‘Just put it behind you’: a retired professor’s survival and success
“Everything requires dedication and patience if you want to do it right. Now, if you don’t want to do it right, don’t start,” said Peter Rob.
His peppered gray hair reveals years of experience. Wire-rimmed glasses, a smoky-orange collared shirt, belted khaki pants, and black New Balance tennis shoes make up his his attire on a Saturday morning, the first day of autumn.
“Friend, mentor, database expert, aviator, author, professor and above all dedicated, caring teacher.” These words are inscribed on a plaque presented to Rob, now 72, after his retirement from MTSU in 2002.
“Thank You, Dr. Rob.”
The words of students are inscribed on a frame holding a photo of Rob—coffee cup in hand and in front a chalkboard. This was presented to Rob at his retirement party thrown by past students. Just before retiring, and after more than 20 years of teaching at MTSU, Rob received the Outstanding Teacher Award in 2001.
There’s more to Rob than just his years at MTSU though. He was in a Japanese prison camp, saw his mother beaten and mistreated, was away from family for extensive periods of time, witnessed horrendous acts of the communist Japanese, was shipped back and forth from the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia) and the Netherlands.
Peter Rob is Dutch, and came to America on a student visa in 1957 and attended the University of Florida where he was a part of Air Force ROTC. He got his Ph.D. at the University of Arkansas, was the director of an aviation company, flew airplanes, taught at UT Martin, and ended his career as a professor at MTSU.
Before his days in America, life was different.
Indonesia was the site of his formative years in a Japanese prison camp, just he and his mother. His dad had been sent to Suriname, because the Dutch government thought he was a threat to the country. This was later found to be false, so his father was undeservingly yanked from his family. It was 1943. Peter was three.
“I saw my mother beaten badly,” Rob said. “They broke her jaw, they broke all her teeth out of her mouth. She only had one lung for the rest of her life,” he said. “They broke all the bones in her feet.”
There was a slight silence—he was staring down at the wooden table.
“You know that’s tough… Even when you’re five years old, you know that.”
“My mother was just really mistreated—she was one hard, tough cookie. I could have easily gone down the wrong path, if my mother had not said, ‘They don’t know and they don’t care, and you’re gonna spend all your time being miserable, so just put it behind you,’” Rob said emphatically. “And so we all did.”
“They would be grab me, put my face between their knees and just about crush my head,” said Rob staring intently while motioning his hands together toward the sides of his head.
The women in the concentration camp did this so Peter wouldn’t hear the sound of his mother being beaten — the screams, the crushing of bones.
“I remember the pressure, I remember the smell, I remember how awful that was.”
When World War II ended, he and his mother were taken to a refugee camp, and shipped back to Holland in 1946. That same year, the Red Cross located his dad. By 1948, they went back to Indonesia to their rubber plantation, only to encounter the War of Liberation.
Rob pointed to a grainy black and white photograph. It was a woman and a young boy in a horse-drawn buggy. The small boy was difficult to see and the woman’s face was blurred—Peter and his mother.
“This was our ambulance,” he said.
His mother started a clinic, serving as a surgical nurse. Rob was her assistant, no older than 12.
“She didn’t take any nonsense from me. You know, I was loved, and I knew I was loved. But… I was part of the team and I learned to stitch wounds — I learned to do all kinds of things,” Rob said with certainty.
Even after disturbing experiences with the Japanese, Rob has managed to refrain from hostile feelings. “Now comes the wonderful end to the story. My son is an engineer at Nissan, a Japanese company. Now they’re our allies,” he said with such joy, his eyes beaming at the irony of it all.
During his teenage years, Rob was sent to boarding school in the Netherlands. It was the early 1950s, and Rob would go to the perimeter of the local air base to watch planes land and take off. He was mesmerized.
“I’ve always been an airplane nut,” he said.
The Dutch military police would sometimes catch him taking pictures of the planes, which was a punishable offense.
“They would put a knight stick to the back of your knees.” He raised his voice and eyebrows, “Don’t go there,” he said, eyes widened, almost chuckling at the memory of his boyish curiosity. “That is terrible stuff,” Rob said, grinning proudly.
The love affair with fighter jets truly began in 1954, when British Vampire jets caught the attention of the young teenage boy as the jets flew over the ship he was aboard. Rob went on to get various piloting certificates, ending with his Airline Transport Pilot’s license. He flew as a charter pilot for 16 years.
“My co-pilot and I, we’d sit there, the auto pilot would do the work, we’d have a piece of apple pie, cup of coffee, and we’d look at each other and we’d say, do you realize some idiot is paying us to do this?” He grinned.
Currently, Rob is building a life-size model of an F-100 fighter jet. It’s been six years so far, and he says it will take another year or two to complete.
The Netherlands is also the site of his first feelings of love for Anne, who would later become his wife. The couple celebrated 50 years of marriage in January.
Rob is a few years younger than Anne, so there was an age barrier during the early years. He reflected on seeing Anne in the Netherlands when he was 16 — his first sighting of her for some years.
It wasn’t until 1960 that the two reconnected in the U.S., marrying in January 1961.
“The best years have been the years that he’s been home,” said Anne. “I have enjoyed every minute of being together. If you can say that after 50 years, you’re ok,” she laughed.
Their son will be 46 years old this year. His name is Peter, too.
In the 1980s, during Rob’s earlier years at MTSU, a student from Ecuador needed a graduate assistant position, but could not speak English.
A professor, whose name Rob left anonymous, was upset he’d been assigned this graduate assistant because of the language barrier. Eventually Rob took him as his own. Rob would bring two brown bag lunches — one for himself and one for the assistant. The two would converse about database systems and statistics over lunch.
Rob was working on a database systems book. The assistant wanted to help, and eventually he became the co-author to the book with Rob. When the book was finally complete, Rob was sent to present it at a banquet in Dallas.
Peter Keen, who Rob referred to as “the international database application development guru” said, “‘This book is going to set trends, and it’s going to revolutionize how we approach databases,’” as quoted by Rob.
A professor from Southern California at the banquet said, “’No one here in this room will believe that a book like this was written at a university like that,” in reference to MTSU.
Rob said his response to the man was, “My mother taught me one valuable lesson: we are all ignorant, just in different areas.”
Rob has authored 27 books, including database system books used at MTSU and around the world. He is currently writing an autobiography.
Rob’s co-author and graduate assistant is now MTSU’s current director of the business computer lab, Carlos Coronel. As it turns out, that the boy from Ecuador who couldn’t speak English had a lot to offer.
After 10 years of retirement, Rob still comes to campus every Friday to meet Carlos for lunch, bringing along a brown-bag lunch for him, just like in the days they worked together.
“I bring him one sandwich with cheese, one sandwich with peanut butter, lots of butter, an apple, and a bag of cookies,” said Rob with a smile. “Same thing til the day I die.”
“We solve the worlds problems of course, over lunch,” he said sarcastically.