Bob Watkins was a long-time Taos resident, a gentleman, a scholar and one of the kindest and wisest people I ever met. He passed away yesterday.
When I returned to Taos to live here full-time at the end of 1990, my friend Robby Romero introduced me to Rhoda (Concha) Hopper and her then husband, Duane.
Duane is David (and his late brother Dennis) Hopper’s first cousin, and he came to Taos during the Hopper Heyday and decade-long party at the Mud Palace, which is where he met Rhoda.
Rhoda, a dancer with Sonny Spruce’s troupe, and her (late) sister Wanda were practically Pueblo royalty. The beautiful grand daughters of the legendary Little Joe Gomez, often cited as the “last Medicine Man at Taos Pueblo”, they were both swept up by the tide of change then rocking the planet, and like others who came of age in Taos, found their way to the Big House that Tony Luhan had built for Mabel Dodge.
One of the first people in Hopper’s close circle to befriend them was Bob Watkins, an actor friend of the Hopper brothers who had come to visit with Sandy, his girlfriend of many years and never left. David, Duane and Bob were ostensibly on the front lines of Dennis’ personal army. They were his “Guard”, his protectors and his left and right arms during that period when so many – friends and strangers – passed through the Mud Palace.
And an army they were. With a mini- arsenal to boot.
In 1991 Duane gave me a job at his gallery on the Plaza. Buffalo Dancer was one of the last true Trading Posts in Taos; where local artisans, Mountain Men, Indian jewelers, craftsmen and women from every Tribe, along with gun-runners and traders of dubious objects, would pass through on a daily basis. I worked for Duane for 5 years.
Bob was the gallery’s manager, who worked three or four days a week while also care- taking Hikojji, the Zendo in El Salto built by Kobun Chino Otagawa, his Zen Master, teacher and friend. Bob had been ordained by Kobun, and was a practising Zen Buddhist Monk.
A very mischievous Monk he was; a man’s man who loved women, who had the soft – spoken authority of a true scholar. There was nothing pretentious or inauthentic about Bob. He was also a classic autodidact, well read and highly literate, he could converse about anything from guns to History with a quiet confidence. Bob Watkins was the best of the best.
He took me under his wing once he discovered I was not just some wannabe newbie passing through, and showed me the ropes; taught me about Kachinas and fetishes and weavings, sand-casting and Harvey pieces, along with unspoken rules of the Hopper Clan’s road. Once he discovered my love of learning and literature, he passed on stories and books. Piles of them. He read voraciously – if the gallery was quiet, Bob had his nose buried in a book.
The books, like his life, took him on journeys into unknown and vastly different territories; he read everything, from cheesy spy thrillers to weighty, historical tomes.
Bob was not a snob. Literary or otherwise.
He knew, and was friends with people from all walks of life; Hollywood actors, authors, poets, activists, outlaws and millionaires, as well as down at the heel cowboys. All found a friend in this gracious and extraordinary man if they were honest and authentic. He did not abide fools or pretentious behaviour and could see right through a person in two minutes.
He was definitely a bit of a chauvinist and I’d tease him and Duane about their penchant for being slightly condescending to women. He called women “Sugar” and “Sweet Pea”, and gave nicknames to all the children who adored him. In the photograph above, my two girls, Dylan (Rhoda and Duane’s son) and Molly (Stephanie and T.Bone Burnett’s youngest) are in a love-in with Uncle Bob as was typical!
When Dylan was born, Rhoda suffered a terrible accident at the hands of an anaesthesiologist that left her in a coma and took years of therapy and healing to bring about her recovery. For a long time, the family feared her recovery would be limited and with permanent disability a real possibility, they probably wished they had invested in a disability insurance individual policy. However, the therapy and healing started to work and her sister Wanda and her then husband, Frank Valdez, built a small home next to the house Duane and Rhoda had built in the Canyon, to help care for Rhoda and her children, and for years after the Mud Palace was closed, the Canyon House became the defacto replacement for all of their old friends passing through Taos. Bob early on bonded with Dylan and was an enormous influence in his life.
Bob touched the lives of so many here in Taos; local resident and artist Jack Smith (in the shot above) and Michael McCormick were introduced to Taos by this truly remarkable man. The two men shared many mutual friends with Bob, some of whom he met through them, including the writer Dan Gerber. But they met many more through their association with him.
When Duane and Rhoda divorced several years ago, and Wanda left her husband Frank around the same time, the property was quiet and felt deserted. Dylan, still in high-school remained with his father and Frank carried on living in his house with Robin, his and Wanda’s son. Duane and Rhoda’s two daughters had already left home to start their own lives and families. I believe the splits were as amicable as possible, given how much of a hard decision it is and the massive impact it can have on families. I know many families who weren’t able to go through the process quite so smoothly and had to have serious help from a Family Law Attorney to get suitable arrangements put in place for them.
With Sandy gone to Hawaii, Bob bought a trailer and parked it on the bottom of the property. The Boy’s Club as I called it, was fully in effect.
From that moment on, the energy in the Canyon shifted and when Duane became deathly ill after an operation a few years ago, it was Dylan and Bob who cared for him. And it was certainly Bob who in his infinite wisdom, kept all of their spirits up through the darkest days.
After a fall earlier this year, his arm broken, Bob began to look and feel frail. Always very sprightly and energetic, the last time I saw him, at the Post Office with Dylan the day before the election, I really noticed the change in him. His eyes were as bright as ever but he seemed irritated by his body’s infirmity.
I tried to get Bob to talk to me for a post on taoStyle from the moment I started the blog, but he was not interested in being at the forefront of anything. His reticent nature prefered being behind the scenes. Always. Sorry Bobby, I’ve put you up front and center now!
He never returned to Hollywood where he had worked before coming to Taos, in fact, he never looked back. His eyes were always fixed on the horizon, on the light and stillness that awaited him at journey’s end.
Bon Voyage my friend, it was a privilege and an honor to know you.
All Photographs from Bob Watkins’ private collection
Group photograph with Warren Oates,Jack Smith, Dean Jones, Justin Fona, Harvey Phillips, Jennifer Oates, Lorca Hjortsberg, William Hjortsberg, Thomas McGuane, Bob Watkins and Max Hjortsberg. in Paradise Valley 1975.
Photograph of Bob with the children by (Neva Coloma) Nancy Neva Gagliano