A Jackson Hole original, Bob Dornan, died Sept. 2 at home in Moose, where he lived most of his life. His family provided the following.
Bob was the face of Dornan’s, a business his father, Jack Dornan, started in the 1920s. Bob seemed to know everyone in Teton County and from all over the state. During lunch Bob could always be found sitting with friends at his favorite front table in the bar, where he liked to greet people as they stopped by. He didn’t forget a name or a face, and he loved to shoot the breeze. If someone said, “Great to see you, Bob,” he would tilt back his cowboy hat and say, “Good to be seen!”
The eldest of seven children, Bob was born June 30, 1929, in San Diego, where his grandmother Evelyn Middleton Dornan wintered. The family remained in California only briefly while Jack managed a small car dealership.
When the Great Depression ended the market for luxury cars the family moved back to Jackson Hole. Bob attended county schools in Jackson Hole when possible. With only a few rancher children north of town he went to elementary school where he could. The winters were harsh, the snow was deep, and his parents, Jack and Ellen, did not always have a car. Now and again they hired a teacher for the “schoolhouse,” a log cabin on the ranch. For two years he and his sister Virginia went to school on Mormon Row in a horse-drawn covered sleigh with a potbelly stove to keep the children warm. It was exciting but dangerous. Had the wagon capsized the children might have been fatally burned.
As a kid Bob fished the Snake River with only one fly, drove a beater station wagon all over the valley (at the age of 12), herded and milked the family’s Jersey cows, and tended bar at the Dornan Beer Parlor.
Some of his fondest memories were of his dad reading books to the family every night after dinner. Out of those evenings Bob developed a passion for reading, stamp collecting and doing crossword puzzles. A great raconteur, Bob liked to call up the idyllic summer of 1941 with warm summer evenings and his lifelong friends Pete and Al Simpson. That summer Jack set the logs for Dornan’s current grocery store and deli. In the fall Japan bombed Pearl Harbor in December, and the world as he knew it changed.
Bob was in high school during the war effort in the ’40s while his father Jack worked for Morrison Knudsen as a purchasing agent for military contracts in Idaho — two years each in Boise and Pocatello. After school was out in 1946 the family moved back to Moose to eke out a living on the family homestead. Jack spent the summer scraping logs to prepare for the new store’s building.
Bob graduated from Jackson-Wilson High School in 1948. He attended the University of Wyoming, taking time out now and then to earn his tuition and return to school. He met Patricia Ann Smith, of Idaho Falls, in 1953. She was cleaning pots for the chuckwagon when he first noticed her. After a summer romance they were married in 1954. They raised two sons, Grant and Earle.
After graduating from the university in 1959, Bob went to work for Dow Chemical in California as an engineer in the chemical cleaning section of the missile support systems. He worked on the Atlas and Titan missile launching complexes in Washington, California, Colorado and New Mexico. He later transferred to Los Angeles to work in Dow’s division for chemical cleaning of boilers, storage tanks, pipe lines and other industrial equipment. Fed up with the Los Angeles smog and traffic congestion, he returned to Moose.
During the economic boom of the ’60s and ’70s, Bob helped his dad and brothers add retail shops, a bakery and a deli to the original bar, chuckwagon, gas station, cabins and grocery store. In those years Bob and Pat ski toured on the weekends and square-danced. From time to time they even hired a square dance caller for anyone in the valley who wanted to join them. Pat died quietly in her sleep in 2008 after 54 years of marriage.
Bob began to learn about wines from his father. Jack Dornan had foreseen the day when California wines would become popular, so he toured Napa Valley in the ’60s to develop a working relationship with California vintners. Bob went along on some of those trips and became an expert on California and French wines. He occasionally taught classes in wine tasting and helped organize the bimonthly wine tastings and dinners at Moose. He worked as a wine consultant to the end.
They say that a library’s worth of knowledge disappears with the loss of an old-timer. That must surely be said of Bob Dornan. He had an encyclopedic storehouse of information about those old days in the valley. He was old enough to remember his maternal grandparents, Joe and Fidelia Jones, who were also homesteaders in the valley. He could recall their grocery store on Town Square and their log cabin that is now part of the Kudar Motel.
Bob could also describe the boundaries of many old ranches at the north end of the valley, who owned them and what happened to each of them. He chronicled enormous changes up to the present from the hard-scrap times in the ’30s when he and his sister Virginia had to spend a winter with their grandmother Evelyn in San Diego because food and dudes in Moose were scarce. The Dornan beer parlor and skeleton dude ranch were not enough to provide for the family. They ate what they had: elk, bread and potatoes and little else. Cabbage was a luxury.
Bob had a lasting interest in the geology of Jackson Hole and attended geology field trips with David Love and talks with Bob Smith. He followed new discoveries in astronomy and meteorology. People would phone Moose for a weather report from Bob’s amateur weather station. He was also an expert fly-fisherman. As a local historian he served on the board at the Jackson Hole Historical Society and Museum and gave talks at the Historical Society, Teton County Library, the Rotary Club and the Murie Center.
Friends speak of Bob as a generous man in all sorts of ways. He gave of his time in the valley as a president of Rotary in the early ’70s and served as a member of the school board from 1972 to 1976. He mentored temporary employees at Dornan’s, nudging them to return to school, advising them to open their own businesses and giving them courage to follow their dreams.
He so hated stinginess that he freely entertained with rib roast dinners and fine wines. His huge birthday parties were legendary. On Bob’s 86th birthday Tom Mangelsen jokingly took pictures of beautiful women as they lined up to give Bob a kiss. Bob had a reserved table at the Hootenany on Monday nights for years till he and his friends discovered “Dancing with the Stars.”
Once Bob was a friend he was a friend forever. He remained loyal to former employees, to his family and to his staff. Even so, he wasn’t beyond bluntly saying what was on his mind.
He was an authentic storyteller and a straight shooter. He had his firm opinions and didn’t mind expressing them in salty language, and yet he kept friends on both the right and the left of national debates and he never carried a grudge because of politics. He might call a friend a “screwball,” then lift his cabernet in a toast. Few seemed to mind his curmudgeonly sense of humor.
After news of his illness was widely known, streams of visitors arrived daily to say goodbye. They came in from all over the West, including Alaska. The note on his front door characteristically read, “Don’t knock, just walk in,” signed “Bob.”
Bob is survived by his brothers John, Richard and David Dornan; his sisters-in-law Carol Mersereau, Nancy, Tricia and Reade; his son Grant and daughter-in-law Carolyn, son Earle, and his aunt Joan Dornan Katz. The Dornan’s legacy, now in its fifth generation, will be carried on by Bob’s grandchildren Chelsea and Zachary as well as myriad nephews, nieces, grandnieces and grandnephews.
In lieu of flowers, friends are asked to donate to Bob’s favorite charity, the Senior Center of Jackson Hole. A remembrance service is planned for late September.