Robert Jean Thibodeau spent most of his 90 years engaged in the life and times of Juneau Alaska. Father, grandfather and great grandfather, business owner, political rabble-rouser and protector of the elderly, Thibodeau is remembered with love by his family, friends and neighbors. He passed away in Juneau on Sept. 22.
A family that gets together often, through reunions, weddings and written correspondence, they sensed Robert’s health was failing. Those who no longer live in Juneau started making their way back to their first home.
The family held a rosary Tuesday at the Cathedral of the Blessed Virgin Mary and a Mass of Christian Burial Wednesday at St. Paul’s Catholic Church. A reception followed at St. Ann’s Hall. They said even with short notice the turnout was humbling.
Thibodeau and his wife Aurelia Gartner, known as Ril, were married 66 years. Their 12 children, 30 grandchildren and 9 great-grandchildren are testament to their durable relationship.
Thibodeau came from a family of grocers. His father, Joe, opened his first grocery store in 1935 and within five years opened Thibodeau’s Market on Willoughby Avenue. After a stint as a salesman, Thibodeau owned the Shop Rite Market in Douglas for 22 years until his retirement in 1985.
All of the Thibodeau children spent some amount of time working in their father’s store.
Guy Thibodeau is the oldest of the four children who still call Juneau home.
“It was nice to see all the community out showing support for my father,” Guy said. “There was a real group there that he saw all the time in the sauna.”
Guy remembers his father as a working man all this life. “We all remember our years in the grocery store and how wonderful that was. He just spent so many more hours than the rest of us there; he was pretty exhausted when he came home,” he explained. “My father’s hard work provided the family with a livelihood and food to support 12 kids.”
Guy said his father also imbued the family with a love for exploration and nature. “We love getting out in the wilderness, just like our father,” he said.
His father was also very involved in his church, Guy said. He said former Archbishop Francis Thomas Hurley likes to tell a story about when his father welcomed the bishop to town and then spent the next hour “telling bishop how things run around Juneau.”
With so many kids, when any of us went to an event at the school, dad couldn’t always come to events, but was always curious of what happened, Guy added.
Thibodeau “ran” unsuccessfully for office more than a dozen times. Guy said his father did little more than put his name in the race.
“He’d put his name in for senator, even against the most popular [candidate] around,” Guy said. “He would say ‘if there isn’t going to be a point of view that matches mine, I’ll just put my name in.’”
Thibodeau didn’t seem to mind his political losses.
“I never got elected, which was the best thing that ever happened to me,” Thibodeau said in a 2010 Juneau Empire interview.
Second-youngest of the Thibodeau children, Raymond Thibodeau, said it was a blessing to have all 12 kids in Juneau.
“We had that feeling that the end was near,” Raymond said.
Because the family is now scattered across the country Thibodeau’s kids wanted to make plans for memorial services quickly.
“Working with the funeral home, the church and [the response from] the community was impressive and a testament to how well dad was well known in the town and well respected,” Raymond said. “There was a great outpouring from the Juneau community for him and our family.”
During a telephone interview, Raymond said he remembered the family’s 40-plus years of selling Christmas trees from the front lawn at the Thibodeau home.
“Mom and dad really liked having customers come by and repeat customers come by year after year,” Raymond said. “We set things up the weekend of Thanksgiving and “then we were in business for however many weeks. It was a great feeling when we’d sell our last tree.”
Raymond remembered that the tree business allowed each of the Thibodeaus to have a separate Christmas tree in each of the bedrooms.
“A tradition in my family we’ve continued on with our kids,” Raymond said.
Geri Foster, formerly Geri Thibodeau, remembers working with her father in the store.
“Working for him there taught us a lot of responsibility … more responsibility than other high school kids got,” she said.
Foster said her father loved writing and receiving letters. Communication is very important to an older person, Thibodeau said in an interview with the Juneau Empire in 2010. His grandchildren called and wrote their grandfather near the end, Foster said. One nephew even started a private Facebook page called Thibodeau Unite, she said.
Foster said her son, Craig, put off writing his grandfather, because doing so at the end “would make it real.” He finally texted a favorite quote of his grandfather’s “a good man is surrounded by good people.”
Therese Thibodeau’s son, Greg Frank, agreed that his grandfather was surrounded by good people.
“None of the family would be who we are without our grandparents. Everybody gets along,” Frank said. “There are 30 grand kids, nine great grand kids and 12 brothers and sisters and I can name every single one of them. It says a lot about how grandparents raised their kids and our parents raised us.”
Frank said he was impressed with the outpouring of graciousness from the Juneau community. The Catholic Church helped out with the reception, Frank said, and family friends loaned cars.
“It was really quite amazing to see and experience all of that,” Frank said. “It is amazing how good people can be in the face of tragedy.”
Frank said he spent a lot of time with his grandparents. Thibodeau shared much of the family history with his grandson, he said.
“I feel at peace, mainly because I don’t have any regrets,” Frank said. “I feel really good about my relationship with my grandfather. And I’m really happy with, he was really, really proud of me.”
Rick Thibodeau, said that as a middle child he slipped through without a lot of parental oversight. Because his father worked long hours at this grocery, Rick said his father had to miss some of his children’s events. Many of the Thibodeau kids were cross country and track runners.
Rick said he remembers one of his races where Robert was able to step outside and catch a race going by the Douglas store.
Robert eventually retired. Rick said he really appreciated all of the attention his parents doted on all their grand kids.
“He had the time and he wanted to make sure he took in as much as he could,” Rick said. So much so that a couple weeks ago that his father wanted to travel to Boise to see his grandsons in a soccer game together.
With his father’s funeral and burial over, having taken place earlier in the week, Rick shared a moment from the service.
“I was a pallbearer as were my brothers,” Rick said. “That was quite meaningful for me and what I will always remember and treasure.”
The brothers escorted the casket out of the church and placed it in the vehicle, Rick said. “There was my mother with her five daughters in the doorway of the church, weeping. The seven brothers gathered around, all of us, they were still playing the final song.”
Let us build the city of God
May our tears be turned into dancing
For the Lord our light and our love
Has turned the night into day.
“That moment brought new meaning to the words for me, knowing that my father is enjoying his eternal rest,” Rick said.
“We definitely miss him,” Rick said. “Now it is all about taking care of our mother’s needs. We cannot replace her husband, but we can love her more than we ever have before. We have always been close as a family, but never as close as that moment brought us.”
Marilyn Sliva now lives in Puyallup, Washington. She said one of the things Mr. Thibodeau used to really enjoy about his visits to Washington was the corn from her family garden.
“He talked a lot about loving corn,” Sliva said. “It was one of the reasons I loved growing corn, I knew my dad liked it.”
This year he (Mr. Thibodeau) knew he wouldn’t be healthy enough to come down and enjoy a cob or two, Silva said. So she brought some up to him.
“Last week he was doing well enough, so we cut some of the corn off the cob and he wanted to make sure he had some.”
Sliva said she is glad her parents decided to stay in Juneau.
“A lot of people when they hit retirement age opt to move away,” Sliva said.
The Juneau community offered food, housing and cars to the grieving family, she said.
“The arms that were wrapped around us has been humbling,” Sliva said. “It’s just an incredible community here. We love it so much.”
• Contact reporter Russell Stigall at 523-2276 or at email@example.com.