To the Editor: Last week, my former colleagues in the EKU History Department informed me of the death of Dr. Robert Topmiller. Bob had taught at Eastern for nearly a decade and was an inspiring individual for those who came to know him. Bob had entered into academia after a full life as a businessman, a husband, a father, and a political activist. One of his early formative experiences was his service as a U.S. Marine medic during the worst days of the Vietnam War.
I first met Bob in the fall of 2000, just as I was beginning my teaching career, and I maintained contact with him over the years, well after I had left Eastern Kentucky.
For me, this interaction was a tremendous experience and one for which I will always be grateful. Bob approached his work with such discipline and energy and quickly transformed himself into a distinguished scholar.
More importantly, he pursued his goals with obvious joy and in a manner that enriched those around him.
Bob was constantly traveling to Asia to conduct his research and produce his publications, which include an impressive study of the Buddhist peace movement and its impact on the U.S. intervention in Vietnam. As confirmation of the book’s importance, Vietnamese entrepreneurs quickly had it translated and sold it illegally throughout their country.
In his office on the third floor of the Keith Building, Bob proudly displayed one of these pirated copies.
Bob Topmiller had an open and generous spirit. At mid-life, he threw himself into unfamiliar contexts.
He learned new languages and explored new places, always returning home to rouse us with his insights and his enthusiastic and sometimes hilarious stories.
It is important to note that none of this transformed him into a self-centered or narrowly-focused expert. Securing a corner of U.S. diplomatic history was never one of Bob’s chief concerns. Instead, he was focused on contributing to his community and broadening his own understanding of humanity.
I was particularly impressed with Bob’s volunteer work, his willingness to share his knowledge with innumerable groups, and his deep concern for his fellow veterans and for the people of Vietnam.
It is difficult to see Bob’s death as anything but a tragedy. He leaves behind unfinished projects, his family and friends, and many saddened hearts. Over the last days, I’ve felt a great sense of sorrow, but also an enormous feeling of privilege for having spent time with this extraordinary person.
Bob Topmiller was an exceptional man, and I am certain that there are others, like myself, who will draw meaningful lessons from his life.
Associate Professor of History TCU Fort Worth, Texas