“Watch me,” he shouted to his friends on shore, “because I’m loaded up on pain medicine.”
Humor, love, work and the ocean helped him handle a bad prognosis.
“He never really gave up,” said his mother, Kathy Chambliss.
An all-around athlete who lived in Marina del Rey, Bob is the only sarcoma survivor who has ever paddled for the Ocean of Hope, the biggest fundraiser for the Sarcoma Alliance.
Bob had started martial-arts training when he was 7. As an adult, one of his sparring partners was Ron Roebuck. After Bob found the Alliance online, he saw that Ron participated in O2H to help sarcoma patients.
“Guess what? I’m one of the guys who has that,” Bob told him. Later, he told paddleboarders how rare sarcoma was. “Which is why I was shocked to find out that Ron Roebuck paddled for O2H. I never expected to … know someone who was connected to the Sarcoma Alliance.”
O2H started in 1999 with the Catalina Classic Paddleboard Marathon, which stretches from Catalina Island to Manhattan Beach in Los Angeles County. It has spread to other paddleboard and outrigger-canoe races across the country.
Bob joined the O2H beach crew at the 2004 Classic. In 2005, he registered for the race.
“He was paddler No. 9,” said his girlfriend Kate Hoffman, “and I still have his orange sticker in a frame in our living room.” The photo above shows them in the safety boat a day before the race. The photos below show him beginning the race in the predawn darkness and paddling as the day broke.
Paddlers solicit donations before races, and the Alliance’s newsletter reported: “By jumping onto his paddleboard, Bob raised more money than any paddler in the history of the Ocean of Hope.”
Bob didn’t finish the race – his crew pulled him out of the ocean because his right shoulder hurt so much. The pain must have been bad, said Kathy, remembering how he got a separated shoulder in a high-school football game but kept playing.
“It was so difficult for Bob to give up on any physical feat.”
Mark Schulein, then the O2H captain, said: “He started feeling ill for some weeks prior to the race and had an inkling that it might be the sarcoma. It was.”
In 2006, Bob brought ice cream to the volunteers on the beach. Despite chemotherapy and multiple surgeries, Bob came out again in 2007, helping on the beach and helping his niece, Ellie, surf.
“I didn’t even think I’d get him off the bed,” his mother said. “But Bob put on his fight-the-fight face. He was there, and died in two months.”
Robert Flake Chambliss III was 41.
“Bob will be remembered for his great love of music, his talent with the guitar, his love for surfing in the Pacific, his skill in preparing gourmet meals, his love and affection for family and friends, and his gentle good humor,” read his obituary.
Growing up in Tampa, Bob loved the water. When he and his older sister were little, Kathy took them to Clearwater Beach twice a day. He grew to love surfing, but he loved other sports as well, and played football for Plant High School. In 1989, he got a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from Vanderbilt University and continued with graduate studies at the University of South Florida.
In 1999, he began an on-again, off-again relationship with Kate, who described him as “a beloved son of Tampa.” Bob moved to Southern California in 1997 or ’98, she said, and she followed in 2002.
He became director of business integration for Anvil Steel Corp., supervising more than 50 shop employees. “He was my right hand man,” said Paul Schifino, older brother of his best friend John in Tampa.
In 2003, he felt a mass in his right thigh. A surgeon cut it out, but didn’t get clean margins. The doctor might have known to get wide margins, vital when removing sarcoma, if he had done prior diagnostic tests, Kathy said. The tumor turned out to be liposarcoma.
Bob came from a health-care family. Kathy is an advanced nurse practitioner at a Veterans Administration hospital in Jackson, Miss., and she attends its tumor board every week. His father, Flake Chambliss Jr., is a veterinarian in Tampa. His sister, Natalie Light, is an OB/GYN in Dallas and the mother of Ellie.
Here’s how Bob put it, posting as “Cham” in a paddling forum: “Dad’s a vet (I ate lots of dog pills growing up, and he sewed me up numerous times). Mom’s a nurse practitioner (with 2 masters — might as well be a doctor) and my older sister is a doctor.
“I found out that I had cancer on a Friday from my surgeon (who had no answers). That night I went to my girlfriend’s and started calling. My family’s collective response was ‘You’ve got WHAT?’ Given that during my entire life, I’d never had a medical condition that stumped them, I was scared s—less. They made some inquiries that night and the next morning, and the best that anyone could tell me was ‘get to a cancer center, and make sure that whoever treats you has seen a lot of them.’ Which is very important information, but hardly specific.
“That afternoon I finally got online and Googled ‘sarcoma.’ First few sites provided a bleak outlook, and no direction about what to do.”
“In the Sarcoma Alliance, though, I found a wealth of information, lucidity and hope … and for that I’ll always be grateful,” he said in the Alliance newsletter.
In the paddling forum, he explained: “Sarcoma Alliance also provides a forum where you are able to read about, or actually get in contact with, someone who has exactly what you have (and hopefully find out that after all of the assorted bulls— they had to endure, they’re still here.) This is a huge psychological advantage that I probably wouldn’t have had otherwise.”
“Bob, the philosophy major, was never satisfied with an answer — until he could explore the reasoning behind it,” his father said. “The Sarcoma Alliance allowed him to accept his condition and provided extensive academic and emotional support.”
In return, Bob helped others, as a member of the Alliance’s discussion board.
“When I was diagnosed with a dermatofibrosarcoma protuberans, the person who helped me wrap my mind around it the most was Bob Chambliss,” said Toni Messerer of San Diego, who was diagnosed in 2005.
“When I read his story, I felt like he was writing directly from my heart. Bob and I were around the same age at the time and had similar attitudes toward life and disease. So, reading his posts made a huge impact on me, and I thought here is a guy who really ‘gets it.’ This helped to take away some of my anxiety and helped me to laugh in the face of fear. We only sent messages to each other a few times before he got sick again, and I doubt he realized how his kind words helped me.”
“He was careful to allow those of us around him to be as hopeful as we needed to be,” Kate said. “As the hospice social worker said to me, ‘Where there is life, there’s hope.’ I have repeated that many times in the years since, in talking about our story.”
His family flew back and forth to help him. “One time his sister Natalie came in her scrubs and left in her scrubs,” his mother said. In April 2007, he got back together with Kate.
When he knew death was approaching, he discussed moving back to Tampa, where his father and friends lived, Paul said.
“But he also said that a lot of his friends had moved away, and that most of his current friends, including his wonderful girlfriend Kate, were in Los Angeles. He said that in Tampa all he would do is focus on his cancer and saying goodbye, and he didn’t want that.
“In our hearts, Bob and I are/were both Tampa boys. It’s hard to reconcile that with making a life somewhere else. He agonized over the decision.
“His work became a diversion from the depressions brought on by his fight with cancer.” Before he died, he said wistfully: “This sounds crazy, but here I am (meaning the end of his fight with cancer) and I finally found my place. I’m really good at what I do.”
His boss added: “Anyone who knew Bob understands how hard he had sought his entire life to find that place of self-worth and contentment.” Before he checked into the hospital for the last time, he went to Anvil Steel.
“He came in my door, pale as a ghost, and told me that he needed to catch me up on his various projects. I told him that I’d take care of things and he should just get to the hospital. He hesitated for a second, and in that hesitation, I realized that he had asked Kate to drive him 45 minutes to the office while he was in incredible pain because this conversation was that important. It was the culmination of his career, a sort of retirement in which he needed to validate his importance – perhaps to me, but I think more so to himself. He wanted to know that his tireless work ethic, his decision to stay in Los Angeles, mattered.
“I didn’t hear much of what this dying man who I loved so much said, but I let him talk.”
Later they sprinkled ashes in the ocean in a traditional Hawaiian ceremony. Ashes also were thrown from the Gandy Bridge, which connects Tampa to St. Petersburg, a route he had taken on his way to Gulf Coast beaches in his youth.
“‘You don’t cry in front of me.’ That was Bob’s rule. It was hard to hold it in for five years,” Kathy said. “After he died, I didn’t think I could feel anything ever again.”
Since then, his mother, sister and niece have attended at least three Catalina Classics. “It’s where you see people [the paddlers] fight just as hard as sarcoma patients,” said Kathy, who served on the Alliance board.
People who raise $3,000 can get their name or the name of a loved one on a paddleboard for the Catalina Classic. The photo at right shows Kathy with Mark Schulein, who has Bob’s name on his board. Those who wish to honor Bob can send donations to the Alliance for “Bob Chambliss/O2H.” But no one is counting anymore — his name and spirit will always make the crossing.