Humor, laughter defined Bob Shaw’s ‘performing art’

He didn’t look right, of course. The deceased seldom do. And it wasn’t merely because the man lying in the coffin was there, as so many are, before we thought it was his time. Yes, Robert Shaw, former mayor of the city of Manchester, seemed youthful at 70, active and energetic, when he was killed suddenly in an auto accident, leaving family and friends with no time to prepare for the grief that would, in varying degrees, overwhelm them. But what was missing most at Bob Shaw’s wake was that infectious grin, that wry sense of humor, the heartfelt laugh that seemed as much a part of his existence as the very air that he breathed.

I first became aware of Bob and his comedic skills when I was a reporter/columnist for the now defunct Manchester Journal. Twenty years ago, in his first year as mayor, I dropped in on his 50th birthday party at the Center of New Hampshire. There I found the new mayor talking with a small group of city officials that included Ted MacLeod, then the city’s public works director. I heard MacLeod mention that as a landlord, he had made his apartments handicapped-accessible, though he had no handicapped tenants.

Shaw never missed a beat. “I’ve got 12 aldermen I could send you,” he quipped. As everyone was laughing, Shaw noticed me standing there. “Is that for publication?” he asked. I decided it was.

The mayor was in the process of adjourning the next meeting of the board of mayor and aldermen when one of the members made a half-hearted effort at demanding to know just what his honor meant by calling them all handicapped. The meeting ended in a roomful of laughter.

Shaw seemed to thrive on controversy, and he enjoyed both real and imagined conflicts with the press. In a letter to the editor, he once called my writing “tripe.” (I think it was something I wrote about a certain Mayor Shaw.) Privately, he once observed that if an elevator were to fall on a certain editor at The Union Leader, “I wouldn’t even push the ‘Up’ button.”

I am no stranger to invective, but there were times when Shaw would almost take my breath away with the fervor of his condemnations. “How can you even say such a thing?” I asked him once when he had expressed a wish for an unspeakably horrid ending for one of his journalistic tormentors. He looked at me with those clear blue eyes and said most matter-of-factly: “Because I’m an evil person.”

That was the other side of Bob’s performing art. When he wasn’t being a comedian, he imagined himself of kindred spirit with the villains in that classic of old-time radio, “The Shadow.” As he would often ask, with an impish grin that suggested a middle-aged Dennis the Menace, “Who knows what evil lurks in the mind of Shaw?”

He was a huge fan of the great Jack Benny, whose legendary “cheapness” he loved to mimic. I remember well sitting in his office the day after he won re-election as mayor in 1985, when our interview was interrupted by a congratulatory phone call from then-Vice President George Bush.

“Yes, certainly,” the mayor said when the voice on the phone asked if he would please hold for the vice president. A few minutes later, a different voice asked the same question. “Yes,” he said, before grumbling about the cost. “Two secretaries!” he groused. “Who’s paying for this call?”

Years later, we had just finished doing a radio talk show together when I mentioned that I had seen a game at the Boston Garden the previous evening. His jaw dropped and his eyes widened when he learned the price of the ticket. “You paid $35 to watch the Celtics?” he said. “I would have let you watch them on my big-screen TV for $10!”

Now, as his wife Lorraine reminded me at the wake, he is watching all of us and watching over the city he loves on an incredibly large screen. And for free yet!

You’ve got to believe he’s happy.

New Hampshire Business Review staff writer Jack Kenny co-hosted a Manchester radio program with the late Bob Shaw from 1991 to 1993 and served as Shaw’s press secretary in his 1988 run for the Republican gubernatorial nomination.

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