Edwin Dobb, one of Butte’s greatest literary sons — a prodigiously talented and accomplished writer and teacher — died from complications of a heart attack in a hospital near his Bolinas, California home Friday. He was 69.
Although he began his literary adventures as a poet and playwright, Dobb became best known in the 1990s as an essayist when he started publishing in high-end literary magazines including Harper's Magazine.
One of his seminal essays, “Pennies from Hell,” published by Harper's in the Oct. 1996 issue, is widely recognized as a masterpiece of writing about Butte. It memorialized the first time a large number of snow geese died after landing on the lethal waters of the Berkeley Pit in November 1995.
Long-time friend and colleague Mark Dowie, an investigative reporter who teaches at the University of California-Berkeley, said Dobb could “write anything well.”
“He was one of the best writers, one of the best wordsmiths of the English language,” Dowie said from his northern California home Saturday. “What’s surprising is his education was limited. He’s a self-taught autodidact who became an absolute master of the English language on his own. That’s the most amazing thing about him.”
On the cusp of retirement from a nearly 20-year stint of teaching long-form narrative writing at UC-Berkeley, Dobb was planning lots of projects, said his long-time friend Eugene Corr, also a California-based writer, who collaborated with Dobb on a documentary film, “Butte, America,” in 2009.
One of the projects Dobb was working on is called The Extraction Project, an international event intended to shine a creative light on the extraction industry in 2021.
Dobb was successful in many arenas. Corr spoke of Dobb’s enormous talent, calling him a “fabulous storyteller.”
“He was very charming and very balanced but he took enormous risk creatively and always landed on his feet,” Corr said.
In addition to essays, poetry, screen and stage plays, Dobb co-wrote books, co-wrote the documentary film “Butte, America,” gave guest lectures and taught writing. Friend Seonaid Campbell, whom Dobb met later in life, said Dobb’s passions included film, photography, punk music, reading, poetry, prose and ocean swimming.
“He had great breadth; his writing was so soulful,” Campbell said Saturday. “He could draw connections, deep connections between things others couldn’t see. He had such a reference to draw upon: science, art, poetry.”
But Butte was never too far from his mind.
His sister, Suzanne Dobb, said from her Kalispell home Monday that Ed Dobb remained passionate about Butte.
"With his attention to Butte and to its history and the history of our family, he really brought Butte alive in a historical sense," Suzanne Dobb said.
Born to Tony and Helen Dobb on April 17, 1950, Edwin Charles Dobb Jr. was the oldest of seven children. His father worked for Montana Power Company and his mother was a nurse.
After graduating from Butte High School in 1968, Dobb enrolled for a year at the University of Montana. He saw his first publication that year in a literary journal called “Montana Gothic.” Peter Koch was the editor.
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“It was a brilliant poem,” Koch said from his California home Saturday. “He was an incredibly brilliant man and poet. He struck me as a cut way above.”
Dobb left UM after only one year and headed for Seattle, where he began to write plays for the theater. By 1981, he headed to New York, first to Buffalo and then to Long Island and eventually to Manhattan.
Dobb worked odd jobs throughout his 20s and his early 30s while he struggled to succeed as a dramatist. In his mid-30s, he answered an ad for Sciences Magazine, then a prestigious journal. He landed the job and worked his way up to editor-in-chief.
Finally at a point when he could become financially secure, Dobb saw a Robert Frank photograph that called him home, Campbell said. Frank is a noted photographer.
“He was in a bookstore and he opened up a book of Robert Frank’s. He saw this landscape and it was home. That photo called him home,” she said.
Dobb bought a small house in Walkerville and settled into his new life as a Butte-based freelance writer in 1993. It was then that his career as a lyrical essayist really began to take off.
He also co-wrote several books in that period. He co-authored “Dinosaur Lives: Unearthing an Evolutionary Saga,” with famed paleontologist Jack Horner in 1998. He helped Antoinette Benevento pen “Dancing Through Life: Lessons Learned On and Off the Dance Floor,” in 2007.
His career and life took a new turn when he landed a guest lecturer position at UC-Berkeley’s Journalism School in 2001. That became a permanent position.
In 2009, he collaborated with Bozeman-based filmmaker Pamela Roberts on the hour-length documentary, “Butte, America,” which told Butte's mining labor history. Roberts praised Dobb’s life and career Saturday in a text message.
“To say that Ed was kind, to say that he was a brilliant writer, to say that he was ferociously his own person, to say that he was charming, witty, clever … a good father, a faithful friend, does not begin to express what we’ve lost with his passing,” Roberts wrote. “He was all of that and so much more.”
Austin-based folk singer Christy Hays visited Butte in 2013, came across Dobb’s house in east Walkerville and fell in love. She looked up the owner and wrote him a letter.
Dobb wasn’t ready to sell the house then, but that initiated a letter-writing correspondence between the two that lasted until Dobb’s death. Hays, who eventually bought the house, penned her final letter Saturday.
Dobb made his last visit and final appearance in Butte in 2015 when he came back to clear out the Walkerville house and gave a lecture at the Clark Chateau.
That night he read one of his essays and talked about what Butte meant to him. He started a story about a Butte miner he had known who could recite poetry, a man Dobb clearly missed. Dobb, whose extended family consisted of miners, bowed his head in silence for a moment before causing the room to roar with laughter.
“I said I wasn’t going to cry, damn it!” he said.