Bob’s mother, Alma Vass, had graduated from art school in San Francisco. She was an entrepreneur and owned a design shop with two other women in the city. She had been invited to study art in France. Bob says, “Fortunately for us, that’s right when she met my father, so that was the end of her art career and the beginning of a family.” It was not an easy choice, but one she thought about carefully.
Bob’s grandparents came from a well-to-do family in Lübeck, Germany. They moved to London in the mid-1800s. As tensions between the English and Germans grew, Bob’s grandparents were urged to go back to Germany, but they opted to stay in London instead. The family was extremely wealthy. They had become interested in gas lighting, put a significant amount of their money into it and lost their fortune. So, “disgraced,” they packed everything up, including the grand piano, and shipped it to Texas, then overland to California. Bob’s uncle had purchased land in Bakersfield, California, sight unseen. They lost two European manor houses and ended up in a tar paper shack. Bob’s uncle disappeared and his grandfather took one look at the place and folded; he died shortly after that. Bob’s father, Ernest, was now responsible for his mother, his two sisters and himself. Bob says, “In those days, in wealthier families, as soon as you were born you were given a silver spoon with your name engraved on it.” The highly educated wealthy class didn’t “work;” they managed their estates and businesses. For Ernest, however, when things got tough, you did anything you could to provide for your family.
In Bakersfield, they started a farm, raising strawberries and produce. They even planted an orchard. Unfortunately, the water they had been promised wasn’t always available. At one point, the little irrigation water they received simply ran into a hole in the sand. Their solution was to plug the hole by “planting” Bob’s Aunt Anna. That hole was so large that Anna stood in it and they shoveled sand around her. They added sand until Anna was covered up to her hips. With the area now covered with sand, the water was forced to the plants.
Eventually, they had to abandon the farm. The land was worthless. Although oil had been found in Bakersfield, none came from their property. The good news was that because of the land boom, they were able to get jobs at the land office in town. Then, an old acquaintance from Germany suggested they go to San Francisco where Ernest could get a job with Schwabacker-Frey, a large company selling stationery, photographic supplies and various printed items. Then came the earthquake of 1906. The business was destroyed, so Bob’s father worked during the clean-up and reconstruction.