Bob Grathwol was a writer and thinker from Excelsior whose public and private demons prevented him from achieving many traditional life goals, even as he enriched the lives of those around him.
“By normal measures of societal success — he was unable to stay married, he was unable to stay employed, really gainfully employed. Never really put a career together,” said Grathwol’s little brother, Jim. “But you know, there are countless numbers of people who have told me that my brother saved their life.”
Robert Dudley “Bob” Grathwol died June 15, a full decade after he was diagnosed with a form of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. He was 62.
In some ways, Bob Grathwol is among the least likely of the Excelsior Grathwols to have an obituary written about him. Coming from a family that includes lawyers, executives and public servants, Bob was known for writing poems and owning a full print edition of Oxford English Dictionary.
For fun he read the famous “Domesday Book,” a comprehensive survey of 11th-century English landownership conducted after the Norman Conquest. In college, an English professor once excused him from a week’s worth of class discussion about Moby Dick because he was already too advanced to learn from it.
His outward appearance could be striking. A neighborhood friend wrote online about memories of “Bobby G” sledding in his Elmer Fudd hat, cigarette pursed between his lips and snow flying all around him on the way down.
Serious problems dogged Bob Grathwol all his life. He was known to be a nasty drunk until 1979, when his parents frog-marched him into treatment after he had two car crashes in quick succession. His long run with Alzheimer’s came after a struggle with an undiagnosed developmental disorder that may have been on the autism spectrum, Jim Grathwol said.
“It has to be said that Bob got sober and had this great intellect. [But] there was something else that didn’t quite add up. We never were able to put a diagnosis on it,” Jim Grathwol said. “No hagiography here. He wasn’t a saint. But he definitely had a heart of gold. He loved nature and the light, the air, the color that would surround him.”
Born in Guam during his father’s ROTC service, Bob Grathwol was the oldest of six siblings born during an eight-year stretch. The family moved to the Twin Cities and eventually settled in the Excelsior area, where Grathwols have been living for more than a century.
Following tumult in the 1960s and 70s, Bob’s sobriety in the 1980s became an example for others. He would sponsor many people in Alcoholics Anonymous who credited him with saving their lives.
“These diseases of addiction can fracture a family,” Jim Grathwol said. “In a way, it bound us more tightly together and created an opportunity for healing among all of us.”
Bob Grathwol eventually married and moved to Oregon, where he helped run a bed-and-breakfast before returning to Minnesota and divorcing. Bob’s son Andrew, born in 1981, died at age 31 following a battle with cancer.
Bob would pass away five years later. A lifelong writer, he saw his best-known poem published in a literary magazine in the late 70s:
“After years of terrible visions/ In cities so bright/ They sliced the retina/ Into pieces of light/ He fled into dreams/ Of curling fogs/ And snapping darks.”
He is survived by two brothers, John and Jim, and three sisters, Joan Olson, Kate and Margaret. Services have been held.