Robert L. Kirk

Robert L. Kirk passed away Dec. 3 in Telluride following a storied life in which he was an innovator in the aeronautics and transportation fields as well as an accomplished photographer. (Courtesy photo)

 

Every so often, albeit rarely, people come along in the world and have a huge impact on just about everything they tackle — regardless of whether their involvement is related to careers, or hobbies, or personal lives.

According to those who knew him, “Bob” Kirk was one of those people.

Robert L. Kirk, a retired executive and leader in the aerospace and transportation industries, died Dec. 3, surrounded by friends at his home in Telluride. Also an accomplished photographer, Kirk was 88.

Peg Reagan, Kirk’s niece and caregiver, assisted him in recent years as he suffered with Parkinson’s disease. Although “Bob” first purchased a home in Telluride in 1985, he didn’t choose to become a full-time resident until three years ago, she said.

It was in 1985, Reagan said, that Kirk discovered Telluride somewhat by accident during an aimless photo journey though the Southwest. Driving northward, away from the desert country where he had been traveling, he found himself at Society Turn, in search of a comfortable place to retreat.

His compass direction was based on the day of the week. On certain days during the unplanned sojourn, he required himself to keep turning left when arriving at highway intersections; on other days, he required himself to turn right.

“It was a methodical meandering through the Southwest,” he wrote in later years. “Coming to a T intersection, my compass direction was determined by the day of the week! Thus, I turned right at Society Turn” and found his new home, Telluride. 

“Telluride had a charm I was looking forward to exploring. It was a small, western, U.S. town with beauty. I saw Telluride as a community in motion.  I saw it as a town that was giving up part of the past in order to set new boundaries into the future. This community was not settling down and I decided to settle down here.”

Telluride and the surrounding area allowed him “to pursue his photographic interests and I would get here as often as my world would allow,” he wrote. “Although my world was immensely busy, full and productive, I had a deep urge to nurture another part of my being. An intricate part of me was communing with nature.” 

During Kirk’s storied career, his engineering and leadership skills influenced many successes for the companies he served, Reagan said. He was associated with the following initiatives: GPS equipment (for the Nautilus submarine), the “Stealth” bomber, Moon exploration, night-vision goggles, Hummer utility vehicles for use in Desert Storm (the prototype was test driven in the San Juan mountains), the A-7 fighter plane, the Hubble telescope, and numerous other innovations from the 1950s to the 1990s on military and commercial aircraft.

Though Kirk’s career was filled with so many high-profile projects, once he discovered Telluride, his interest focused on “the people who make the community work and the forces of nature that impacted their existence (versus) being involved in social use of my time or political involvement…

“Changes came in my family life, and work life, but my love for Telluride never waned. I loved this community and home for close to 30 years. My soul holds the peace I was looking forward to enjoying here,” he wrote.

Reagan said that even though Kirk suffered from Parkinson’s, he got involved with the Telluride Adaptive Sports Program in recent years and skied using special equipment. He was harnessed to a monoski chair, piloted down the mountain with the help of TASP instructor.

In fact, he got his first ski pass a couple of years ago, and enjoyed “flying down the mountain with the wind in his face,” Reagan said.

Kirk had many life accomplishments, and yet he died with an unfulfilled dream, Reagan said. He hoped others would complete his goal by 2019, the 50th anniversary of the first walk upon the moon. 

“He believed the unnamed mountain at the end of the box canyon should be named for astronaut Neil Armstrong, a friend, (Telluride) community member, and national hero,” Reagan said.

Kirk was Catholic, and funeral services will be held at St. Patrick’s Church on Tuesday at 10 a.m. with Deacon Mike Doehrman officiating. Burial will be at Lone Tree Cemetery in Telluride.

“BOB” KIRK OBITUARY

He was born in Charleston, West Virginia, on Jan.  4, 1929, to William and Lillian Dunnigan. Kirk attended St. Anthony Grade School and Charleston Catholic High School. 

In 1952, after putting himself through his undergraduate education at Purdue University by working a laundry route and bartending at his fraternity house, he graduated in the top 3 percent of his class with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering. (In 1993, following his illustrious career, Purdue would award him with an honorary doctorate.) 

Kirk attended Purdue at the same time as Armstrong (who became an astronaut and the first person to walk on the Moon). Many years later, the two would become close friends. In fact, Kirk commissioned, and was the fundraising leader of, the Neil Armstrong sculpture on Kirk Plaza at Purdue University. Kirk also led fundraising efforts for Purdue’s Armstrong School of Engineering building and sponsored the director chair of the Birck Nanotechnology Center at the Indiana institution.

After graduation, Kirk served for three years as an officer in the U.S. Navy. 

His civilian career in military, space and civilian aviation began in 1955 with North American Aviation (now Rockwell International). He later worked for Litton Industries, and then International Telephone and Telegraph Corporation (ITT).

In 1977, Kirk joined Vought Corporation as president and CEO and from 1986-89 he served as chairman and CEO of Allied-Signal (now Honeywell). He served as chairman and CEO of CSX Transportation (railroad industry) from 1989-91, and then returned to the aerospace industry as the first non-British director for British Aerospace (now BAE Systems), later serving as its board chairman.

Kirk served on the boards of numerous other corporations and charitable organizations. He also served on the Defense Industry Advisory Council Commission on Military Experts and was a charter member of the NATO Industrial Advisory Group. In the 1980s, he was recognized by President Ronald Reagan and Margaret Heckler, Secretary of Health and Human Services, for his work organizing the Executive Coalition for the National Initiative on Technology and Disabilities. He was the fourth recipient of the HHS Dignified Public Service Award.   

Peg Reagan said that Kirk lived in many different places, but in the latter part of his life, he always wanted to be in Telluride.

“He was an accomplished photographer with a keen and patient eye for capturing that special moment in time. He had a strong love for Telluride and the desert Southwest where he was able to explore his love of photography,” Kirk’s obituary states.

Kirk is survived by three children: Harris Kirk, of Waltham, Massachusetts; Colleen Kirk, of Croton-on-Hudson, New York; and Karen Kirk, of Evanston, Illinois. He also is survived by five grandchildren; his brother, Thomas; and many nieces and nephews.

His first marriage to Elise Kirk ended in divorce; his second wife, Mary Jo Kirk, predeceased him.

Memorials may be directed to the Neil Armstrong Statue Fund at Purdue University.