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Local News

Joliet composer, writer and painter was a good artist, a great man

Joliet Township High School graduate remembered in perpetual scholarship

JOLIET – Growing up, Marianne Miller of Algonquin said her older cousin, Robert Baher of Joliet, always was drawing and composing.

“I was about 10 when he had a song published – ‘I’d Rather Not Say,’ ” Marianne said and then sang some the lyrics, “I’d rather not say we’re through. I’d rather go on loving you.”

Robert wrote, painted, played classical piano, founded a local writers group that ran for many years and held season tickets to the Lyric Opera of Chicago, Marianne said.

“He took me there for my 18th birthday,” she said. “He had a row of four seats on the main floor.”

Robert’s sister, Jeannette Konkel of Texas said she, Robert and the rest of their siblings grew up singing opera for fun, with Robert playing the piano. Jeannette has copies of other songs Robert wrote and shared them with a friend who is a pianist.

“She played some of them for me,” Jeannette said. “They were good.”

Yet Robert never pursued a career in the arts. Instead, he worked his entire life at Joliet Pattern Works as its office manager, Marianne said.

Because Robert was a private person, few people outside his writers group – which he founded in the 1940s – ever read his work, Marianne said. At small gatherings of family and friends, Robert occasionally brought a play he’d written and assigned parts for everyone to read aloud, she said.

Kathleen Zwart of Florida, Robert’s niece, said even after Robert moved into Willow Falls Senior Living Community in Crest Hill and held his writers group meetings there, he continued composing plays and assigning parts to the members. He also hosted elaborate themed parties for the group.

“He loved being creative and entertaining,” Kathleen said, “and having people enjoy life the way he did. ... He was truly a kind person.”

Kathleen has boxes of his short stories – about 200, all composed on a typewriter – that she hopes to publish. Robert did self-publish a novel, “Castrato.” He also drew many cartoons in the style often seen in The New Yorker magazine, she said. From 1994 to 1997, Marianne said Robert assisted the late Joliet artist Lillian Brulc in painting 10 murals as a tribute to the Slovenian community in Joliet. The murals are behind St. Joseph Catholic Church, where Robert was a lifelong member, Marianne said.

“Robert was a very modest person,” Marianne said. “All he would ever say – he was very humble – is that he painted between the lines.”

The paintings evoke Robert’s heritage. Robert’s mother’s parents both immigrated to the United States from Slovenia in the 1880s. Marianne said Robert’s father is believed to have traveled from New York to Michigan on an orphan train when he was about 12 years old.

Robert never married or had children, so he poured his devotion into his extended family, especially with gift-giving. He sent out detailed questionnaires, requesting such information as favorite colors, jewelry and cologne.

“Who does that – send out questionnaires?” Kathleen said. “But he wanted to give things we loved.”

In 2001, Marianne gave Robert something he loved: She started a perpetual scholarship at Joliet Township High School – where Robert had graduated in 1939 – in Robert’s name. A comment Robert made one day gave Marianne the idea.

“He said to me one day while he was writing, ‘You have your children and your grandchildren so people will know you were here,’” Marianne said. “ ‘When I die, no one will know I was here. So I write my plays so people will remember.’ ”

Robert was 92 when he died April 21. Donations may be made in his memory to the Robert J. Baher Literary Scholarship, Joliet Township High School, Attention Karla Guesman, 300 Caterpillar Drive, Joliet, Illinois, 60436.

• To feature someone in “An Extraordinary Life,” contact Denise M. Baran-Unland at 815-280-4122 or dunland@shawmedia.com.

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