Bob Epperson’s life ended today.
I took a long walk by the river this morning when I heard the news. Yellow leaves glistened in sunshine through fog at the tips of tall flowing trees above me. I began to grieve. I remembered the last 13 years of life since I met Bob, and I thought about the timing of things.
The river decided to speak a bit—or the trees; I’m not sure.
Great men are connected to the land, I thought. Like trees, they dig deep into the soil of their home. They root themselves in the community of their beloved families. They cherish their wives.
Great men go down shining with color.
Great men know winter is not the end. Without fear they shed the year’s growth in a glorious display, brighter than a rainbow, and settle down to rest. They don’t fret the cold that will soon grip them.
Great men know spring will come. New life is certain.
Great men have faith in Jesus.
Each year of their lives builds upon the next. Annually, the tree-rings of memories compile, one after the other. They bare the stories of each compounding year in their countenance. They shine with joy.
You must sit with these men for a while to get far enough into the trunk to hear the early stories. But they’re all there. They wouldn’t be the men they are without them. They live as naturally as a tree grows. They live from the fullness of their collection of experiences.
I heard about Bob and Gloria Epperson when I was 12 years old. The men at Thompson Photo Products spoke of them each time I dropped off my film or picked up my 4x6 prints of the Tennessee River near my home. At the encouragement of Charles Garvey, a pro photographer and Troop 6 scouting dad, I hunted them down at a local camera club meeting. The rest is a long history of smiles.
Bob was always celebrating he and Gloria’s decades of adventures—his big bear stories, big canyon stories, trophy horse stories, and Alaskan hunting stories. He was always living from the present acknowledgment of the overwhelming blessings all around him. You always felt this when you were with Bob. His life was a quiet but steady encouragement for me to live the same way.
Bob was always in awe of nature’s miracles. Whether in the far corners of our country’s national parks, or his gorgeous backyard above the Tennessee River, he photographed the wild scenery painted out before him. He noticed these sights were miracles. Every single one of them. This is rare today.
This spring, racket-ball sized hail fell from the sky. Some hailstones were spiked with razor-sharp barbs. Bob and Gloria’s windows were shattered. Their roof was torn up. Even their birdhouses were demolished. I think this actually bothered Bob more than the damage to his own house.
Bob collected the hailstones and stored them in his freezer in a silver pot. They filled his open hand, jittering back and forth. He insisted they were even bigger—that they’d dehydrated a bit. Our eyes were wide together with awe. We’d never seen anything like it in all our lives.
The day after Nora and I got engaged, we drove over the river to see Bob and Gloria. We hugged and celebrated a bit, then sat with them to hear stories of their early romance. We could’ve stayed for hours more.
It is with sadness and celebration today that I remember the one wild life of my dear friend and first mentor in the art of nature photography. I remember with steadfast hope that our friend’s journey has only just begun. That heaven is no longer a place beyond the mountains, but a living reality for a living Bob Epperson.
Great men die in the fall.
Bob Epperson was a great man.