Bob Ely: 1930-2023

We are sorry to announce that Susannah Boddie has passed away. The following obituary was provided by Bob’s good friend and fellow Trinity Hall alumnus.

Trinity Hall lost one of its most loyal, supportive and much-loved alumni when Robert Ely, known to us all as Bob, died on January 6th this year at the age of ninety-two. Urbane, warm-hearted, generous in every way, always excellent company, and a key figure for many years in the Trinity Hall Association, Bob in many ways epitomised Englishness and the geniality of Trinity Hall. Yet his early life contained a secret that many of us never knew, or not until late in his lifetime for he seldom spoke about it.

Bob could have been German. He was born in 1930 to a Bavarian father and an English/Irish mother. His father, with considerable foresight, insisted that he be born in England, but Bob then spent his first nine years as a happy and bilingual child in Bavaria. Hitler and the rise of the Nazis changed everything. Late in August 1939, the British Consul insisted that his mother should leave Germany immediately taking Bob with her. They had one hour in which to pack before catching the last train to cross into Belgium. En route they saw Nazis forcibly removing Jews from the carriages. Bob did not see his father again for ten years.

Arriving in England, his mother managed to enter him into a prep school at St Neots as a boarder. With his high intelligence and facility with languages, Bob progressed to public school at Radley, and thence to Trinity Hall where he read Russian. This was only made possible by receiving financial support throughout his education, the effect of which on Bob was seminal in the way that it informed his whole life.  He held British institutions in high regard and never forgot the generosity of others that had helped him so much on his way to adulthood.

After Cambridge, he joined the huge multinational organisation BAT Industries (British American Tobacco as it then was). He was to remain with them for forty years. Bob was extremely good with people, an excellent judge of character too, and his outlook was international; so it was natural that his role in BAT should have been on the personnel side and spread across the world. He lived in six countries, travelled to over one hundred, and saw service in Kenya, Trinidad, Nigeria and Chile, frequently negotiating with governments and unions. In several countries, he had to navigate through difficult and sometimes violent social uprisings. Bob’s friends began to wonder whether this was wholly coincidence? Perhaps not altogether in jest, they speculated that this graduate in Russian from Cambridge was in fact masquerading as a BAT executive whilst really working for some other secret organisation. No one will ever know.

Although short in stature, Bob had a magnetic presence when in company. People gravitated to him and he would engage with them all, sometimes at considerable length. His interest in people was inexhaustible. If he asked them where they were from (a question now almost taboo, and absurdly so) it was genuinely to make a connection and to build rapport, probably leading to a lengthy anecdote for he was a marvellous raconteur.

He was a member of the Trinity Hall Association Committee for many years and a frequent attendee at THA events where his ease with people was especially valuable. As a member of the MCC he was able on one occasion to facilitate a THA event in the Long Room at Lords, a privilege that we never forgot. His judgement was sound and incisive. He would put his private thoughts on paper, usually in long-hand and at some length, to the THA President about alumni who would make good committee members, maybe even a future President. For even greater discretion he would telephone, his suggestions being invariably wise and helpful. When his allotted span as a committee member came to an end he was made an Emeritus member of the THA committee on the understanding that whilst future contributions would always be welcome, he was under no obligation to do any more work. But of course, he did.

In retirement, Bob devoted himself to a wide range of charities and took great joy in helping others, always mindful that his own good fortune and other people’s generosity towards him had invested him with the responsibility to ‘give back’. He worked for the Centre for World Development Education and the Industry Council for Development, among others, and latterly was a Trustee of a charity that encouraged and supported Young Carers. The impetus for that no doubt derived from Bob’s own devoted care for his wife Shirley during her years of ill health that preceded her death; they were married for almost sixty years.

All those of us who knew Bob well held him in a special kind of affection. His epitaph is perfectly expressed in an Aboriginal proverb that he inscribed in the final page of his diary on the day he died:

“We are all visitors to this time, to this place. We are just passing through. Our purpose here is to observe, to learn, to grow, to love….and then to return home.”