Surprises were part of Robert Hardwick, and anyone who loved him learned to expect them.
Growing up in Bellingham, he’d stop on the way home from school to search fields and small creeks, collecting “specimens.” His mother learned to open his lunch box carefully.
Teaching in Nigeria for three years, Hardwick had a pet chameleon and was forever capturing things to add to its diet. Another American teacher’s introduction to Hardwick was spotting him as he ran past a window, swinging a butterfly net.
As a father, Hardwick helped his four children capture backyard bugs, place them in jars and raise them.
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Once, daughter Jennie came home to find her father and brother smiling at her.
“I asked, ‘What?’ and they said, ‘Go look in your room,’ and then followed me,” she recalled. “There was a piglet in my room, so small it could hide under my dresser.”
A science teacher for more than 30 years – 27 of them at Tacoma’s Stadium High School – Hardwick was a high energy, enthusiastic, intense man who loved his family and most everyone else.
“People were drawn to Bob,” friend Dave Nunnallee said, “He’d lead field trips to find butterflies, and loved leading them late in the season when the lower elevations had dried up.
“That meant you had to go nearly to the top of the mountain to find them. He was like an antelope.”
Hardwick’s love of butterflies began in Bellingham, where he’d catch them, study and try to identify them. At the time – the late ‘50s – there weren’t many field guides for butterflies, and none that focused on the butterflies of Washington.
When future wife Jean met him at Western University in 1963, Hardwick was passionate about many things – the prospect of teaching, travel, butterflies and, yes, Jean.
They married in 1964, and Hardwick’s first job was at Gray Middle School in Tacoma. Two children later, he got his master’s degree and had the opportunity to take his family and teach in Nigeria.
“We spent three years there, traveling to Europe in the summer months,” Jean said. “One year we bought a car in Holland and spent nine weeks driving around Europe, staying with anyone we knew to save money. Then we had the car shipped back to the States.”
Over the decades, Bob and Jean and some configuration of their four children traveled to countries from Mexico to Ecuador, and everywhere they went, Hardwick went well-armed.
“He always carried a butterfly net and a camera,” Nunnallee said.
One summer he sent copies of his photos to a fellow butterfly collector at the University of Florida. Turned out, Hardwick had captured on film a butterfly thought to have been extinct for decades.
Collecting butterflies produced its own share of surprises in the Gig Harbor household where the Hardwicks lived for 25 years. Bob would carefully pin and dry his specimens before displaying them in boxes.
“Sometimes he’d turned the oven on to 200 degrees and put butterflies in there to dry,” daughter Jennie said.
“I had to be ready for anything when I went into the kitchen,” Jean said.
Eventually, that collection held more than 7,000 butterflies and required 102 large boxes to display. In 2010, he published an illustrated book, “Butterflies of Washington.”
That might seem obsessive, but Hardwick could and would put butterflies aside.
“Once my daughter telephoned him and asked if he would come over and play ‘Princess’ with her,” Jennie said. “We live more than an hour’s drive away, but Dad left right then and came.
“I’d check on them and they’d have all the princess dolls lined up, and he’d be talking in this falsetto voice like a princess.”
At 72, Hardwick went camping last August and led another butterfly field trip.
Then, on the morning of Sept. 4, he simply didn’t wake up.
“The night before he died, my daughter Claire had gone to kindergarten for the first time,” Jennie said. “Dad called just to talk to her about her day at school.”
There are so many memories that Hardwick’s family and friends have of a man who lived with such passion.
That immense collection of butterflies will be donated to Oregon State University this spring, but not before the family has a March 28 show at the United Methodist Church in Gig Harbor.
Hardwick would have liked that.
Though friends suspect he would have brought his camera and net and occasionally ducked outside.