primary Ophthalmologist for the western slope and was frequently called into the ER to look at eye trauma.   He loved to be in the mountains where there was no phone and to try and escape the pressure of constant medical calls.

Bob was one of the first skiers on Aspen Mountain and loved skiing. Most Christmas vacations were spent with family in Aspen.  Bob taught all of his children to ski.  Bob even got a taste of NASTAR amateur ski racing, was pretty fast in the Giant Slalom event and would travel around competing.

Bob loved to take horse pack trips with the entire family to Crested Butte, Aspen, Battlement Mesa, and Grand Mesa.  These were often week long excursions through the mountains of Colorado.  He also liked to take his family on pleasure trips to Yellowstone, Salt Lake City, Lagoon, Disneyland, Phoenix, Grand Canyon, and Long Beach, CA.  Bob would take the Chris-Craft boats on Lake Powell, even though his sons shot out the windows with their guns.

Bob was always on the go and eventually sold his practice in Grand Junction and started up medical practices in Aspen and Steamboat, Colorado.  He was always fascinated with the cowboy life and tried his hand at running a ranch up in Kremling, Colorado.

MARRIAGE TO KAREN – ALASKA YEARS

In 1974, Roberta and Bob divorced.  That same year, he and Karen Martinez were married in Las Vegas in August 1974.  They celebrated their 40th anniversary shortly before his death. Their first son, Brett, was born in 1975 in Grand Junction, Colorado.

Bob says that ever since 1948, when he graduated from high school he dreamed about moving up to Alaska.  After marrying Karen and with a brand new baby, he knew it was time to make that dream a reality.

From 1975 until 2004, Bob and Karen resided in Anchorage and Fairbanks, Alaska.  Bob worked for the FAA as an assistant and later Regional Flight Surgeon in charge of the entire state of Alaska.  He also continued to practice part time as an ophthalmologist in Anchorage. Bob would fly to bush communities all over Alaska, from Nome to Bethel, Cold Bay to Barrow, giving examinations to FAA employees. During the Alaska oil boom, Bob also did a stint for British Petroleum as a flight surgeon and would fly to Prudhoe Bay, literally at the top of the world, and treat the oil workers.

Bob would like to recall stories of flying his Cessna 180 as far north as Nome and as far south as the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico.  Once, while flying with Karen, Bob couldn’t find a runway and landed on a dirt road in Mexico.  Bob was picked up by the Mexican Federalles who thought he was dealing drugs and spent a couple days in a Mexican jail.  Fortunately, Dad spoke Spanish and the police found an eyeball in formaldehyde from a surgery he had performed on a Mexican girl.  Once the Federalles found the eyeball, they believed Bob’s story that he was just a doctor and not a drug dealer, and let him go.

In 1978, Taber was born, followed by Regan in 1981.  On August 11, 1990, Bob and Karen were sealed to their children in the Los Angeles Temple.

Bob was active in the LDS faith and held callings in bishoprics and branch presidencies.  He would help teach and preside over the rural Alaskan communities that had no contact with any mormon leadership.

Bob was extremely involved in the activities of his three youngest children.  He would leave the office to watch cross-country running and skiing meets, musicals, plays, basketball games, plus flying down to the lower 48 to be at as many of his grandchildren’s events as possible.  Overtime, Jeff and his spouse, Kathy, Julie and her spouse David, and later Sarah would all call Alaska home.

In Alaska, Dad’s spirit of adventure never diminished.  He would fly his Cessna 180 out to remote islands and land on the sand bar beaches, just to go beachcombing for the day.  He’s been chased by bears, stuck in blizzards, but was never afraid to explore the most remote parts of Alaska.

Bob helped his daughter Julia start a commercial fishing outfit on an beach named Belugah on the Cook Inlet.  He helped encourage his son Jeff to take a job as an air traffic controller in Bethel.  He loved to hunt caribou and fish King Salmon. He skied on Alyeska Mountain and taught Brett, Taber and Regan to ski.  Bob was also involved in high profile river trips down the Grand Canyon, and would teach seminars about river running before the Glen Canyon Dam.

Bob was highly involved in the Anchorage Rotary Club, the Great Alaska Shootout- a college basketball tournament and was a huge supporter of Dimond High School, where Julia, Brett, Taber and Regan graduated.

After thirty years in Alaska, Bob and Karen made the difficult decision to return back to Colorado.

BACK TO THE GRAND VALLEY

In 2004, Bob and Karen moved back to the Grand Valley.  Bob decided to start another eye practice in Grand Junction, Colorado, despite being 75 years old.  For the past ten years he has worked mostly as an Aviation Medical Examiner.  He continued to treat the same patients his father treated over fifty years earlier.

In his semi-retirement, Bob got back into his love of horses, gardening and the bookcliffs.  He would look forward to hunting season every year and nearly always brought home some meat.

Bob and Karen built a large 35 acre estate along the Colorado river, with a lake stocked with trout so he could fish right outside his back door.  He was always dreaming about building a dirt runway that crossed his property so he could buzz over the golfers and land at his bedroom door.  More than anything, Bob loved having his grandchildren and family visit so they could play in the sand pile, go look for stray golf balls and visit the dinosaur museum.

To the end, the most important thing in Bob’s life has always remained family.  He has 28 grandchildren and 17 great-grandchildren with 4 more on the way (2014).

Throughout his life, Bob’s favorite saying was “Man, this Is living!” whenever he was having a good time.  As you can see, his life personified this expression.

Bob had a huge heart, unconditional love and wanted everyone to forgive and be happy.  He always commented in his last days that “I had a good life” and that he was ready to go home to join his friends and family on the other side of the veil.

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