A few weeks ago, the Adirondacks and North Country lost a native who led a unique life, a man who three years ago added “author” to his resume. Robert “Bob” Manning of Massena passed away on September 28 at the age of 81. My personal connection with him is a strange one indeed. We met back in 1966, but I hadn’t been in touch with him since 1969, so you might suppose that our phone conversation in 2014, when we became reacquainted, might have been a bit awkward.
It sure could have been, but not for the reason you might be thinking — that 45 years had passed. No, that wasn’t an issue at all, but these next few lines should help explain my use of the word “strange.” When I knew him back in the 1960s, he was a Catholic priest and one of my schoolteachers (nothing odd about that). He called in 2014 to ask if he and his wife could come and visit me (and there it is!).
A guy I had only known as “Father,” or “Father Manning,” was married?! There was no way I could hold back the obvious questions, but first things first. He called to see if we might produce his book (a self-publishing project, which is our company’s forte), and we agreed. During subsequent conversations on the phone and in person, we shared each other’s life story. I couldn’t wait to ask him how such a devout, dedicated priest came to be married, but it wasn’t at all the sordid story one might expect.
After teaching at our school for three years, he had served at Massena and Malone before receiving permission from the bishop in 1972 to join the navy. Twenty years later, he retired from the military and taught at Wadhams Hall College for three years. Then, in 1996, after 34 years as a priest, he sought and received dispensation from the Pope, allowing him to leave the priesthood but remain in good standing with the church — and to marry. He then wed Mary Rainville, a union that lasted 21 years, until his recent death. When we visited their home in Massena a few years ago, she was every bit as lovely and gracious as Bob had described. They made a great couple.
But there’s much more to his story, which is best told in the book he authored. The briefest outline reveals that he was born in Tupper Lake and enjoyed the very physical side of life — hunting, fishing, chopping wood, and joining the high school track and football teams. For years he ran three miles a day to keep in shape. As a longtime member of the Boy Scouts, he became an Eagle Scout.
Before he was ten years old (and just as I did in my youth), Bob developed a fascination for impressive athletic accomplishments, especially the two defining achievements recognized worldwide for decades: climbing Mount Everest and swimming the English Channel. Either feat guaranteed recognition and respect around the globe.
As an adult in the military, Bob took advantage of opportunities placed before him, including the chance to train as a distance swimmer. He worked hard at it, with the thought that just maybe he could someday tackle the channel swim, a brutal challenge with daunting obstacles — strong and changing currents, extreme weather, cold water, and mental exhaustion — that had to be overcome.
He made a number of valued contacts during his quest, including Gary Conelly of the Mark Spitz Olympic swimming team, and the legendary Jon Erikson. Bob began swimming four hours a day, and took on many training challenges, including an 18-mile swim on Big Tupper Lake and one of eight hours on nearby Little Wolf Pond.
I’d say, “Spoiler Alert!” at this point, but even knowing that he eventually succeeded doesn’t ruin the story, which is compelling. You might not have known it from seeing or meeting him, but Bob possessed drive, determination, and grit well beyond the norm for most folks. His small book (just 104 pages between the covers) is titled, Up Close and Personal: A Sailor Swims the English Channel. As always, the accomplishment is key, but the story is in the journey.
It’s sad that he’s now gone, but I’m pleased that we came to know each other again and that we worked closely together on his book, a process that gave him such pleasure. A tip of the hat here to Neal Burdick, a great editor who worked on Bob’s text and eventually sent him our way, which brought us together. I could never have imagined a schoolboy and his priest/teacher reuniting a half century later to produce a book, but I’m sure glad it happened.
Photos: Robert J. “Bob” Manning, a few days after swimming the English Channel (1984); the Pope blesses Bob’s photo (1985); Bob’s favorite photo with his wife, Mary
A version of this story first appeared on the Adirondack Almanack.