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Robert Hopper, R.I.P.

January 10, 2011

By David Bond, Editor


That's what Robert Hopper was all about. Rocks. He loved them. He was the quintessential miner. He saw a nobility in wresting wealth from the earth. Indeed, he held mining, as he held, of all things, scrap-dealing, as the two noblest activities the common man could engage in. You could create yourself by picking up something that nobody else wanted, and moving it to a place where it had value, and you could profit from your endeavours.

Robert, himself, he was a rock. A towering intellect with an insatiable curiosity about the nature of things, was Robert. Bob Hopper didn't just seek knowledge; he dined on it. I could learn more in a one-hour's lunch date about English Literature from Robert than I'd managed in four years studying it at university. But specialization, as Heinlein noted, is for insects, and Robert weren't no bug.

I also learned from Robert that a bullet-proof integrity is possible for a man to achieve, and that your principals, derived from your quest for knowledge, are worth your life.

Having spent part of a delightful Friday morning with two of Robert's sons, and his business partner, I can say with confidence that no-one in this assembly here truly knew the man. Not all of him. Robert was no diamond-in-the-rough; he was a fully-cut, fully-polished, multi-faceted diamond. Those of us lucky enough to have known him might, at best, caught a glimpse of one or two facets of this complex, generous, energetic, powerful man. A rock, indeed he was.

Mrs. Hopper? Joyce? How did you put up with Robert all those years? I can't imagine. An afternoon with Robert was enough to wear a person out. He could take your mind and send it spinning, challenging your assumptions about the essence of life! And that was just over lunch.

Writers like me find ourselves in a funk once in awhile. Hemingway had a term for it that, this being a church, I shall not repeat. But I called Robert and said, I was down in the dumps and didn't know quite how to crawl out of it. And his answer was: When you're down, work harder.

Robert literally saved my life, in quite the same way that I think the Bunker Hill mine saved his for the 19 years he was its steward. He gave me a sense of purpose, something that three decades in the newspaper business had sucked out of me.

It started with our first conversation, commencing at the mine office, then over lunch, and stretching across the afternoon till supper time, on a warm summer day in 1999. I'd come up to interview him about an incredible stunt he'd pulled. Robert wondered about all the propaganda being spewed by the EPA's public relations apparatchiks to the effect that mining activity here in the Silver Valley was responsible for lead levels in the Coeur d'Alene River's South Fork and its tributaries so high as to beggar the imagination. Egads, you could hardly go a day without reading some Karen Dorn Steele tripe in the Spokane newspaper about how “leaded” we all were, and how it was all the fault of mining.

So Robert had headed over to Idaho's oldest still-standing building, the Cataldo Mission, which was built fully a decade before any mineral extraction had taken place here. The Mission's walls were chinked with mud taken from the South Fork's river bottom. Bill Scudder, who was the Mission's director, took Hopper to the oldest of its sections, chinked with the original mud, whence he withdrew a few small samples, and sent them off to a couple of assay labs for double-blind testing. He and the labs used EPA-published protocol. And guess what? Turns out the South Fork's river bottom, a decade before mining in its drainage, ran about the same level of lead as it does today, after a century of mining.

How brilliant! How elegant! How simple! Yet it took a curious mind like Robert Hopper's to wonder about this thing.

Bob Hopper's revelation " and my subsequent story about it in the Pacific Northwest Inlander " landed with a resounding thud. My obvious question to the authorities was, why not verify his results? Test for yourselves. Nobody took that one up: The environmentalists and the regulators " the EPA juggernaut in short " were terrified that Robert was right. The mining industry, which by the late 1990s had lost the will to fight for itself, was afraid he might be wrong. They all would rather be, unlike Robert, Incurious.

Robert loved books. He inhaled them. He was a devotee of Mark Twain, and of the Greeks. There was not a philosopher, ancient or modern, he could not quote and interpret. No finer gift ever came from him than a book he had read and enjoyed, for you got to read the copious annotations he inscribed in the margins. These cryptic little notes gave yet another glimpse into his magnificent mind.

I remember a game we used to play: If you were headed for that proverbial desert island, the planet having gone pear-shaped and you were there on that island, alone for the duration, what books and what music would you take? And we both agreed that the New Testament, a library of Mark Twain and Voltaire, and Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and perhaps a bit of Tennyson and Arnold and a couple of the Greeks and the Christian Existentialists would get us through the reading part. As for tunes, Neil Diamond, Johnny Rivers and Patsy Kline, and maybe some Chopin. Another thing about Robert I bet you didn't know: he was a very fine piano-player, and he played by ear. I think that in another life, Robert might have been a poet. He was certainly mining's lyricist.

Do you remember a little book entitled, “I Heard the Owl Call My Name” by Margaret Craven? It was one of Bob's favourites, and I had the pleasure of reading his annotated copy of it on a plane ride over the Atlantic, and its sequel, also heavily annotated, on the return trip.

That was another little facet of Robert: he was a sentimental guy. My first Christmas back up in the Silver Valley, in 1999, looking to spend it all alone in a little crib on South Division Street and not feeling very good about it, Robert fetched up, unannounced, on the doorstep. “Nobody should go without Christmas,” he announced, and produced a little plastic Christmas tree, about three foot tall " and a beautiful Bunker Hill pyromorphite crystal. “Merry Christmas, David,” he said, then spun round on his heel and left.

We had, during that December of 1999, spent much time talking about the possible repercussions of the Y2K roll-over. And a week after he brought by the Christmas tree, a couple of days before New Year's Eve, he showed up again with a small package. “This is your Y2K survival kit,” it said. In it were a package of Rizzla rolling papers, a cigarette rolling machine, and a pouch of Tops tobacco.

A special weekly treat, until I moved up to Wallace and we grew just a tad distant, was every Thursday. That was the day that Bob Hopper, Lovon Fausett, Bill Calhoun and  Justin Rice held court at the Broken Wheel restaurant. I was privileged to join this meeting of the mining giants. Once a week, imagine that! And one Thursday, I was a bit late, but they had waited to order. Richard, the innkeeper came around with his order pad. “We'll have the Spam,” cheered Robert. The Spam came in a variety of forms: sandwich, with cheese, fried and just cold out of the can. And I was caught wondering, what are the EPA and the greenies having for lunch today? Are they dining as well as these captains of the mining industry?

Robert could take a body blow without flinching. I never knew until yesterday, though had long suspected, that he endured immense physical pain every moment of his life after the logging accident he nearly did not survive up in Alaska decades ago. Yet I only saw him break up once. It was also during a Christmas season a few years back, 2001, when our dear friend Lovon Fausett, who'd been laid flat by a stroke that Thanksgiving, was slipping his hook, at his home on King Street in Wallace. Robert and I were invited by the family to pay our respects. Lovon was resting quietly in a bed on the main floor, oxygen tent to the ready. We exchanged a few uncomfortable pleasantries. Then Lovon reached up and grabbed both of us and pulled us to him, and he said, in his terribly quiet voice, “I sure wish it was one of you in here instead of me.”

Robert and I both blubbered, all the way down King Street and all the way back to Kellogg. Then we talked about Alaska and of other first loves.

Robert also had a soft spot for critters. Early on in our friendship, were were walking along the track leading out of the K-T Tunnel with my black chow-chow dog Smoak, and he said, “The one thing this place is lacking is a mine dog. Every good mine should have a mine dog.” Robert loved Smoak, but I said, “Well, I said, you can't have mine. He's my only family.”

Not a week later, of a Saturday, two of the mangiest-looking, tired, rode-hard-and-put-away-wet dogs you ever saw appeared over the hillside and wandered on to the mine dump and introduced themselves as his new mine dogs. Strays, abandoned, abused, who knows? But there they were, and Robert immediately took them in. He named them Lucky and Cola. Lucky was everybody's friend, a big dog who would climb into your lap if you let her; Cola, a small black Spaniel, was the guard dog, quick with a snarl if you got to close to Laurel's space. Robert asked for one mine dog and he got two. Who says prayers from the humble, from the giving, aren't answered?

The most profound lesson Robert taught me was on that very first day we met, and one we would revisit many times over the years. Quote-unquote “Reform” of the 1872 Mining Law was, back in 1999 as it is now, a darling of the environmentalist religion. But repeal or reform of that law is not about taxes, royalties, or the health of the planet. It's not, unlike most governmental endeavours, even about money. The 1872 Mining Law, to paraphrase Robert, is about the divine right of the common man, you or me, to enter the King's Land and to profit from our endeavours there. It INVITES us to. No other nation on this Earth gives the common man such a right, and those who would repeal this right are not working for the people, they are working for the King. And the King is never far away, whether it's a little tiny man in short pants who is a lawyer for the EPA but claiming not to be, or a little tiny man in coveralls who welcomed Robert to Kellogg by cutting off Bunker Hill's water supply and ripping out the pipe.

Robert Hopper has left us with work to do. We must continue to stand, resolute, against the King and the usurpers of our right to wrest a living from the earth, regardless of whatever religion the King claims to represent. We must hold high in our hearts the nobility of the miner, and defend the miner's rights against all comers, for to attack a miner on the King's land is to attack all of us in our homes. I believe with all of my might that Robert's dream of returning the Bunker Hill to its rightful place as America's premiere mine can be realized. It can be done. It is up to us.

So now the owl has called Robert's name, and Robert has heard it and he has gone home. To a home, I am sure, where there is no more pain, and where the muck bays are full, the mill is running 98 percent, the bookshelf is stocked, there's plenty of Neil Diamond on the juke box, and there are no more fools, no more little tiny men, to suffer through. Robert, I am of the wealthiest folk on this planet, for I knew a little bit of one of your facets. Thank-you for being a rock, a true diamond. And thank-you, Robert Hopper, for being my friend.