He was a warrior but also kind, intellectual and soft-spoken. That's how friends and family described retired Air Force Lt. Col. Robb Hoover of Bellevue, who died Monday from heart failure at 77.
“To meet Robb, he'd almost give you the idea that he was a rumpled professor,” said longtime friend and fellow Air Force retiree Max R. Moore of Bellevue. “He was a listener. He was interested in what other people thought.”
As a Cold War electronic warfare officer, Hoover flew reconnaissance missions in the Soviet Arctic and on the periphery of North Korea and China. He also flew sorties during the Vietnam War.
A recipient of the Distinguished Flying Cross and numerous other awards, he served in Japan, Okinawa and England and at bases in the U.S. As a senior intelligence analyst at Strategic Air Command headquarters at Offutt Air Force Base, he designed and flew as an observer on recon missions that enhanced the U.S. understanding of Soviet air defenses.
Hoover retired at Offutt Air Force Base in 1981 and then worked 20 years as an analyst for a defense contractor.
He served as historian for the Air Force's 55th Wing and organized many symposiums and events, including “Tales of the 55th.” He was interviewed by the History Channel and on C-SPAN and was a source for author William E. Burrows for his book about the men who flew secret reconnaissance missions, “By Any Means Necessary.”
Hoover was inducted last year into the 55th Wing Hall of Fame. Hoover Auditorium at Maxwell AFB is named for him, as is the Hoover Lounge at Offutt.
He loved the legacy of the Strategic Air Command and attended its post-Cold War stand-down ceremony at Offutt in 1992. He lamented SAC's coming to an end.
“That was such an emotional event,” he told me in July. “SAC was this magnificent military instrument that had done so much and was so strong, revered and powerful — and to think that it was being abolished.”
Robb Hoover got to know lots of reporters over the years. I called him last week because of a column I was writing about the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis.
He was helpful, as always. But I later learned from his family that when I reached him at home, he was preparing to leave for the hospital, having not felt well the past couple of weeks. Still, he took my call.
“Robb was always out to help other people,” said his wife of 50 years, Shirley. “He was always doing things with the Air Force. He loved his family first, then the Air Force and the Green Bay Packers.”
He grew up in Green Bay and met fellow Wisconsin resident Shirley, a nurse. They have two adult children in the Omaha area, Grant Hoover, a former Marine helicopter pilot, and Lisa Curtis, an occupational therapist. Also, three grandchildren.
Robb underwent heart bypass surgeries in 1986 and 1995 and lived with a pacemaker and defibrillator. After a 50th anniversary trip to Cancun this summer, Shirley said, he began not feeling well.
He stayed active in the months since then, but his heart gave out at a hospital at 4:30 a.m. Monday. A visitation is set for 6 to 8 p.m. Thursday at Anderson Grove Presbyterian Church, 12005 S. 36th St., with a funeral service 3 p.m. Friday at the Capehart Chapel at Offutt.
Thomas Gouttierre, director of the Center for Afghanistan Studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, knew Hoover for decades through the Omaha World Affairs Council.
“Robb was so positive, his face full of enthusiasm,” Gouttierre said. “He was a generous, spirited guy with a penetrating interest in ideas that related to global affairs.”
My last image of Robb was from a few weeks ago. When I mentioned the SAC legacy to an audience of retired military officers and spouses, he smiled and tapped his heart.
His heart finally gave out, but his love for the Air Force, the 55th Wing and SAC will be remembered.