On December 6, 2016, Dubuque lost one of its greatest treasures – author Robert “Bob” Byrne passed away. Most people did not know him personally, but millions around the world knew him through his books, whether it was about billiards (his avocation), some thriller involving engineering (his vocation), or growing up Catholic in Dubuque in the 1940s (his religious inclination – at least as a youngster).
On May 22, 1930, Tom and Clara Byrne welcomed Robert Leo Byrne to the family, which already boasted three boys. His Catholic instruction began at St. Columbkille’s elementary school, a few blocks from the family home on State St. and the inspiration for St. Procopius School in Memories of a Non-Jewish Childhood.
At the age of 12, he embarked on his career as a pool hustler when he won 85 cents from the gas meter reader in a game of eight-ball on his family’s basement pool table. Since then he has won numerous awards and prizes for his skill and is recognized the world over as the preeminent teacher and commentator in the world of pool and billiards.
He subsequently went to Loras Academy and Loras College before transferring to Iowa State University. While there he edited a humor column in the school newspaper, displaying another of the talents that would later become apparent in many of his books. He transferred again to the University of Colorado where he edited Flatiron, the school’s humor magazine, and graduated in 1954 with a degree in Civil Engineering. That same year he was hired by the City and County of San Francisco Department of Engineering, Bureau of Public Works, Division of Highways as a junior civil engineer.
A year later, he went to work for Western Construction magazine as a reporter for the heavy construction industry and in 1961 was named editor, a position he held until 1971.
In 1977 he became a full-time writer after his third book was published.
There is not enough room in this magazine to do a proper biography (that has already been done in newspapers and elsewhere) or a comprehensive bibliography (which can be easily found online).
Instead, I’d like to talk briefly about the Bob Byrne I knew – the author who welcomed my requests on several occasions for his autograph as I acquired more of his books.
The first time I met him was at River Lights Bookstore when he introduced fellow author Martin Cruz Smith, another of my favorites. Before the talk, I had looked at some of the bargain books and found one of his which I grabbed eagerly. After Mr. Smith completed his talk and was signing my book, I saw Bob Byrne stroll out of the store and quickly ran after him calling his name. He turned – perhaps to determine my intention and decide if I was going to mug him in broad daylight. I made my request with some trepidation, since some authors refuse such requests. But rather than refuse, he smiled at me and thanked me for asking. He asked my name and inscribed it to me personally. I still have it, of course.
A couple months later, I wanted to get another autograph on a couple books which I had acquired, including his best-known Memories of a Non-Jewish Childhood. Surprisingly, he was listed in the phone book. I called and told him what I wanted, expecting he would make an excuse and refuse. Instead he invited me out to his home in Barony Woods. When I got there, he invited me in and asked me to sit down while he signed the books. He asked me questions about what I did and was very interested when I told him that I had worked as a map technician drawing the plat maps for the county. That got him started talking about his brother Bill, former Dubuque County Engineer and later a partner with Carl Bartels. I had known both these men and so we talked about engineers and before I knew it two and a half hours had gone by and we were just getting warmed up. I finally took my leave and as I thanked him for the autographs, he said, “No, thank YOU! Anytime you get one of my books, I’ll be happy to sign it. I hope you enjoy them.”
The last time I talked with Bob was just a hair over two years ago. I had finally gotten a copy of Behold My Shorts and also had a couple other books that needed autographs. I emailed him and again he was very cordial to my request for autographs although he regretfully declined my request to review the manuscript of a novel I had written.
I met him in the back room of the building he owned down on 2nd and Main and again he welcomed me and showed me the shorts he had worn for the book cover. This time he asked me about pool and billiards, both of which I am woefully ignorant about. I have never played billiards, and I gave up pool when I was consistently beaten by my friend in high school, a minister’s son. (I was also beaten by his father, his mother, his eight-year-old brother, and his sister, whom I had dated occasionally until then.)
Bob proceeded to display some trick shots on the table he had there and patiently explained how each shot was made. He handed me a cue stick and invited me to try to repeat an “easy shot” he had just made (his words, not mine). I did… although I was terrified to show my lack of coordination. I did not send the ball to the ceiling nor crashing to the floor as I feared; I did not rip the cover on the table and I DID put the ball in the pocket… not the one I was presumably aiming at, but hey, there’s six holes on the table so I was still somewhat proud of myself. Bob actually complimented me, gave me a couple more pointers and then handed me a copy of one of his books on pool and said when I finished it he wanted to see if I improved. He never got the chance and I never had the opportunity to possibly prove to him that he hadn’t wasted a book.
So long, Bob. If somehow you’re reading this… I’ve got another book for you to sign!