By Anna Daniels
Last week, on November 28, Bob Dorn’s wife Deborah sent a brief email to the SDFP editors:
Very sad news….Bob had severe heart attack… basically cardiac arrest after a wonderful evening at a jam where he played with friends…..he passed today in a place he loved .Didn’t suffer at all….so sorry to tell you guys this way.
The news blindsided the SDFP editors who have been winding down our beloved publication, with all the emotions that engenders in each one of us. Bob’s death feels like a particularly incomprehensible blow, yet another grievous loss. We had imagined that our community would remain vital and connected after we ceased publishing, and then Deborah’s email informed us that our community had been diminished. Just like that.
Bob Dorn has been part of SDFP since its inception in 2012. He is known to readers not only for his articles with their laser focus on the machinations of the powerful, but for the trenchant comments he would leave on articles by other contributors. His praise for a well-turned sentence or compelling argument always felt to me like an honor conferred by the “better maker.”
Our contributor bio box for Bob provides a glimpse into the experiences that led him to the San Diego Free Press:
“Bob Dorn was an Evening Tribune staff writer and left the paper, becoming the local stringer for The New York Times and San Jose Mercury News and writing for The Reader and San Diego Magazine. He taught writing for some 12 years in UCSD’s Literature Department writing program. Bob received a Society of Professional Journalists, San Diego chapter, 2016 Journalism Award.”
Bob was a newspaper man and like the best journalists, he was a prodigious reader and a keen observer. His most recent articles were a three part series “My Reporter’s Life” describing his experience in the 70s at the now defunct San Diego Evening Tribune. He was one of twelve staffers who won the Pulitzer Prize there.
The first part of this series “Pain and Suffering at SDPD” not only sets the stage for the other two articles, but is also a distillation of what he came to know about the newspaper business and San Diego itself. The language is pure Dorn– direct, confident, earthy and punchy. His revelations and assessments are the stuff of the Sunshine Noir that exists right below the surface of the bland boosterism of San Diego politics.
It is easy to imagine Bob as a reporter in a San Diego noir crime novel. “Hard-boiled” or “cynical” are not apt descriptions, but Bob did not suffer fools or hold back his verbal punches. It is a testimony to his capacity for honesty and self-reflection that the topic of ego is addressed prominently and immediately in that first article.
Ego… is a great big part of reporting; it’s both a hindrance and a necessity. Some young cats will walk into a place they’ve never been before and act as if they own it and have the right to sniff the corners of the rug. That’s a necessity; you cannot fear asking an admiral the rank of the person who prepares his coffee and how much (s)he is paid….
Lots of young reporters will confuse their access to the high and mighty as evidence of their own prowess when their access to power is supplied by the news outlet they work for. If you want that admiral to cooperate you’d better not piss on his Persian carpet.
Egotism is not just a disease of the young.
Bob understood the way ego in combination with access to power could corrupt or undermine both a reporter’s and a newspaper’s responsibility to the citizenry. That understanding clearly figures in his decision to leave the Evening Tribune newsroom thirteen months shy of being fully vested.
Bob was only twenty-eight years old when the Trib hired him from a newspaper in rural northwest New Jersey. Eight and a half years later he realized “If I’d stayed on at the paper I might have gone fully crazy.”
When he left the Trib, Bob’s own ego and keenly honed interest in sniffing out how and where power is exerted in San Diego remained intact. That probably explains why he maintained such a long association with the San Diego Free Press. He could write about anything that interested him; Bob and the editors were capable of going to battle with each other from time to time in ways that didn’t undermine our collective commitment or affection for each other; SDFP totally rejected the model of access journalism; and most of all, Bob felt that our presence could make a difference.
Music… An Island… Final Strains of Music on an Island
Bob’s interests were diverse and he had a tremendous brio for seizing and participating in life’s offerings. Music was at the top of the list. Bob played the trumpet. He loved the trumpet. He practiced in Balboa Park, jammed at Voz Alta when it was the Latin Jazz hot spot and then followed Latin Jazz icon Bill Caballero to other venues when Voz Alta closed its doors.
Bob wrote three lively articles that revolved around what he described as “living publicly with the trumpet”. He took up the trumpet sometime in the late 90s and knew exactly what taking up the trumpet involved.
It’s a six-foot-long metal tube about one-half an inch in diameter which is interrupted by three cylinders – valves – that can be opened and shut by the fingers in seven different combinations that alter the distance air travels through the tube in degrees precise enough to change the tones the tube produces. Lip tension can raise/lower those tones but most – not all – the notes produced by altering the lip tension require a change in the fingering.
That’s all there is to it. Like teeth are all there is to a shark.
Playing well, Bob understood, was quite another thing. Hence his commitment to practicing ninety minutes every day. He also understood that practicing ninety minutes a day in his condo did not make good neighbors, so he would take his trumpet, his “unforgiving sidekick” to Balboa Park.
I’m usually in remote parts at the fringe of the park, pointing the bell toward a freeway or canyon, at the squirrels. For sure I’m not showing off because I only practice the stuff that gives me trouble, and therefore sound bad doing.
These three articles convey some of the technical aspects of playing the trumpet, an abbreviated list of his favorite pieces of music and musicians, random interactions with the people who stopped by to listen, engage with him– or try to get him to go away, and some wonderful philosophical musings. He refers to neuro-scientist and musician Daniel Levitin, writing “music has the ability to integrate us by bringing us back to some ancient understanding. ‘It’s something like the brain and the soul trying to talk to each other.’”
They are the full-on Dorn—smart, funny, and reflective of his ability to maintain his “big dog status in in a small space” if necessary, but more often inclined to listen with genuine interest and humanity to the many marginalized souls who crossed his path.
Bill Caballero dedicated the latest Latino Jazz Weekly to Deb and Bob.
Tonight’s jam is dedicated to a grizzly old guy that would come and sit in with his trumpet in tow. Missed the cues, played over other people’s solos, and pretty much didn’t know the songs, and I am going to miss him and our conversations over coffee so very much. Say hello to Gabriel for me Bob Dorn.
Bob’s devotion to music was hardly his only interest. He and Deb also traveled. He mentions some of those travels in his article “Some Things Cannot be Improved Upon”.
My wife and I went on bike trips through France lasting as long as three weeks with panniers loaded with clothes and tools and racks with tent and sleeping bags. Even when the bike broke down in France the next village was never more than 5 kms. away, a bike shop there just seeming to have waited for you to show up. The only reason we had maps was to identify where the nearest canal bank was (they have paths and they depend on a basically flat, easily rideable terrain); also to see how far away a river, a croissant, a coffee or a beer might be. Bonne Route!
Listening to tales of those journeys while sipping coffee at Café Calabria with them both was a rollicking good time. At the end of a day of pedaling here and there, they would often search for a farm to bed down for the night. On one occasion the farmer warned them off their chosen spot with “The sheep are coming!”
Their peripatetic approach to travel eventually changed to a settling in on the Spanish island of Mallorca. They lived off and on over a period of years in a very small village of twelve hundred people in the village of Sant Joan. Over time it became not only a respite and change of pace from life in San Diego, it offered deepening friendships and a growing sense of familiarity. Deborah describes this special place “where we were warmly embraced by the community and where we have very dear friends who are very proud of their town!” Bob loved the place.
It was there in Mallorca that Bob passed away.
Bob Dorn died on the island he loved, playing music he loved, with the woman he loved at his side.
We were looking forward to Bob’s return to San Diego. Editor Frank Gormlie was ready to invite Bob to an evening of poker. I was looking forward to meeting with Bob and Deborah at Café Calabria. And Bob had emailed us from Sant Joan that he was working on another three part article to send us.
We are still struggling to square our anticipation with our deep feeling of loss. Maintaining Bob’s body of work on the SDFP site has taken on even greater significance for us.
We send our love and condolences to Deborah.
Bob Dorn—Rest in Power
Correction: The article originally stated that Bob and Deborah lived in Palma, Mallorca. They lived in Sant Joan. The text has been corrected to reflect that.
The complete archive of Bob Dorn’s work available here.