Dr. Robin Vandermolen, anesthesiologist, father, philanthropist, world traveler, art and music lover, and grand friend to many passed away on Sunday, September 19, in Maui.
One of my favorite memories of Robin comes from a visit with him in Portland. Gail Rice and I were in town to find a hotel for an upcoming Adventist Forum conference. Robin recommended the Marriott right across the street from his penthouse condo in the KOIN Tower. We met him at the Marriott for lunch. Once we were seated, he greeted our server by name and then we were treated to her gushing thanks to Robin for his generosity in sharing his Maui home with her and her family for her daughter’s recent wedding. Robin treated everyone he met as a friend. It was inspiring to watch.
Sharing his homes—there were several—brought him great joy. It also made the people with whom he interacted all feel like his best friend. You have to visit my home on the Mediterranean in France, he would say, and then explain what a beautiful place Èze is and all the wonderful places you could see when there. Visiting him brought out his inner tour guide. He knew all the best beaches on Maui and would show you each one. In France, he would personally drive you to art galleries all over Southern France while regaling you with information about the art that you were about to see. At the end of the day, if you said you wanted to treat him to a meal at his favorite restaurant, he would reply that restaurants were too expensive. He would prefer to cook dinner, and then we would be treated to the latest recipe he had perfected from the famous chef Ottolenghi. His energy and enthusiasm left us all in awe.
Families were always a great topic for conversation. He enjoyed telling us about his four children and his pride in them. That was always followed by questions about your family. He never forgot the names of your children, and ever after, he would inquire about them.
From the early days of Spectrum, Robin befriended the writers, editors, and members of the Adventist Forum Chapters. In Glendale, where he lived for many years, he participated in chapter meetings. In more recent years it was at Forum conferences that we regularly saw him. He also enjoyed commenting on the Spectrum website. Behind the scenes, he was a faithful donor and helped make several special projects happen.
Personally, I feel like he taught me much about the joy that comes from sharing, not only one’s resources, but one’s heart. By example, he demonstrated that friendship and hospitality enlarge and bless one’s world. With his family and many, many friends, I grieve his passing.
My wife, Gillian, and I were shocked at the rapid deterioration of Robin’s health but most appreciative to his daughter, Heather, for keeping us informed of his medical challenges. We now mourn his untimely passing on September 19, 2021. We had last seen him April 14-22, 2021, when, in the company of a group of Spectrum friends, we had helped him celebrate his birthday. At that time we were impressed with his customary vigor and characteristic hospitality.
Our friendship goes back 45 years, to 1966, in Boston, Massachusetts, when Robin and his wife were doing their fellowship in anesthesia at Mass General Hospital, and I was starting my PhD program in Hebrew Bible and Syro-Palestinian Archaeology at Harvard. We met through the New England Adventist Forum, which gave birth during the coming years to “Spectrum,” the journal of the Association of Adventist Forums. And we took our children to the same Sabbath School in the Stoneham SDA Church on the grounds of the New England Sanitarium & Hospital.
After the Vandermolens left Boston and returned to Glendale, California, we stayed in touch, though we moved to Michigan and later back to Massachusetts. It was when, in 1993, that we again moved, this time to La Sierra University in Riverside, California, that we again renewed our close friendship. We have been entertained multiple times in three of his homes: Portland, Oregon; Èze, France; and Wailea/Kihei, Maui. He was the consummate host, generous to a fault, and most anxious that his guests did everything and saw everything!
Throughout his life, Robin was a philanthropist, supporting organizations and institutions that shared his philosophy and in which his friends were involved. In my case these included Spectrum and Adventist Forums, La Sierra University and its Center for Near Eastern Archaeology and its Stahl Center for World Service, the Glendale Adventist Church, and Kinship. He constantly encouraged his church to “do better” and to “do justly and love mercy.” These organizations, to say nothing of his beloved family and friends, will miss Robin’s “larger than life” presence in our lives.
His last request of Gillian and me was to “pray that my end will be peaceful.” From what Heather has said, we understand that prayer was answered. Now may his soul rest in peace.
I had lost a marriage of more than thirty years and was at the start of what a friend of mine called “chapter two.” A small circle who shared a life in Adventism and a love of learning were eating a Sabbath meal near the Glendale City Church in Southern California, where we had just worshipped together. One of them was Rebekah Wang Cheng, who would soon become my wife. Another was Robin Vandermolen. Until then I had never met him.
“So there will be a honeymoon,” Robin said, “and you will have to take it at my place in the south of France.” He had a gift for what you could call emphatic enthusiasm, and as soon as he knew that our wedding would occur in late July, he displayed that gift again. “In the south of France, it’s still humid in August, so you’ll want to plan your trip for October.”
Sure enough, in late October of the year 2005, Becky and I spent a week at his hillside apartment in Èze. It was so close to the Mediterranean that you could imagine a baseball coach batting a fungo from the balcony to the edge of the sea. That image, though, did not likely occur to Robin. Before coming to America, he had grown up in South Africa, a long way from baseball country. And in any case, what he cared most about, besides his children, his Glendale congregation, his practice of anesthesiology, were such things as the concert hall down the road in Monaco, the Chagall Museum in nearby Nice, the Old Town flea market where you could bargain for art befitting an apartment’s walls and tabletops.
And, of course, there was Stephen, the dentist and published poet with whom he spent his later years. Here, too, was a focus for Robin’s care.
He had loved his wife, also an anesthesiologist, but after her death had “realized”—his exact verb, as I remember—that if he was to find new love, it would be with a man. So, like many others who enjoyed Robin’s friendship and generosity, I came to know Stephen. Not too long after Becky’s and my honeymoon, my own elder son and his family moved to France, where for ten years they lived and worked just an hour or so from Èze. My visits with them sometimes coincided with Robin’s own stays at the apartment in Èze, so I got to see him and Stephen in France as well as in California and other places.
In time, Stephen’s brain function began to decline. That was when Robin said something that, due in part due to my own naivete and blinkered vision, was at once unforgettable and transformative. He, and from a distance his friends, were witnessing—in his case experiencing—an unfolding of a tragedy. Stephen was getting to the point where losing sight of him on an excursion into town could mean not finding him—except with help from the authorities. All that in mind, Robin one day told me that Stephen had been, and still was, a “great blessing” in his life. It seemed clear that for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, the commitment he and Stephen shared was persisting. He was so grateful, even amid difficulty, for their relationship.
Old stereotypes die hard, in my mind as in any other. But at least since being a pastor at the height of the AIDS crisis, I had known that we Christians would be more generous and blessed—more Christ-like—if we could revise away our doubts and hostilities concerning the humanity of people who are LBGT+. Now the testimony of a gay man had caused me to realize this again, and in so full-blooded a way as to enlarge my own humanity by what seemed a giant step.
As on the first day I knew him, I had been the recipient of one of Robin’s gifts.
The painful news of Robin Vandermolen’s sudden passing brought tears and awakened memories of some of our most enjoyable experiences. While speaking at the city church in Glendale, California, one Sabbath years ago, Rick briefly referred to our daughter Alison, who was pursuing a graduate degree in French literature at the time. As soon as the service came to an end, someone we had never met sat down beside Gail and made a surprising invitation. He said he had a place in Paris and another in the south of France and told us we would be welcome to stay there. The stranger was Robin Vandermolen.
Later that day a friend who knew Robin assured us that the invitation was genuine, and within three months we found ourselves enjoying an apartment in one of the most celebrated locations in the world—the first arrondissement of the City of Light. The Seine, the river that runs through Paris, was only a block or two away, and even closer was Theatre du Chatelet, one of the city’s vintage dramatic venues. Over the years we enjoyed visits, often with family members, not only to Robin’s beautiful places in Paris, but in Èze-Bord-de-Mer overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, and on the island of Maui.
Robin was one of those rare people who are both resourceful and generous. His financial acumen enabled him to acquire homes and apartments in delightful settings. His joy in beauty was expressed in the original art, bronze statuary, mirror, glass, and gleaming white surfaces that graced all of his homes. One of our family members expressed appreciation for all of the turtles in the beautiful Maui home. And he genuinely enjoyed sharing them with others—with dozens of people over the years. His generosity also expressed a remarkable capacity to care for others—for his children, of course, for his many friends, for the Adventist Forum, and for the church to which he belonged. Robin was one who we all believed would always be there. What would our world be without him? Impossible! Losing him makes us all long all the more for heaven; heaven will be filled with Robins.
—Gail and Richard Rice
Just over five years ago I received a note on Messenger from a certain Robin Vandermolen. I had no idea who this person could be, but, looking at his name, assumed he was a Dutchman. However, the message was in English and it clearly was no fellow-countryman who wrote it. The writer stated that he was sitting in front of his home in Hawaii and was for the second time reading a book that I had written and that was published a few months earlier. It is titled Facing Doubt—A Book for Adventist Believers ‘On the Margins.’ He had concluded that he would like to talk to the author and had somehow found a way to contact me. He indicated that a few weeks hence he would be in one of his other homes, in Èze on the French Riviera, not far from Lyon. He extended an invitation to me and my wife to stay with him for a week or longer. Just get a cheap ticket to Lyon, he wrote, and he would take care of all other expenses.
It was tempting. One does not often get an invitation for a vacation at the Riviera, in a nice villa, overlooking the Mediterranean. But we wondered: who was this Robin VanderMolen? Would it be wise to accept his invitation? Could there be some snag somewhere? I did some Googling and a bit of additional research. When I saw his name as a regular supporter of Spectrum, I decided to enquire with some Spectrum-people I happened to know. They assured me: Robin is OK. He enjoys having company. Some of them told us they had at some time or another been his guest and they encouraged us to simply accept his hospitality and book a flight to Lyon. And so we did.
It became a very unique week. It was tiring, for our hosts had a long list of things he wanted us to do—visits to a number of exquisite museums and several cultural events. He told us we should have come for two weeks rather than just one week; that would have made our program much more relaxed! But, in addition to receiving the touristic treatment, there was a lot of talking. About my book, in particular about the topic of “doubt” and about what to do when you feel that you are “on the margins” of the Adventist Church.
Before we had made final arrangements for our trip to Lyon, Robin had written us that he was gay and was living together with his partner Stephen. That might have bothered us perhaps some fifteen or twenty years ago, but gradually our views regarding sexual orientation had undergone significant changes. So, we indicated that this was not an issue for us. Neither did the fact that Stephen was at that point in time in a rather advanced state of Alzheimer’s.
During our week together Robin told us his life story. We talked at length about the issue of homosexuality, in particular about the lack of acceptance of gay people in the Seventh-day Adventist Church, and how he had personally experienced this. He told us he would often worship on Sunday in a church where gay people were much more welcome.
Of course, I am aware of the biblical arguments of many of my fellow Adventist believers (and many other Christians) that seem to condemn homosexuality—or at the very least the practice of it. I use the word seem on purpose, since a close look at the so-called “clobber-texts” tells us that the texts about homosexuality do not exactly say what many have assumed and have made them say. At any rate, hearing Robin’s story and seeing his loving care for his Alzheimer’s-partner was most impressive. It reinforced my conclusion that, whatever theological questions perhaps remain, I can only admire the kind of commitment that I saw in action in Èze.
Since our visit in Èze, we met Robin once more in person, when he and Stephen and Aafje and I happened to be in Southern California at the same time and we could meet for an extended breakfast in Pasadena. He kept telling us that we should come to see him in Hawaii. He would be happy to take care of the tickets. Well, that did not happen!
Less than two weeks ago Robin sent me a birthday card and also a message through Messenger that Stephen’s situation had deteriorated to the extent that admission to a specialized care home was now inevitable. And less than a week ago we received a short but touching e-mail message. Robin’s own state of health had suddenly worsened dramatically, and he had checked himself in into a hospice. He asked us to pray for him, and to ask the Lord that his end might be swift and painless. A few days later the news reached us that God had fulfilled that last wish.
I will remember Robin for the unique person that he was—with his faith and with his doubts, and with the personal struggles he went through. We got to know him as a warm human being, practicing love and hospitality. I am deeply sorry that the door of his church was not always wide enough to make him feel truly welcome. But I am sure that the door of the kingdom will swing wide open for Robin!
Updated August 24, 2021
Bonnie Dwyer is editor of Spectrum.
Title image: Robin Vandermolen pictured on his 81st birthday.
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