Editor’s note: Doug originally circulated this warm and caring tribute via email shortly after Bob’s death. We are reproducing it here together with a photo gallery, the family obituary, and other tributes.
Here are Doug’s words:
Robert Cricenti, Malaysia XIX
There are some people who just by their presence bring light and laughter to any gathering. Bob Cricenti was one of those special people. He didn’t try to do anything special. He just exuded a joy in living and brought that spirit to everyone and everything he came in contact with.
I first met Bob on “move-in” day in early September 1964 in Williamstown, MA. He lived two floors above me in a group of about 20 freshman in Williams C. We played freshman soccer together, but what I remember most about that first semester was calculus. The first hour test arrived in mid-October. I will never forgive Bob for laying down his pencil and exiting after 15 minutes while I struggled mightily. He got an A+ (100%). And he did the same thing on the next hour test and the final. Of course, he ended up as a math major, although he did admit later that a senior math course, topology or something, finally gave him some trouble.
Our last semester in 1968 was a nightmare with the Tet offensive, Viet Nam war protests, the King and Kennedy assassinations, racial tensions, and the social fabric of the nation at risk of rending completely. Independently, Bob and I both applied for the Peace Corps, and early July found us on the same plane bound for Hilo, HI, and assigned to the same Malaysian Fisheries program training site in Waiakea Uka. Besides the 8 Fisheries volunteers there were 3 Forestry volunteers and about 20 Agricultural volunteers – all males and all quartered in a repurposed school. We all slept in one room. The language training was intense – 2 hours in the morning and another 2 hours in the afternoon – and what I remember the most was that after about a week one guy started mumbling “Apa Khabar” in his sleep and another guy across the room dutifully answered in his sleep, “Khabar baih”. By late September we were on a plane to Malaysia.
Bob was assigned to the fishing village on Pulau Ketam (Crab Island) near Port Swettenham while I ended up farther north in Kuala Kedah. Our job was to earn the trust of the fishing boat owners (mostly Chinese towkays) so as enable us to collect cost and earnings data on trawl fishing. The object was to determine the optimal size of trawl boats and therefore provide guidance to the Malaysian government in targeting their loan program to fishermen. After about 20 months we pooled the 12 months of data from the seven fishing villages, and Bob used his computer skills to write a computer program that analyzed the data, and we generated a report that fulfilled the mission. We never knew what the Malaysian government did with our report, but one of the geography profs at U of Malaysia was thrilled with our work.
Somewhere along the way in those two years Bob met a young Malay woman, Rabitah Hanoem Zainuddin (Rita), and his life changed. They fell in love and were married in Kuala Lumpur in a formal Muslim ceremony in early 1971. Shortly thereafter Bob took Rita back to New London, NH, and Bob resumed working with his father in the family grocery business. I never asked Rita, but it must have been quite a shock arriving from Malaysia to NH in late winter. Soraya arrived shortly thereafter followed a few years later by a second daughter, Johanna.
By the time I got back from overseas it was 1974 and Bob and Rita were living in an apartment over one of the stores in the Cricenti supermarket complex. Money was tight, but Rita worked in the office and they soon saved enough to buy their first house in New London. New London was a great place to visit both summer and winter, and Bob and Rita welcomed everyone. The Raes and Goldbergs, especially, visited frequently over the years.
Eventually Bob took over the grocery business from his father and steadily expanded and modernized the enterprise until he was managing supermarkets in five locations from New London to Concord. That was about the time I started calling him towkay Bob. By the time Bob and Rita were ready to retire and sell the business in 2005 there was hardly anybody in New London or neighboring towns who hadn’t worked at least part-time at Cricenti’s; and Bob and Rita’s generosity to the local hospital and other worthy causes was legendary. The town fathers did everything in their power to persuade Bob and Rita not to sell, and there are still New Londoners who refer to the Hanneford supermarket in New London as Cricenti’s.
Their elder daughter, Soraya, was already married and living in North Carolina, and their younger daughter, Johanna, recently married found a property in southwestern VA on which to establish a sustainable farming enterprise. And so Bob and Rita moved to the mountains of southwestern VA. They built a house in Floyd, VA, with several acres, and embarked on a new career. Towkay Bob became farmer Bob. At one point he was scouting out every farmer’s markets within 100 miles to determine demand for the various farm crops and home brew that Johanna and her husband were producing. Meanwhile, Bob and Rita started planting vegetables and fruit trees at the new house in Floyd. Ironically, Bob’s agricultural abilities suggest he would have succeeded very well in the Malaysian Ag program. About this time Bob reconnected with his Italian cousins and upon returning from one trip to Italy put in a bocce court next to the vegetable garden and planted grapes. There just weren’t enough hours in the day for Bob, since he was always thinking of something else to do to improve the house or the garden.
At the same time Rita and Bob became surrogate parents to a procession of Malaysian students at nearby Virginia Tech. At any given time Rita was cooking for one event or another, and Andrea and I can attest to the quality and quantity of the curries, rendang, and other delicacies. There were parties to celebrate the start of the academic year, Thanksgiving, end of semester, graduation, and of course the Hari Raya (Eid al-Fitr) celebration at the end of Ramadan. Over the years Bob and Rita befriended so many Malaysian students that the last time they visited KL they were feted by the VTech alumni association of Malaysia.
After their retirement grandchildren became a major focus of activities. Two grandchildren came with Soraya’s marriage: Tony and Nyssa; and three more followed later: Mia, Trent, and Wylie. Somehow they managed to keep the schedule straight running from one daughter’s household in Blacksburg, VA, to the other in Burlington, NC. Like Bob and Rita we moved south six years ago to be near our grandchildren in NC. And since then we have shared many meals and family events and followed the growth of each other’s grandchildren.
All of Returned PCVs of Malaysia XIX constitute a large, diverse family with a unique shared experience. But I was privileged to know Bob Cricenti both before and after those life-altering years in Malaysia and to share our lives over the 50 years since. As my sister reminded me, anyone you have known so well for so long is truly family.
Bob, we will miss you always.