Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Bob Bender, Friend and Comrade: Fighting the Good Fight, 1939-2019

Bob Bender (Photo Credit: Sindayiganza)
"I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith." (2 Timothy 4:7)

I am writing today about Bob Bender, a dear friend and comrade who passed away this past Sunday. Bob and Patty lived in Plainfield since the 1960s before retiring to Florida some years ago. Plainfielders will remember Bob as a fearless social justice activist, advocating for justice, peace, labor rights, environmental action—causes that affected the lives of the nation’s (and the world’s) most vulnerable members. As a founding member of the Solidarity Singers of the NJ IUC, Bob was always ready to belt out a song in support of progressive causes. One of my warmest memories is of an evening some years ago when he and Patty joined me and a bunch of our mutual Plainfield friends for a music jam at my house with ukuleles, guitars, and other instruments. Bob and Patty brought along a gift, the Rise Up Singing Songbook, from which we all sang and played some tunes.

Bob and Patty (Photo Credit: Bender Family)
I first met Bob when I worked as the Educational Program Coordinator for the Historical Society of Plainfield back in 2002. I was hosting “Brown Bag Tuesdays,” a series of film screenings of the documentary This is Plainfield. Bob and Patty showed up, bringing popcorn for the audience members. During the discussion that followed, I learned a great deal about Plainfield’s history from Bob and Patty, and we became friends as well as allies. That was just the first of many wonderful days and evenings of breaking bread with the Benders. 

In 2003, Bob became an ally as a member of the New Democrats for Plainfield, the grassroots political movement begun under the late Mayor Al McWilliams. Much of what I learned about grassroots political organizing came from Bob and Patty, who served as Plainfield Democratic City Committee members for several years. I got to know Bob much better when I interviewed him in 2003 for an oral history and photo exhibit I curated for the Historical Society of Plainfield, titled “Plainfield at the March,” a 40th anniversary commemoration of Plainfielders who had attended the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Bob and Patty had attended the march, and got married soon after. Bob’s remembrance of that signal event in his life is in the society’s archives.

Patty, Dan, & Bob at BLM demonstration in Newark in 2015 (Photo Credit: Nat Bender)
Most recently, the Benders were active in the Black Lives Matter Alliance Broward, in Broward County, Florida. Bob’s letters to the editor on local matters as well as global concerns are a testament to his life as an activist. I last spoke to Bob this past August, when he and Patty called to congratulate me on my new role as a freeholder. Bob was on the mend—he had overcome his bout with cancer, and he was getting back into the swing of things. So it came as a sad shock to find that he had passed. My heart goes out to Patty, Nat, Dan, and the entire family. But…Bob has left us with a tremendous legacy—his life and works, and for that, I am grateful. For those of you who didn’t know Bob, you have an opportunity to learn about this great Plainfield treasure—before he left for Florida, Bob donated his archive, which documented his life and activism with a number of organizations in Plainfield, to the Plainfield Public Library. You can find the Robert L. Bender Collection (in English and in Spanish) in the Local History Department. 

The collection, which spans the years 1959-2001, includes Bob’s papers as a member and volunteer of CORE, NJ SANE/Peace, American Democratic Action, Plainfield Joint Defense Committee, Children of the Rainbow, the NAACP, and other organizations.
Although we never really talked much about religion, and I don’t remember any discussions that we had about faith, as I reflect on and remember who Bob was, these lines of scripture from Paul’s Second Letter to Timothy come to mind, which I think are apt in the secular realm as I pay tribute to my friendship with Bob, and to Bob's great fellowship with the world:

“I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” 
Yes, you have, Bob. La lucha continua.

Your comrade,