Robert Douglas was born in July 1952. He was the third child and first son of Willie and Louise Douglas. Eleven months after Robert's birth, the couple had another son.
Willie died shortly thereafter. Louise supported her family by working as a domestic. She found another man and had three more children. The family lived just north of downtown St. Louis in the Carr Square neighborhood.
Robert dropped out of school in the eighth grade to help support the family. He sold newspapers at the corner of Tucker and Delmar boulevards.
One of his older sisters had a part-time job at the Post-Dispatch. She helped Robert get hired. He started as a copyboy on June 1, 1969. He stayed. That was not unusual in those days. People found a job and they stayed with it.
Robert married a girl from the Carr Square neighborhood. They had three children.
After some years, Robert became the right-hand man to John Brophy, the legendary newsroom manager who had started as a copyboy himself in 1951. The newsroom of the '70s and '80s was still a raffish place. Many people drank heavily. Many people smoked. Robert did both. He eventually quit drinking. He tried, sometimes famously, to quit smoking, but he never succeeded.
Brophy retired in 1999 and Robert became the go-to guy whenever anybody needed anything. By then, the world of newspapers was changing. The drinking had been toned down. People could no longer smoke at their desks. There were other changes, too, more significant if less visible.
The workplace had become less familial.
That wasn't true just of newspapers, of course. Lean and mean were the watchwords in countless industries. Retirements were more often forced than voluntary.
The changes accelerated. I remember when Brophy died in 2007. He did not get an obituary. In the old world, everybody who worked on the paper got an obit — pressmen, mailers, printers, everybody. It was a perk, like brewery workers getting free beer. In the new world, both in newspapers and breweries, those perks seem antiquated.
By the time of Brophy's death, we were in an era of buyouts and layoffs.
Our union contract provided some protection for seniority, but only some. Robert was forced to take early retirement in October 2008. His nearly 40 years of seniority could not help him when the company decided to eliminate all the workers in his job classification. He was making $39,936 a year. He received a severance package of $50,688 before taxes. Plus, as a retiree, he had health insurance.
That was important because his health was iffy. He had diabetes and high blood pressure. He had intermittent pain in his back and legs. He was separated from his wife. His oldest daughter, Erica, suggested he buy a duplex. Renting out half would provide some income, she reasoned.
He bought a duplex in the Baden neighborhood. He paid cash for it, and then he fixed it up. That took all his money.
He looked for work, but there is little demand for a go-to guy approaching 60, especially one with little formal education and iffy health.
In January of last year, the company canceled health insurance for retirees who had left the company under the previous contract. The union is contesting that in court, but the bottom line for Robert was he was without health insurance.
Health care reform was not, and is not, far enough along to help somebody with Robert's pre-existing conditions. Reluctantly, he agreed to let Erica help him apply for Medicaid, but he was turned down. In Missouri, the safety net has some gaps.
He went to free clinics and he bummed insulin from diabetic friends. He was saving money for an operation for Creamy, his ancient poodle mix. The dog had a tumor.
Erica found Robert's body on Dec. 16. He was lying in his kitchen. Based on telephone calls, she thinks he may have died on the 14th. Creamy's body was found in the bedroom.
While Erica was at her father's duplex, a man came to the door. He couldn't speak well because of a stroke, but he indicated that Robert had been giving him bus fare.
That is the kind of anecdote we would put in an obituary — in the days when we did obits for our retirees.
Robert's body was taken to the medical examiner's for an autopsy. I called Friday and was told the office was not yet ready to release a cause of death.
As a diabetic smoker with high blood pressure, Robert had risk factors for any number of things, but I think he was a victim of our times — caught somewhere between serious health care reform and the old paternalistic way of companies.