Bob D. McFarland never served in the military but his life’s work has revolved around veterans.
McFarland, of South Buffalo, worked for three decades as a licensed practical nurse with VA medical centers in Batavia and Buffalo. After his retirement, he became chief docent in 2012 at the Buffalo and Erie County Naval & Military Park (buffalonavalpark.org).
He became a park volunteer shortly after the 2009 death of his father, Bob C., who served aboard the destroyer USS Jeffers at the end of World II.
“My dad started coming down here after it opened in 1979," McFarland said this week at the Buffalo waterfront. "He used to bring me down on The Sullivans and tell me, 'This is the area of the ship where I worked. This is what I did.' That gave me the background.”
McFarland and his contingent of about 40 docents relish the opportunity to provide visitors to the park tours of the USS Little Rock, Croaker and The Sullivans during Western New York tourist seasons. Last year, people from 137 nations and all 50 states visited.
At age 65, "I'm one of the young kids here," said McFarland, who helps train his fellow volunteers and coordinate special events.
McFarland and his wife, Linda, an M&T Bank senior loan control officer, have two children, Sandra and David, and two grandchildren, Megan, 13, and Jonathan, 9.
Q. What were the most rewarding and challenging parts about your job at the VAs?
Most rewarding was taking care of the patients and seeing them get better. It also gave me a chance to talk to a lot of them and hear their stories. I felt very honored to take care of them because my dad taught me a lot about patriotism and these guys really appreciated anything we could do.
I worked in the oncology department for about 15 years. The most challenging is that you would take care of people and you knew they weren't going to live. You had to provide the support, even though it broke your heart.
Q. What do you wish most people knew about care at the VA in Buffalo, where you worked 29 years?
The personnel care so much about veterans and their families. I can understand when you have long wait times or you don’t think you’re getting the proper care ... but I think they get the best care going. We were the first hospital in the area to computerize. We were one of the first that started preventative care.
Q. Why do you volunteer at the Naval park?
About two weeks after my dad passed away, I wanted to come down and do something rather than sit in my rocking chair all day. I knew he loved the park and I did, too. It was a way to keep honoring the veterans and to enjoy these ships. I love walking around on them. There's spirit and there's so much history on them. We could use more volunteers. You don't have to be a veteran. You can contact me by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or contact the park.
Q. What are the key things you look to underline when you talk with visitors?
There's a lot. I would say the history of the ship, the men who lived on board and what they had to endure, especially at sea and during wartime. A lot of the youth come on board and have no idea about World War II. Most kids now have their faces buried in some sort of electronic device. I took a group through the Officer's Mess on the Little Rock. There's a phone on the wall. ... They didn't know what it was. When they saw the rotary dial, they spent the next 15 minutes dialing the phone.
Q. What is it like as a docent to talk with folks who've served aboard these vessels?
It's fantastic. They come on board and start telling you stories. They'll tell you, "I slept in this bunk over here." "This was my duty station." It's fun when the wives are with them. They'll go, "I've seen so many ships, I don't want to see another one!"
Q. Do you volunteer elsewhere?
I was working with the Steel Plant Museum on Lee Street. It's a very small location and they don't do tours but they have a lot of good artifacts from Bethlehem Steel and a lot of other steel companies. They're always looking for people to come and tell their stories. Eventually, I told people I was so busy at the park that I had to leave them. I was at one time a Boy Scout leader in South Buffalo and a baseball coach. I'm busy now with family.
Q. How have you benefited from the Naval park volunteer service?
It’s given me a chance to keep active. We’re also honoring the men and women who serve our country and that fulfills me so much. The sacrifices they’ve made to give us our freedoms are taken for granted so many times. I like it when people come down and hear these stories and say, “Wow, they went through a lot.”
Twitter: @BNrefresh, @ScottBScanlon