From a tough, fatherless boyhood to successes in college football, the military and real estate development, Robert James Dyer, who helped shape Gilroy as it is today, will be remembered Sunday, April 10 with what’s expected to be the kind of party he relished.
It’s to be held at what he saw as the crown jewel of his professional life—the sprawling, upscale Eagle Ridge golf course community in the city’s western foothills.
After a years-long battle he thought he’d won, Dyer, 83, died March 8 of cancer, which afflicts many of his brother Vietnam War veterans who were involved in defoliating jungles with the chemical Agent Orange.
Know as ‘RJ’ and ‘cowboy,’ Dyer was a larger-than-life character whose boisterous antics engendered a full range of emotions from those who knew him, according to friends and family.
“He could be a tough nut with other people, but with me he was always very gracious and attentive and he looked after me, helped launch me in business in Gilroy,” said former Gilroyan Bob Miller of Greensboro, Georgia. He described their relationship as that of brothers.
Dyer followed Miller to Georgia in the 1990s and for years moved between homes there and in Gilroy. They grew up a year apart in Pendleton, Oregon, famous for its annual rodeo. They attended Willamette University and were in Air Force ROTC before graduating and becoming career officers.
As a boy, Dyer worked the wheat fields in Pendleton and baled hay, even dug holes for septic tanks to help support his family.
Son and eldest of his four children, Rick Dyer, said his dad could be ‘tough, very direct and blunt and raise some ire; the trade-off was you know he didn’t play games, you knew where he stood and where he was coming from.”
A family friend once sounded a note of concern when, as a young man, Rick went to work for his dad.
“‘You know your dad is a hammer, are you going be able to handle that?’” he recalled Ron Pray saying.
“Of course [he] was right; later on, we did bang heads once in awhile. But he would be the first to tell you he wasn’t perfect. He’d say, ‘I haven’t make all the mistakes but I’ve made most of them.’ He was direct about himself as well,” Rick Dyer said. One of his dad’s favorite saying was “Don’t BS a BSer,” he said.
Another Dyer friend is Bill Ayer, the former parks and recreation department director whose visionary approach to the job in the 1970s and 1980s created what today is Gilroy’s expansive parks system.
“Bob was a character and he did a lot for the community,” Ayer said. “He was kind of a controversial figure, but I’ll tell you what, he was a great friend of mine, he was in my corner all the time.
“He really was a sweet guy,” said Ayer, who over the years joined Dyer at Super Bowl parties and trips to Ireland, Scotland, Oregon and Wisconsin.
“If he was on your side he was on your team all the way, 100 percent; if he was against you, he was not a comfortable opponent.”
Dyer was a longtime and creative member of the Gilroy Rotary and Chamber of Commerce, coming up with ideas for the Chamber’s Man of the Year and Hall of Fame honors.
And it was Dyer who, when the proposed Eagle Ridge development was in political trouble, told developer Dan Hancock, President of Shappell Industries of Northern California, to hire Ayer to help smooth the way.
Ayer was with Dyer the day he died. And, like Miller, he will attend the celebration of Dyer’s life April 10. “He wanted to have a party, he didn’t want to have a funeral. He liked to have a drink, liked to have fun; he was very outgoing, a dynamo kind of guy,” Ayer said.
Indeed, in Dyer’s published obituary, the family wrote: “The Dyer Family invites you to join them for RJ’s Going Away Party, April 10, 2016, at 4:00 P.M., Eagle Ridge Country Club, 2951 Club Drive, Gilroy, CA.”
Friends describe a man whose friendships were deep and close. He was a political conservative and a spiritual man, the latter reflected in his 2004 baptism at the Northridge Christian Church in Covington, Georgia, at the age of 71.
Miller last visited his friend in the summer of 2015, when the cancer was in remission.
“He was very verbose right to the end,” Miller said. “There was no subject he could not expound on; he just loved life and making things happen and he was very proud of Gilroy. He loved Gilroy. Hethought he was going to be fine; unfortunately [cancer] came back,” Miller said.
Dyer’s never-give-up attitude was encouraged in his children, son Rick, 60, said.
“He ingrained in us that we could do it and never give up and he wanted us to be involved, to have as many experiences a we could growing up.”
And so when Dyer was stationed in Europe from 1968-72, he and then-wife Carol would load the kids into a white 1969 VW bus and take off—to England, then ride a hovercraft across the English Channel to Belgium, then journey to Spain where Dyer ran with the bulls in Pamplona.
After Rick, the couple had children Loni, Michael and Maura. At the time of his death, Dyer had 18 grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren.
“He was military, so he’d say ‘Be ready at eight hundred hours and if he saw us starting to get grumpy or tired, he would go into his German accent, ‘You vil haf fun!’ and we’d all laugh,” Rick Dyer said, imitating his dad.
Dyer’s never-give-up approach was evident later in how the avid football fan blended supporting his family and contributing to the community, friends and family said.
If you’ve dined at Mama Mia’s or the Claddagh restaurants in Gilroy, found a good deal at the Dollar Tree or Ace Hardware, you’ve been in the presence of RJ Dyer visions-made-real.
In addition to his role in Eagle Ridge and his company, RJ Dyer Real Property Investments on First Street in Gilroy, he developed Hecker Pass Plaza off First Street and the Gilroy Auto Mall, among other successful commercial ventures.
Dyer’s service in Vietnam followed him throughout life in the form of concerns about what prolonged exposure to Agent Orange might have done to him.
Dyer flew treetop missions in Vietnam that soaked the jungles with the chemical and in planes that routinely took fire from enemy ground forces.
Over the years, he routinely was tested for signs of problems but always came away clean, according to Dyer—so it’s not known for sure if Agent Orange caused or contributed to his illness, family and friends said.
Born in Chicago on Jan. 7, 1933, Dyer’s childhood started out tough. His father Floyd, known as ‘Duke,’ had trouble holding jobs and abused Dyer’s beloved mother, Bernyce, known as Berney, who passed away in 1995.
In an autobiography finished last year, Dyer recalled hawking newspapers at the age of six on city street corners, even stealing, to get money.
Looking for a better life, the family moved when he was a boy to Pendleton, Oregon, where an aunt and uncle lived. His father held various jobs and the family lived largely hand-to-mouth, with help from the Salvation Army next door to their basement apartment.
During a life-changing night after his mother had been abused, Dyer, not yet in his teens, pointed his new BB gun at his father and threatening to kill him if he hit his mother again.
The next day, Dyer’s father packed and left the family, which by then included a younger sister. He never returned, Dyer wrote, and Dyer became the man of the house.
Together, Dyer and some of his friends were involved in the beginnings of the Gilroy Garlic Festival and the Gilroy Foundation, both now thriving institutions.
At Willamette, Dyer met and married his first wife and the mother of his children, Carol, who, after their divorce in the 1990s, returned to Salem, Oregon. Dyer later married Diane Vanni.
Kent settled in Gilroy after four years in the Air Force and stayed in touch with Dyer who, after turning down promotion to full colonel, retired and joined his old roommate in the real estate development business.
Kent’s son, John, of Morgan Hill, has fond memories of the man he’d known since being born shortly after Rick Dyer when their fathers were stationed in Texas, in the 1950s.
“He would come to our house and always made a bold impression, he was a big, larger than life presence,” Kent said, “I cherished my friendship with Bob.