Having made an indelible mark on both Santa Barbara and California politics, Robert “Bob” McConville Handy peacefully passed away at the age of 90 on Nov. 17, 2022 at Cottage Hospital, surrounded by family.
Bob will be remembered as the man who changed Santa Barbara County from Red to Blue, advocated nonstop for veterans, and as a caring husband, father and grandfather.
Bob was born Aug. 18, 1932 in Brooklyn, New York, to Mary Handy (née McConville), a recent Irish immigrant, and John Handy, whose family lived in North Carolina and New England from 1655.
Raised in New York, Bob moved to North Carolina at age 15 after his father passed away to be raised by his father’s sister before joining the U.S. Navy at the age of 17.
Bob had a 21-year career as a hospital corpsman and was stationed around the world, including an active-duty tour in Vietnam (1965-66). Bob was the ship’s doctor on more than one occasion; once performing an emergency appendectomy.
Bob’s focus was on preventative medicine and while in Vietnam, he was frequently part of a small team “outside the wire” that directly provided health services to civilians. Even the Viet Cong respected his team since disease control benefited all.
In 1957, while on military leave in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, Bob met Danute Veronika Bajoratis “Donna” at a coffee shop while the two waited for their Greyhound bus rides back to their respective hometowns. Bob quickly adjusted his travel plans and “missed” his stop in New York City.
He continued with Donna to Cleveland while they talked for 12 hours. Bob and Donna were married on March 1, 1958, after a brief courtship, and enjoyed two years of living in New York City and traveling the East Coast on a scooter.
During an assignment in Newfoundland, Bob and Donna welcomed two children, John Handy (YuSon) and Becky Cantrell (John). After reassignment to Rhode Island, they welcomed two more children, Victoria Hyland (Bob) and Laura Wallace (Bruce).
The family moved across the country three times in a VW bus, including one cross-country trip on the famous Route 66, with a final assignment in Point Mugu, California.
Bob and Donna fell in love with Santa Barbara when they passed through on one of their many reassignments, and felt that if they settled there, their children would always come back to visit.
The neighborhood they chose was almost entirely based on its proximity to Cold Spring School. After they bought their house, they were told an error had been made, and it was not in that school district. In what became a pattern, Bob demonstrated the tenacity he displayed over the decades to right a wrong and to hold people to their word.
Bob prevailed, and his and Donna’s children went to Cold Spring School.
Bob’s formative years exposed him to social injustices in the United States, and after an initial post-retirement career in real estate, he discovered a lifelong passion for political activism.
As a child, husband, and later as a father-in-law and grandfather, Bob was sensitive to the immigrant struggle. He saw up close American systemic racism in the South, and he served in the Navy when it was first implementing desegregation. These experiences helped to make Bob a powerful actor for social justice.
Bob began his political activism in 1974 as the state campaign chairman for Jimmy Carter’s presidential campaign. Bob also was the local campaign chair for Bill Clinton. His greatest success, and what became his legacy, was the 1996 election of Walter Capps to Congress in 1996.
Bob recruited Walter to run in 1994, and although that initial campaign was unsuccessful, Walter and Bob learned the lessons needed to win and make Santa Barbara County a reliably blue congressional seat, now held by Salud Carbajal
Over the years, Bob managed or ran several successful campaigns, and held positions on local and statewide committees, including the Central Democratic Commission District 10.
At the national level, Bob’s greatest contribution was in service to his fellow veterans. Bob founded the Veteran’s Congressional Caucus, and though a staunch political partisan, he was quick to recognize common interests across the aisle as a relentless champion for veterans.
A combat veteran himself, he stayed on top of issues that were relevant to the most vulnerable veterans. Bob was not content with talking a good game; he walked the walk, often right into the offices of the powerful.
He was a founding member of Veterans United for Truth, which sued the federal government to obtain mental health benefits for veterans suffering from PTSD. Bob fought all the way to the Supreme Court, and although the lawsuit was unsuccessful, it resulted in a bipartisan political effort to bring real and structural change to the Veterans Administration.
In addition to his passion and love for the Democratic Party and veterans’ issues, his greatest love was his family. Bob was a devoted husband and father to his four children, and was an extraordinary grandfather (Apa) to his six grandchildren Brooke and Chase Wallace, Madeline and Benjamin Handy, Danielle Hyland, and Jacob Cantrell.
Apa loved each grandchild unconditionally and attended every birthday party, game, musical recital, jog-a-thon and fundraiser. Apa always carried a secret stash of cash and often paid for meals, lessons, gas, or provided a little cash while instructing his children and grandchildren: “Don’t tell your mother or grandmother.”
Bob is survived by his wife of 64 years, Donna; his four children, their spouses and his six grandchildren. Bob was predeceased by his parents John and Mary Handy, his three sisters Barbara, Lois and Marianne, and his grandson Spencer Handy.
The family would like to thank the doctors and nurses at Cottage Hospital, Santa Barbara Rehab Center, and the Sansum Medical Foundation for their professional and compassionate care.
In lieu of flowers, please remember to vote in each and every election because your vote can make a difference.
A celebration of life will be held Jan. 29 at the Veteran’s Memorial Hall. Please contact the family at BeckyHandy@aol.com for additional details.