When Bob Ottum realized that he was too ill ever again to hike or bike in the mountains surrounding his Salt Lake City home, his reaction was entirely predictable and proper to those of us who knew him: "I made the doctor promise that when I got toward the end that he'd see to it that I wasn't kept in the hospital, hooked up to a bunch of tubes and motors and monitors like a laboratory experiment. I made him promise that I would be at home in my own bed, drinking my own martinis with people who preferably had nothing to do with the medical profession."
And so it was when Ottum died on June 11 in his own bed in his own home, which overlooked the Salt Lake basin. It was just two days after his 61st birthday and just over five months after he had retired from a 21-year career as one of our most stylish writers, most versatile editors and most consistently entertaining companions.
He had planned to do a lot of things in retirement, but retire was not one of them. He had a novel (his eighth book) in the works. He had new assignments for SI—adding to the trove of 194 stories he had already done. He also would write his Sunday column for The Salt Lake Tribune.
Over the years he wrote with uncommon grace and good humor about almost everything. In a 1968 story about auto racing entrepreneur Andy Granatelli, Ottum wrote: "[He] is a product of racing's pure, unregulated days when every man was a mechanic, a driver, a drinker and a lover and took part in a little interpretive fighting with tire irons on the side." About the differences among Winter Olympic athletes he wrote in 1980: "[Figure] skaters come equipped with all the regular-issue athletic attributes, but they perform on the far fringe of sport in a world that is half theater. It is far removed from the craggy realities faced by down-hillers, say, or hockey players who can chase their blues by giving an opponent a soul-cleansing shot to the kidneys." And of Mary Lou Retton in 1984: "The story is that she was born in a small West Virginia town...but there's better reason to suspect that she simply stepped out from under a toadstool one day. Scale-model leotards and all."
He was a man of all seasons in his work for SI and a man of many virtues in other aspects of his life. One of those virtues was courage. Anita Verschoth, who covered several Olympics with Ottum, recalls the fearsome night of violence in Mexico City before the 1968 Summer Games began. Troops were attacking rioting students in the Plaza de las Tres Culturas, and Bob and Anita were there. "Bullets were zinging everywhere. We ran to our car and lay on the floor. Bob flopped on top of me, and for an hour and a half he wouldn't move. He was protecting me so if a bullet came in the car, it would hit him, not me. I can never forget that."
Bob's courage as he faced his own certain death was no less firm—and no less admirable. We can never forget that. Or him.
OTTUM: A MAN OF ALL SEASONS FOR SI