Robert Kilmer 1939 – 2023
Robert Kilmer was born October 3, 1939, in Tucson, Arizona, to his parents, mother Roberta Daniels Kilmer and father Christopher Kilmer. His native instinct and his talent led him to a life in literature and writing that extended family tradition. His grandfather, Joyce Kilmer, after refusing an officer’s commission, was killed in heroic action in World War 1. Before his death, Joyce was a loved and admired poet. His most famous poem was “Trees.”
The family moved from Tucson to Oxford, North Carolina, then to Greenwich Village, and finally to Stillwater, New Jersey, where they lived with a friend of his grandmother, the poet Aline Kilmer, until they found a house by what had been a slaughterhouse. His father, a minor poet, named their street “RoadApple Avenue.”
Robert’s mother Bert did a wonderful job encouraging his imagination and introducing him to a lifetime of loving literature. After a weak performance in high school he went on to enlist in the U. S. Army. He served in Germany for three and a half years.
After Robert’s tour in Germany, he enrolled in Louisiana State University. There he learned to love Cajun music and Cajun food. He graduated with a BA in English.
At graduation he earned a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship and was accepted at The University of Chicago. There, he earned his Master’s degree and PhD, awarded “with honors.” His dissertation was on John Barth.
Robert’s first teaching job was at Vanderbilt University, in Nashville, Tennessee. After four years there he was refused tenure because of his lack of publications and too good a job of teaching. His chairman said he was refused tenure because of his lack of publication. When he asked what was said of his teaching, the chairman said there was one student complaint that “When we ask Dr. Kilmer questions, sometimes he tells us to find out for ourselves. Now a few professors said that was good, but others ….”
From Vanderbilt, unemployed, he moved to Arlington, Virginia to live with his sweetheart, Marion MacLean. Eventually they married and bought a house, “Little Eden,” in Fairfax County. He worked the 1-1/4 acre lot to become a productive garden, including 250 asparagus plants. He and Marion lived there until their divorce in 1991.
He joined the faculty of Northern Virginia Community College to help open the Woodbridge campus. He retired after 35 years, as Professor Emeritus in the English Department. In addition to his regular teaching assignments, he had helped start the Honors Program on that campus, working with bright, dedicated students. Robert was a member of the Northern Virginia Writing Project, following Marion into that distinguished fellowship.
In 1991 he answered an ISO (In Search Of) ad in the Washingtonian magazine, meeting Claudia Costello. They married in May of 1993, and he moved to Manassas, joining Claudia, her daughter Sara Costello, and the three cats. His very first project was to start a new asparagus bed in the back yard.
Robert was an avid home-brewer, making over 350 five-gallon batches of ales and stouts. Once the new commercial brewers started making excellent beers he gave up brewing and explored their offerings, finding them as good as his. He was also an excellent cook, serving wonderful dishes to family and friends.
He was able to renew his garden efforts in Manassas, and went on to found The Garden Basket, a community-supported agriculture business. For six years he and Claudia provided vegetables to ten customers for six months a year.
Robert also took up foraging for wild mushrooms, joining the Mycological Association of Washington. He served as its secretary for several years.
Robert is survived by his wife Claudia, her daughter Sara Costello; his sisters Ann Buskirk (Dennis), Margaret Kilmer (Sharon Haug), and Elizabeth “Sam” Strain (JJ); niece Laine Strain (David); sister-in-law Jenny Mizelle (Don); nephew Alex Carr (Anna), and a host of Kilmer cousins. He was predeceased by his parents, Christopher “Kip” and Bert Kilmer, and niece Diana Strain.
A private memorial service will be conducted at a later date. Condolences may be sent to www.oldetownefh.com