MANCHESTER — It was hard to say “no” to Bob Cairns if you were part of the solution.
Whether creating a handicapped-accessible home for a local family or working to bring technology to schools off-the-grid in Africa, Cairns approached each endeavor with relentless energy, a wealth of experience in logistics and a heart full of compassion for his fellow human beings.
“He was a father, a friend and everything in all aspects of my life,” said Jovenal Nsengimana, whose education Bob and his wife, Chris Cairns, sponsored after Nsengimana’s parents were killed in the Rwandan genocide. “I am who I am today because of Bob.”
Cairns, 73, died July 27 at his home in Manchester from complications of an interstitial lung condition that was not related to COVID-19.
Cairns, born Dec. 22, 1945, in Wisconsin, was a commissioned officer in the U.S. Air Force serving five years on active duty and 15 years in the Air Force reserves. His 45-year military and civilian career in fuel logistics brought him and his family all over the world. Together he and Chris raised three “international children” born in Canada, Florida and Spain respectively.
Chris and Bob met in 1969 while he was stationed in Rapid City, South Dakota. She was reeled in by “his sense of humor.” They married in 1970.
“He was adventurous, sometimes more adventurous than I wanted him to be,” Chris said. “That was one thing I knew, we were always going to have an adventure no matter where we lived or where we went.”
While they were stationed in Labrador, Canada, washed-out bridges were no obstacle to Cairns, who happily drove through rushing rivers, Chris remembers.
Decades later he and Chris would be bouncing along other barely passable roads in Kenya in their humanitarian missions on behalf of Port Orchard Rotary and Rotary International.
“He was fearless,” Chris said. “Some of the places we’d go in Kenya, Kenyans won’t go, but he said that’s where the need is, so we’re going to go.”
The consummate ‘fuelie’
Cairns’ career brought him to Washington state in 1985, where he became regional fuel manager for the Navy’s Manchester Fuel Depot (NAVSUP Fleet Logistics Center Puget Sound). With a storage capacity of more than 79 million gallons of petroleum fuel, Manchester is the heartbeat of military operations emanating from the Pacific Northwest. With a staff of just more than 30, Cairns oversaw all aspects of this critical supply chain, moving 90 million to 150 million gallons of petroleum fuel per year.
“Bob was the consummate fuelie,” said Glenn Schmitt, who replaced him in late 2013 on Cairns’ retirement. “Bob was a force in everything he did. He demanded excellence.”
After retiring in 2014, Cairns with Chris dove into humanitarian work that exemplified the Rotary International motto “Service Above Self.” Projects in which they were involved provided what Cairns described in the obituary he wrote for himself as life-altering experiences to people in such diverse places as Azerbaijan, Rwanda, Uganda, Kenya, and Canada.
Chris said they “got the bug” for humanitarian work doing polio immunizations in Africa. Cairns was moved by the story of a man who had been crippled by polio and who got around by dragging himself along with rubber sandals on his hands. Cairns arranged for a custom-designed, hand-powered bicycle to be delivered to the man, a story many recall as an example of his ingenious generosity.
“He was a hard worker. He never said ‘no’ to a project locally or internationally,” said Leslie Reynolds-Taylor, past president of Port Orchard Rotary.
When Cairns learned of a fellow Rotarian who was disabled and without insurance, he launched a fundraising campaign to make his home fully handicapped-accessible.
“He was just great about seeing a problem and fixing it,” Chris said.
Like a father to many
Bob and Chris through Rotary ended up sponsoring the education of a number of young people, and Cairns became a mentor to some, who like Nsengimana call him a father figure. He was there in 2013 when Nsengimana graduated from the United States International University in Nairobi and later at Nsengimana’s wedding.
Nsengimana with others founded Hifadhi Africa, an organization whose mission is to promote education and improve the quality of life among impoverished communities in Kenya and beyond.
“Bob and his wife Christine became the cornerstone to the successes of Hifadhi Africa humanitarian missions,” said Collins Nakedi, a co-founder of Hifadhi Africa.
Cairns was especially proud of two projects he and Chris did in partnership with Hifadhi Africa involving water supply and digital access.
They raised more than $90,000 to build sand dams in remote, arid villages in Kenya. The dams, constructed by hand by residents, allow for the collection and storage of seasonal rainwater providing the community with a reliable source of water and relieving women and children of having to walk great distances for water. Now kids in those villages have more time to attend school.
The Raspberry Pi project
In 2015, Cairns secured funding, equipment and the technological expertise of others to supply villages that lack electricity with solar-powered devices that can hold a library’s worth of books and other reference material. The device called Raspberry Pi has proven transformative to school children in remote communities of East Pokot, Kenya, where Nakedi is from.
“Bob was a force when he got an idea for a grant project,” said MaryBeth Foxworth, a fellow Rotarian who worked on the Raspberry Pi project. “I would never have thought the whole thing possible, but he never doubted. He did his research and pled his case and somehow he always did what he said he was going to do.”
In other efforts, Bob and Chris collected and shipped more than 120,000 books to start a public library in East Pokot. Chris has been active in providing menstrual hygiene supplies to girls and women.
In their humanitarian work and other travels, the couple has visited 38 countries.
“He loved to explore and see new places, do new things, and he made my life much richer because I was able to do new things with him,” Chris said.
Cairns in January began having trouble breathing, and his condition steadily deteriorated despite doctors’ efforts to find and treat the cause. COVID-19 was ruled out, Chris said.
Following a recent hospitalization, Bob got a drive-by greeting from his Rotary friends.
News of his illness traveled far. Students in Africa posted a video with well wishes on WhatsApp.
‘A selfless hero’
Cairns has won many awards from Rotary for his work. Recently, Rotarians surprised him during a meeting by Zoom by naming him Rotarian of the Decade.
“He was overwhelmed,” said Reynolds-Taylor. “He was just thrilled beyond belief,”
On July 11, Bob and Chris celebrated their 50th anniversary at their Manchester home. She wore her wedding gown, and they shared a toast. Just more than two weeks later, he died.
“Bob was a selfless hero who touched so many lives,” Nakedi said. “We have done so many proud things together, and I hope I’ll have the strength to instead focus and celebrate his life achievements rather than his passing. Rest in peace soldier, you already created battalions to continue the great work.”
In addition to his wife, Cairns is survived by his brother Richard and his sister Mary, as well as his children: Heidi and her husband, John; Eric and his wife, Mysie; and Ian and his wife, Michelle.
In his self-composed obituary, Cairns said his greatest retirement thrill was to spend family time with his five grandchildren, Ashley, John, Kailea, Bruce and Evan. He was also proud of his numerous nieces and nephews.
Cairns asked that anyone wishing to honor his memory donate to the Chris and Bob Cairns Scholarship fund to benefit children in East Africa, portorchardrotary.org/page/BobandChrisCairnsScholarship.
Chris Henry reports on education and community news for the Kitsap Sun. Reach her at (360) 792-9219 or [email protected] Support coverage of local news by signing up today for a digital subscription.