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Rob Puddicombe: 1950-2014

<b>MONUMENTAL:</b> From I.V.’s Perfect Park to the black rats of Anacapa Island, Rob Puddicombe (seen here with Anna Bass) gave his all to save them.

Rob Puddicombe always referred to Perfect Park as the “heart and soul” of Isla Vista. In the late ’60s and early ’70s, although not a public park, the space was the town’s central gathering place before Anisq’Oyo Park was developed in 1976. When he was a student, Rob and hundreds of other folks danced and tripped there to live bands and anti-war speakers on most days. It took several years to raise the money, but a monument stands today in Perfect Park dedicated to the worldwide peace movement during the Vietnam War era, made up of people like Rob Puddicombe.

In the early 1990s, when St. Athanasius Church was trying to create a parking lot for a “temple” by its church at 976 Embarcadero del Mar next to the park, Rob became the spiritual leader of the campaign to save it: He and Scott Wexler were arrested for sitting in front of the bulldozers. A three-story building in I.V.’s downtown back then was viewed as a major eyesore, but nothing really happened until Rob suddenly appeared to energize local activists to oppose the building and parking lot.

Rob was a traveler and an adventurer. He loved vans — he probably owned seven of them, including a psychedelic one during his ’70s hippie days — because he could camp in them and carry his surfboard anywhere. Rob surfed the entire California coast and parts of Mexico. The ocean was the setting for many of Rob’s adventures, and his exploits included sailing a boat under the stars over the equator in the Galapagos Islands and swimming with the lizards and porpoises there, sailing as a crewman on the Endeavor from Seattle to Hawai‘i and climbing the mast to the crow’s nest, kayaking the Salmon River, swimming across the Columbia River, and hiking in the Andes.

He enjoyed entertaining people with tales of his travels, one of his favorites being the time he swam naked in the fountains of D.C. during an anti-war demonstration. He loved nothing better than a good joke — either pulling one or having one pulled on him. Music was always an interest for Rob, too, starting with the harmonica and progressing to playing serious amateur guitar and the Peruvian panpipes. He liked to sing folk songs and belonged to an impromptu foursome in Goleta with friends Cathy and Dave Thomas.

Like many navy children, Rob grew up in the states and countries where his father’s navy service took the family, starting with his birth in a navy hospital in Guam on July 1, 1950. After experiencing life in Alabama, Mississippi, Florida, New York, California, Ohio, Hawai‘i, Michigan, Rhode Island, Scotland, and England, Rob always gravitated back to Santa Barbara as his home. After graduating from Palo Alto High School in 1963, he joined many of his high school classmates at UCSB — and majored in “surfing” — and periodically returned, working toward a biology degree. He ended up getting an associate’s degree from the diving program at Santa Barbara City College and made a living on and under the ocean as an abalone diver in Santa Barbara and as a deep-sea diver in the North Sea and the Caribbean. He had a mechanical flair and dabbled in other jobs such as driving the Santa Barbara city buses and the Airbus.

Another of Rob’s concerns was animals. His dog, Max, was adopted from the shelter, and he had many pet rats and often volunteered for the S.B. wildlife rescue groups. Seeing animals neglected, orphaned, or abused fired Rob up to become an activist on their behalf. He started the Channel Islands Preservation Society and tried to save indigenous animals, including rats and mice, from a poisoning program by the Park Service; T.C. Boyle fictionalized his attempts in the 2011 novel When the Killing’s Done. The nonnative black rats were set for extermination in order to save some endangered native species. Since vitamin K decreases the effectiveness of the poison the government was using, out of his sense of outrage over the government’s plan, Rob motored around Anacapa Island in a boat and threw the vitamin onto the land for the rats to eat. For his efforts, he was arrested and fined (a small amount). The rats all died.

Rob was one of the founders of Santa Barbara’s Surfrider Foundation, and he also fought against the Forest Service’s Adventure Pass out of his feeling that the national forests belonged to everyone, regardless of their economic fortunes. He was proud of his activism, and his burning-bank T-shirt was a favorite.

His former wife, Anna Bass, said, “From him I learned, or learned to love: surfing, running, road trips, political activism, and sea hare ink. … He had some battles to fight in his lifetime — some self-inflicted and some definitely not — and in the end he died pretty much as he had lived: on his own terms. He was no saint. But he’ll be missed.” Rob passed away peacefully of liver disease on May 18 at Serenity House in Santa Barbara. His ashes were scattered at sea. Rob is survived by his mother, Virginia Puddicombe (Santa Barbara); his sister, Ilene Ann Matejko (Salmon, Idaho); his uncle, Ray Puddicombe (Seattle, Washington); his aunt, Elaine Tobin (Seattle, Washington); cousins in Washington and Alabama; and his ex-wife and best friend, Anna Bass (England).

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