Bobby Sutliff (L) and Tim Lee (R), of The Windbreakers, perform together at The Cubby Bear in Chicago, Ill. in 1987 (Facebook photo).
There are stubborn and unwelcome facts about getting older. The gray hairs that weren’t there the day before. The injuries from running or other sports that come easier and are harder to shake off than they were before.
And your friends die.
This summer, I’ve said farewell to two dear friends who, as dear friends do, shaped my life in their own unique and individual ways. Both of them were named Robert. And though they never met, the interwoven threads of their friendships can never be unraveled.
In early July, Robb Hanrahan, a veteran television news anchor and longtime host of “Face the State” on CBS-21 in Harrisburg, was the first to leave. Just 60, Robb already had survived a near-fatal heart attack, and he’d left the news business in 2021 to spend more time with his family. He was found dead at his home in suburban Harrisburg.
Our last meeting, at the Capital-Star’s office in Harrisburg, was maybe 20 percent work and 80 percent catching up on life, our families, and our hopes for the future. Robb had come through his experience. I was struck – and this stays with me – about how happy and fulfilled he’d seemed after leaving the news business behind.
We laughed, as we so often did about experiences on-set. I was lucky enough to be a panelist on “Face the State” for most of the 10 years that Robb was at the helm. I’d learned a lot from him, both as a journalist, and as a friend. He was always there for a tip. A passionate student of state politics, he always had an insight to share on the issues of the day. By the time I’d left the CBS-21 studio, I’d invariably come away knowing something I didn’t know before I’d arrived.
As is so often the case, our friendship at the office expanded to one outside the office. On Sundays, we’d gather with our wives and kids to watch football. A guitarist, Robb always had an acoustic guitar to hand, and we’d play together as well.
Which brings me to the other Robert, my friend Bobby Sutliff, who lost a battle with cancer this week. Music binds me to him as it did to Robb.
Like a lot of college radio kids who came of age in the middle to late 1980s, I was a big fan of Mississippi’s The Windbreakers, a jangly guitar band who sprang from the same lush turf in the southeastern United States that gave us R.E.M, the B-52s, and a host of adored, but less commercially well-known combos such as Let’s Active, Pylon, Love Tractor, the Method Actors, and The dB’s.
Bobby fronted the band with his childhood friend, guitarist Tim Lee. Like any good band, there was a creative push-pull. Bobby, the thoughtful quiet one, was a devotee of sweet Beatles-y melodies and could coax magic from his guitar. Tim, dryly funny, played swampy southern riffs. Sometimes they would make each other crazy. But their love and mutual respect was palpable.
They say you’re not supposed to meet your heroes. But years later, thanks to the miracle of the internet, and a chat group devoted to the southern new wave scene, I did. And we all became fast friends.
Tim and I wrote together and played a bunch of gigs over the years. Bobby and I traded home recording secrets. We all shared a record label, the now sadly defunct Paisley Pop Label, from Portland, Ore., helmed by a wonderful guy named Jim Huie. The bands all played and toured together and slept on each other’s couches. It was like being part of a little gang. So when I called Bobby some years later and asked him to add a guitar part to a record I was working on, he generously said yes. And he took a good song and made it great.
On Tuesday morning, just days after learning that Bobby was fighting cancer, I woke up to the news that he’d left us. Within hours, friends reached out to friends, and through tears, we laughed at our shared memories. Facebook timelines filled up with tributes and Bobby’s indelible guitar riffs.
The two Roberts, Robb and Bobby, touched and changed my life, and the lives of so many others. We get older. Circles tighten. Friends leave us. And I can’t do much better than repeat my friend Tim’s admonition: “Y’all talk to your friends. Hug your loved ones.”
I know I will tonight.
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