Profile: Ann Arbor native Bob Tappe is Dexter’s Jack-Of-All-Trades and Steadfast Friend

By Melanie McIntyre

If you ask any of the downtown Dexter business owners if they know Bob Tappe, you see the smile before you hear the answer. “Sure, I know Bob!  He helped me with x, y and/or z at my shop,” said with a warm and grateful smile.

The Dexter Bakery, Whit’s End, Revive Dexter, Dexter Creamery (just to name a few) have all benefited from Bob’s jack-of-all-trades abilities. And Bob is always happy to help out a friend in need, especially a member of the Dexter community.

But after a life spent away from Michigan, retiring in Dexter wasn’t Bob’s plan.

Bob grew up in Ann Arbor, but would often bike to Dexter as a boy to eat his lunch by the Huron River.

“Dexter’s a lot like Ann Arbor was when I was growing up,” he said.  “Ann Arbor was always bigger, but still had that small-town flavor.”

His father was the manager of Huron Motor Sales Used Cars & Trucks on the corner of Liberty and Ashley, a small cinder-block building with two steel desks and a potbelly stove.  Bob remembers “hiding” in the back of his father’s car when he would leave for work (he admits his father probably knew he was there), and popping out from the back seat once they arrived at the car lot. He would roam downtown Ann Arbor while his father worked, spending time at the nearby hobby shop and getting a pop from the maze-like machine at the gas station.

After graduating from Easter Michigan University in 1966, Bob enlisted in the Army and served two years in Vietnam.  When the war ended, he came back to the states and worked as an auditor in the Army Recruiting Headquarters in Washington DC.  Upon his discharge in 1969, Bob planned to come back to Michigan, get a job and settle down in the Ann Arbor area.  The only problem was he didn’t know exactly what he wanted to do.

“Seminal points in your life seem to just come out of the blue,” says Bob. His case in point: when looking for jobs that might appeal to him, Bob came across a position in Washington DC.  Having spent the past year in DC and enjoying his time there, he decided to move back and work there permanently.

His brother, Ken, who was working in an Ann Arbor bank at the time, helped him by having his secretary type up Bob’s resume. When Bob went to pick up his resume, a man passed his brother’s desk and they were introduced. This man just so happened to be auditing the bank and upon learning that Bob was looking for a job, asked him if he would be interested in an auditing position in the DC area.

Bob, recognizing the serendipity, replied, “Sure!” and the next morning he packed his things and drove back down to DC.

The office in DC was a great place to work and he received tremendous training, but Bob was intimidated by his fellow employees who were Phi Beta Kappas with accounting degrees. “The last thing I wanted to do in my life was get in over my head,” said Bob, who expressed his nervousness to the partner of the firm, admitting he didn’t have the same amount of experience as the others.

“Then he told me something I’ll never forget,” Bob said.  “Yeah, we’ve got a lot of straight A students here, but we would take you over any of these guys,” the partner replied. “You’ve got world experience. You’ve been out in the world, you’ve been in the war, and you’ve got something these guys may never get.  Don’t worry about the technicalities of the business. You’re going to drop the ball, but there’s always going to be someone to pick it up for you.”

That made an impact on Bob, and he remained with the firm for two years.  However, working 11- or 12-hour days each week began to wear on him.  One night, after having worked through a Friday night and finishing at 6 a.m. Saturday morning – with the expectation that he needed to report in at 9 a.m. that same day – Bob had enough.  Before heading to bed, he wrote his boss a letter saying, “I’m out of here,” put it on his boss’s desk and went home to bed.

“I didn’t want to live that way,” Bob said, and told his boss the same later that day. Bob moved into a less time-consuming position, but after another several years of the white-collar world, decided it really didn’t suit him. He started doing accounting from home, setting his own hours and working for a much easier boss – himself.

But he was still unsettled with his career path.  Bob had always enjoyed working with his hands, and when one of his clients – a general contractor – approached him to fill an unexpected opening in his company, Bob considered his options.  The contractor was offering half his current hourly rate; was he willing to take a 50 percent pay cut?

Still mulling it over a week later, Bob was driving along the George Washington parkway, in his mind the most beautiful drive in the world, and thought to himself, “I’ve been asking myself the wrong question. The question isn’t am I going to take a 50 percent cut in pay; the question is, can I live on $12.50 an hour?”  And his answer was an unequivocal “yes.”

So Bob learned all he could about the construction business – plumbing, masonry, framing – to the point where he could do any type of renovation or even construct a building from the bottom up.  And for the next 18 years he did just that as an independent contractor, again working for himself, until he retired in late 2010.

Having spent the majority of his adult life in the Washington DC area, with only short trips home to visit family, Bob was unsure where he wanted to settle for his retirement.  He had always wanted to travel out west and desired to live the simple life, so he decided to get rid of all his possessions and hop a train out to Santa Fe, New Mexico.  He stopped at the local gas station on his way out of DC, threw his car keys on the owner’s desk and signed the title over then and there, shedding his final responsibility before moving on.

One last thing remained before his westward adventure.  Bob hadn’t been home to Michigan in almost eight years, and he wanted to spend some time with his family.  So, he took the train from DC to Ann Arbor and spent the next two weeks visiting, staying temporarily in a family member’s basement apartment in Dexter.

Those two weeks were spent with family, but Bob also walked the portion of the B2B trail being constructed between the Hudson Mills and Dexter-Huron Metroparks.  He crossed through the Dexter Mill property on his way from the trail construction to the Dexter Library, where he spent many hours reading.  He met and talked with many Dexter residents on his walks, making new friends along the way.  Friend #1 was Keri at the Dexter Mill, who helped Bob (who, after living in DC for so long, had no appropriate Michigan winter weather gear) pick out a warm coat for the winter.

The original plan of a two-week visit stretched into the spring of 2011, and by that time Bob had made so many friends and so enjoyed the small-town atmosphere that Santa Fe no longer beckoned. Dexter had become his home.

Bob moved into an apartment above The Riverview Café and began to learn more about the town and its community members.  One day as he was walking in downtown Dexter, he passed an open door where he saw a woman high on an 8-foot ladder changing a light bulb. He stopped to ask if she needed help and what the new business was going to be. The lady on the ladder was Cathy Swan, preparing for the opening of home store Nichols and Stafford (now part of 3birds).  Bob and Cathy crossed paths three more times that same day, chatting more each time – Friend #2.

From there, it was just a matter of time before Bob had met, befriended and helped in some way many of downtown Dexter’s business owners.  He has assisted Cathy, Laura Telesco and Laura Keefer of 3birds with jobs like hanging wall items and small store repairs.  He spent two years working weekends at Hackney Hardware.  He remodeled the Dexter Bakery’s cake decorating room and made the chalkboard and awning behind the bakery counter.

Whitney at Whit’s End knows she can call on Bob when she needs an electrical outlet wired behind a stylist’s stations. Perhaps you’ve noticed the beautiful wooden order slip boxes on the counter at Revive Dexter?  Yep, that’s Bob’s handiwork as well.

And two years ago, when the Dexter Creamery opened, it was Bob who helped owner, Chris Jones, by working seven days a week for the first six weeks of business.  On the one-year anniversary of the Dexter Creamery’s opening, Jones posted a heartfelt message on Facebook about Bob’s contributions:

“There is one very personal story in particular that I would like to share with you about a very special member of our community. This man quite literally saved opening day for us. One year ago, today, after working tirelessly for months, I walked into the Creamery on opening day to about 15 gallons of mix on the floor. We had just received our first delivery a day earlier, and all of our mix arrives frozen solid. I had set some mix out the night before to start thawing.  When I arrived, the vibrations from the machines, along with condensation, had allowed the mix to float and fall on the floor, creating a massive mess.

After cleaning up the mess and assessing the quantity of work that still needed to be done in the coming hours to open the doors, I was defeated. I was near tears behind the building when one of the staples of our community, Bob, asked what was going on. I explained to him the series of issues and the amount of stuff that was simply impossible to get done in the next couple hours, and that I did not think we would be able to open today. Bob looked at me and said “Chris, you are opening – are you crazy? Everyone is talking about you opening today, you simply have to open. Let me change my clothes.” Bob came back and together we tackled the mountain of work. He didn’t think twice – he just did what Bob does, which is step in and help where and when needed.

Bob continued to carry a tremendous load throughout the summer by cleaning and maintaining our machines, accepting deliveries and helping wherever needed.  I am not the only downtown business Bob has enabled to be successful, it quite literally is what Bob does. Although Bob doesn’t think much of what he did that day, I am forever grateful for him. Bob is just one example of the tremendous community that we live in.”

Jones’s words, “he didn’t think twice – he just did what Bob does, which is step in and help where and when needed,” could be said by any number of people in Dexter.  He is known and admired for his helpful, generous spirit and his willingness to lend a hand to a friend in need.  And it’s these friendships that changed Bob’s course almost 20 years ago.

Spending time with Bob over tea at Revive Dexter, learning his story, one can easily see why he decided to stay in this community instead of jumping on that Santa Fe-bound train. He describes the city of Dexter as a center of positive energy, viewing the changes made since his return to the area as “just marvelous.”

A quote written on Revive Dexter’s blackboard says, “What is done is done – move forward,” and Bob lives those words.  He is content at this stage of his life, happy to start each morning with a tea from Revive and to see where the day takes him.  Maybe he’ll run into an old friend for a long chat, or perhaps a stranger will cross his path and a new friendship will be born.  Whatever the day brings, Bob will be open to it.

In his words, “Maybe down the road, I’ll want to go somewhere else; but right now, this is where I belong.”