Athlete. Coach. Statesman. Family man. His legacy will live on.
An old Egyptian proverb says we die once when the last breath leaves our bodies and we die a second time when the last person to remember us speaks our name.
“If such is the case, then your dear father and your beautiful mother as well will achieve immortality,” Stanardsville artist Chee Ricketts wrote to Kendall Tata after the death of her father, Bob Tata, in June.
Bob Tata, 91, passed away on June 11 in Stanardsville—on what would have been the 66th wedding anniversary with his wife Jeraldine, a Greene native who passed away in 2017.
Bob Tata was a high school coach, teacher and guidance counselor and served 30 years as the 85th district (Virginia Beach) delegate in the General Assembly, where he worked for “Joe Lunch Pail,” he would say.
Son Anthony Tata said when his father spoke of “Joe Lunch Pail,” he was referring to the “everyday working stiffs; the people who weren’t wealthy and who didn’t have all the advantages in life because he certainly didn’t.”
“He tried to improve life—through coaching, through counseling, through legislating for whomever he was serving,” Anthony, a retired Army brigadier general, continued. “He was a true public servant.”
Robert “Tots” Tata was born in Detroit to Italian immigrant parents; his father was a brick layer and his mother was a housewife. He was a high school football and baseball star in Detroit, earning a full scholarship to the University of Virginia to play both sports.
“When he came to UVA, all he had were the clothes on his back,” said daughter Kendall Tata, who also teaches and coaches at William Monroe High School. “The coaches had to take him to get clothes to wear and of course they dressed up for school.” UVA students are known for dressing up for class, even more so back then.
Tots (i.e. Tata Tot), the nickname given to him by his wife later, played running back and defensive back on the football field for the Cavaliers, as well as first base on the baseball diamond.
Robert Tata Jr., who served in the U.S. Navy and went on to become a lawyer in the Norfolk area, offered some examples of his father’s humility.
“I didn’t even find out he was this great college football and baseball star until I was going through some old letters in a suitcase in the attic,” he said. “I found these 3-cent stamped envelopes and I was cutting those out when I noticed they were from the Detroit Lions, Detroit Tigers, the Green Bay Packers and the Chicago Bears. This was when, I think, there were only eight NFL teams, but he got letters from most of them. And he never bothered to tell us that.”
In fact, it wasn’t until decades later that Robert Jr. found the IMP ring his father had worn. The IMP Society is a secret society at UVA.
“I was a Raven at UVA while in law school there,” Robert Jr. said. “I’m not sure what it takes to get into (the IMP Society). I called up dad (surprised) he was in the IMP Society. He said, ‘I think they just give those out to collect dues from some people.’ No, it’s a big deal and I told him we were very proud of him.”
The elder Tata was drafted by the Detroit Lions in the 21st round in 1953, but was cut after an injury and returned to Virginia to assist the football coach at Albemarle High School and get his master’s degree. That’s when he met Ms. Martha Jeraldine “Jerri” McMullen Morris, who was working at Albemarle High School as a teacher at the time.
“The coach asked dad to meet him for lunch one day and when he got there told him he wasn’t really ready yet, so they were standing there and talking when Jeraldine Morris walked in,” Kendall recalled. “Then the coach said let’s go in and insisted that dad go in front of him and the coach said something like, ‘good afternoon, Ms. Morris,’ and then asked her to sit with them. They struck up a conversation and he asked her to attend the football scrimmage that Friday and she told him, ‘I’m from Greene County. We play baseball.’ Mom went to the scrimmage and stayed for the whole thing.”
They married in 1955 in Charlottesville and moved to Utah for two years while Tots was in the U.S. Army, before moving back to the Virginia to settle in the Tidewater area.
The Tatas had three children: Robert Jr., nicknamed Little Tots; Anthony, nicknamed Po; and Kendall, or Little Po. Both parents had high expectations for the children to achieve on and off the field. Both boys played different sports year round—from football to soccer to baseball and even gymnastics. Robert went on to become a kicker for the U.S. Naval Academy. Anthony attended West Point. Kendall loved running and mainly stayed active running year round.
In a 2018 interview with Harry Minium of The Virginian-Pilot newspaper, Bob said, “Enjoy life while you can. And make sure you take care of your children and your wife. Take good care of them. That’s all that really matters.”
All three children agreed their father achieved that goal himself.
“He loved our mother for 62 years, until mom passed, and he loved us,” said Anthony. “I’ll never forget him being at all of my athletic events, being a tough guy when he needed to be the tough guy, being a very compassionate father, as well, when he could see that I was struggling with something. He raised three kids to be decent athletes and being an athlete and understanding teams as a very young person was critical to my development.”
Kendall recalled her first big race was when she was in the fourth grade.
“My teacher called my parents to tell them I beat all the boys and I was going to be in a field day at the high school,” she remembered. “The teacher encouraged my dad to come. Dad was a football coach and never missed practice and my race was during practice time. I went to the big arena and got on the starting line with my cutoff blue jean shorts, my brother’s converse tennis shoes and when the gun went off I ran. Halfway through the race I was in second place and from up high in the stands I heard my dad’s voice say, ‘Go Kendall Baby!’ I surged to the front and won. He was at the finish line to hug me. Dad put family and me first.”
Robert Jr. agreed.
“The love of sports and the passion for sports was definitely passed down through the generations and we are very grateful that he diligently attended,” he said. “I mean he would probably attend 50 of our kids’ events each year.”
But all three agree, too, that he never got too ahead of himself and he passed that humility to his family, as well.
Granddaughter Riley Tata attended UVA for field hockey and left as one of the top 10 all-time scorers. And her grandfather was almost always in attendance, but never particularly profuse in giving praise. While playing for Norfolk Academy, her team won 5-4 in overtime and Riley had scored all five of the goals. When Robert Jr. asked his dad what he thought of her that day, Tots said, “Well, you know, I thought she was a little slow,” Robert Jr. remembered. “But the kids knew he loved them. That Christmas, Riley bought him a hat and shirt that said, ‘Riley’s Number 1 fan.’ He would always wear them to her games. And sometimes when Riley missed the ball or something he would slowly take the hat off and put it on the bench and once she did something good, he’d put it back on. Riley would say after the game, ‘Papa, I saw you had your hat on a lot this game.’”
That sense of humor was something everyone mentioned, as well. In fact, Kendall said on his headstone it says, “He had a humble heart and a funny story to share.”
While in the memory care unit at The Harbor in Stanardsville, Robert Jr. recalled that as a group they were talking about what words begin with the letter “A,” when Bob leaned over to his neighbor saying, “Tomorrow, we go to third grade.”
“He always had a great sense of humor and great one-liners,” Robert Jr. said.
Kendall said sports taught her and her siblings to have discipline, a desire to excel and achieve and to be humble, just like their father.
“There is always someone there that can beat you; never think you’re better than somebody else,” Kendall said. “From that first race and to this day, after I cross the finish line I turn around and shake everybody’s hand that comes through. I don’t know where it came from, but I know dad had a humble heart. I think he would encourage everyone to do the best they can in everything they do, but always be humble.”
She went on to win five state championships for cross country and accepted a full ride scholarship to the University of Virginia, her dad’s alma mater.
Both Jerri and Bob Tata were teachers and high school guidance counselors for well over 30 years. Bob earned the Tidewater Virginia Coach of the Decade award for 1970-80 for his winning record: 101-33-2 at Norview High School. He retired from education in 1980.
Kendall remembered when U.S. Congressman Bill Whitehurst visited their home in Virginia Beach in 1982 asking Bob to consider running for state delegate.
“Dad interjected saying, ‘I am just a common guy, a teacher and coach.’ And the congressman said, ‘That is why we want you—your common sense and ability to relate to people,’” Kendall said. “The Tata Team was developed with grassroots door-to-door walking.”
Bob spent the next 30 years as the state delegate for Virginia Beach’s 85th district.
As delegate, he served as a member of the appropriations and transportations committees and chair of the education committee.
“I think what gave him the most personal satisfaction—other than his family, of course—was helping other people,” Anthony said. “So, he chose a career centered on that as a coach, teacher, guidance counselor and then as a delegate—they all provided him opportunities to have significant meaningful impacts on individuals and on communities. And while he was a politician, he was not political. He was always just trying to make government work for us; the ‘Joe-Lunch-Pail,’ the little guy.”
House Republican leader Todd Gilbert said of Bob Tata’s passing: “The House Republican Caucus was deeply saddened to learn of the passing of our former colleague, Del. Bob Tata. His service in the House of Delegates was long and distinguished and he made us all better public servants by his presence and example. While the time I spent with Bob in the House was short, I will always remember it fondly. He will be sorely missed by all who knew him and our commonwealth is lesser for his absence. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family.”
Greene’s Del. Rob Bell, R-58th, attended Bob Tata’s funeral in June.
“I had a chance to serve with Bob before he retired and moved back to Greene County,” Bell said. “He was always ‘the coach’—helping newly elected members learn the ropes and become better legislators. He was funny and kind and we all miss him very much.”
Virginia Sen. Emmett Hanger, R-24th, wrote in a letter to the family: “Your dad was such a good and respected man. I fondly remember working with Coach in the legislature. He was always kind and hardworking. He greeted staff, visitors and elected all the same.”
Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, and former governor of Virginia while Bob Tata was a delegate, also sent his condolences to the family.
“Dad was a very humble public servant,” Anthony said. “He always stayed true to himself and knew exactly who he was and how he wanted to help to deliver results for the people he served.”
Bob’s last words were “I love you baby,” and Kendall said she knows it was for his beloved wife, “thanking God for bringing him to eternally embrace his bride of 66 years on their anniversary.”
Kendall said she was honored for all the time she had with her parents, but especially at the end of their lives.
“My brothers and I have been very blessed and fortunate to have two remarkable parents that loved us dearly,” Kendall said. “And they still love us from heaven; I mean I can feel them. In between mom’s graciousness and dad’s charm and just the pure love that they had for all three of us; they both loved all three of us, genuinely. I think that’s the legacy for my brothers and I, to know in our hearts we have been truly loved and not by one parent but by two parents.”
The funeral was held at Grace Episcopal Church in Stanardsville and he was buried at Holly Memorial Gardens in Charlottesville. An online guestbook is available at ryanfuneral.com.