Above: Bob Houghtaling at a mental health forum at Swift Community Center in 2022. Photo by Joe Morel
An informal gathering at Swift Community Center Sunday afternoon (12/10/23) welcomed a tiny swath of the people who have benefited from knowing Bob Houghtaling over the years. He died very suddenly Friday, Dec. 8, from sepsis. For decades, when East Greenwich faced such losses, it was Bob who organized these events. Now the town had to hold one to mourn him. The gathering embodied the essence of his work, down to the boxes of pizza on a table, with people young and old and in between hugging, talking, remembering, connecting.
Bob was all about connecting.
He was an inveterate talker. There were no quick conversations. And texting – no, he was not a texter. The man wanted to hear your voice or, better yet, see you when he talked to you. Even his voicemails were conversations (albeit one sided). They all started the same way: “It’s just Bob Houghtaling, no big deal, just checking in.… “ and then they might go on for two minutes.
He was a morning regular at Felicia’s, holding “meetings” there. At the high school, he would often be in the front near the cafeteria, able to put eyes on various students who could use a friendly face and a greeting in the hall on their way to their next class.
Bob helped initiate dozens of groups at the high school over the years, often with inscrutable acronyms, like today’s ASAPP (Assess, seek Support, take Action, Proceed, develop Prevention techniques) or, harkening back a few decades, SODA (Students Opposed to Drugs and Alcohol). As he would admit from time to time, they were all the same group, or at least designed to serve the same purpose – to bring people together in a positive way.
He started work in East Greenwich in 1983, after the tragic death of Todd Morsilli,13, at the hands of an EG teenager who had been day drinking. A lover of basketball, initially he coached the Cole Girls Basketball team for a couple years and ran a summer rec basketball program for boys at the Eldredge courts as a way to connect – that word again –with youths.
He worked hand-in-hand with EGPD juvenile officer Tom Joyce for many years, having an office of sorts at the police department. He and Tom remained strong friends for the rest of Tom’s life, Bob almost like a younger brother.
Eventually, Bob became more involved in the social and emotional needs of the students and adults he worked with, founding a philosophy club at the high school more than 20 years ago, then five years ago founding one for seniors at Swift Community Center. A couple times a year, the two groups have met up and, of course, talked philosophy.
Bob’s strong connection with the national Youth-to-Youth organization lasted for decades and he helped organize yearly conventions. He was a big reader – on the Academy Foundation Facebook page Nov. 29 (Bob founded the nonprofit organization), he wrote about reading Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning “for the 4th or 5th time” – and an even bigger writer, emailing out essays and poems on everything from making good choices as well as the occasional mistake to leaving room for people who think differently.
Bob was an employee of the town, not the school department, despite his strong affiliation with the schools, lasting through a number of Town Councils and five town managers. Bill Sequino worked with Bob Houghtaling the longest, serving as town manager from 1988 to 2013.
“He survived so long because he didn’t listen to me or the council,” Sequino said Sunday of Bob. “He wound up pushing people to do the right thing. He didn’t jump out in front, but he was effective.”
The biggest push during the Sequino era was when Bob decided East Greenwich should ban cigarette smoking in public places in the late 1990s. No one wanted to hear that message back then, least of all restaurant owners. Still, Sequino recalled, Bob got him to hold a meeting with those owners. Eventually the Town Council approved a ban in 2000, the first such municipal ban in the state. Five years later, the state followed suit.
Sequino said Bob left the town briefly a couple of times to take other positions, but “he always came back home.”
Bob was friendly to everyone but wasn’t shy about his message that teenage drinking – and parent enablers – was a serious issue. It sometimes rubbed people the wrong way. In later years, vaping and the use of certain prescription drugs also concerned him. He was a one-man force for good, bringing together parents and other adults in groups like Citizens Who Care and the more recent Bridges to educate them and enlist them as advocates for his programs.
The roughest years for Bob came in 2017-18, when he fell out of favor with town officials, including then-Town Manager Gayle Corrigan, for his unorthodox methods (meeting clients at Felicia’s, say, or failing to keep regular office hours). But he managed to hold on and found a much more receptive administration with the hiring of Town Manager Andy Nota in 2019. The arrival of Covid just a few months later showcased Bob’s talents in a whole new way, with the support of the town fully behind him.
Suddenly, Bob was in videos talking with Nota, Town Council President Mark Schwager, elementary school kids, high schoolers, fellow mental health professionals, all sorts of people, talking all of us through Covid. While Covid introduced the term “social distancing,” Bob was determined to keep up personal connections. He started doing walking counseling sessions and then organized occasional morning walks around the Hill neighborhood that brought together people of all ages. Students working with Bob organized the first ever Pride Day in East Greenwich in 2021; the third annual event is already in the planning stages.
The Teen Center also endured during Covid, meeting outdoors even on cold winter nights. Pizza, boxes and boxes of pizza, was a mainstay of the Friday evening gatherings but that pizza was never so welcome as on those chilly evenings. Heartbreakingly, a 40th anniversary celebration-reunion of the Teen Center had been set for Friday night; it has been postponed.
The comments received on EG News and the EG News Facebook page speak to Bob’s enormous influence and the task ahead. As Heather Larkin put it Saturday, “It feels like EG fell off its axis a little today. Hard to imagine this town without him.”
Yet, if Bob’s impact means anything, it’s up to us to carry on his work.
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