EVELETH — Liz Stevens and instructor Scott Norcia slowly open the door outside Bob Stevens’ former office at Mesabi Range College.
Directly in front of them is a painting by local artist Jane Wertanen depicting a log cabin set amid a northern Minnesota fall landscape.
Liz Stevens is immediately overcome with emotion.
It’s her first time seeing the artwork hung in the hallway at the Eveleth campus where Bob taught for 25 years.
“He’s still here,” she says of her late husband of 42 years. “Bob’s spirit is in that painting.”
Stevens had wanted to somehow honor Bob at his beloved workplace after he died from cancer in 2018.
The hallways of the college are lined with all sorts of artworks, from paintings to photographs, and Bob had actually been on the committee to bring art to the campus.
However, he wasn’t able to choose what piece would hang outside his office.
Longtime coworker Norcia smiles. Bob had never been overly fond of the framed photograph that he saw each time he left or entered the Electrical Controls and Maintenance department.
Surely, he would approve of the new, much more vibrant piece.
The first time Stevens laid eyes on the painting in a Cook gallery, she knew it embodied Bob’s love of the outdoors.
What she didn’t know at the time was the rather fitting story behind the painting.
And she had no idea how graciously the artist would respond to her requests.
Robert “Bob” Stevens had graduated with Biwabik’s Class of 1969. He and Elizabeth “Liz” Padgett, of Cloquet, met at a root beer stand in Tower one day in June of 1976.
They married that December.
They lived for a while in Soudan, with Bob working construction and then in the mines.
But the early-1980s were difficult times on the Iron Range. Mines were closing, layoffs were extensive and young people were moving away in search of work.
Bob, however, was a Ranger through and through. Unwilling to leave, he enrolled in an 18-month Industrial Instrumentation Program at what was then called the Eveleth Area Vocational Technical Institute, later MRC.
It was designed to fit the schedule “of a working man with a family,” Stevens said. The couple had three children.
Bob graduated from the program in 1985.
Despite his desire to stay on the Range, Bob and his family relocated to Hudson, Wisconsin, where Bob had found a well-paying job.
He worked for some time in instrumentation at a wastewater plant, Stevens said. All the while, “he kept an eye on the Range.” The family also still had a cabin on Lake Vermilion, and Bob returned as often as possible to his “sanctuary.”
During one trip north, Bob interviewed for a teaching position he had scouted at the college. “I didn’t even know he had done that,” Stevens said with a smile.
Norcia was on the hiring committee. “It was the first time I met Bob.”
Bob had once said, “if I show up with my hair cut and beard trimmed, I’m looking for a job.” Bob had done just that, Norcia remembered.
While Bob had never taught before, he landed the job — as an instructor in his former program, which had a new name: Electrical Controls and Maintenance.
He began teaching in the fall of 1993.
“He was back on the Range. He felt blessed,” Stevens said. He had taken a substantial pay cut to teach at the college, but it didn’t matter to Bob.
Bob was back in the area where he loved to hunt and fish. “He was a true Iron Ranger. His heart was here. This is where he belonged,” she added.
Bob spent many hours prepping classes and often shared stories of past work experience with his students, Norcia said.
The field is ever-changing with developing technology, he noted. “Bob kept right on top of that.”
Graduates of the program consistently find high-paying jobs in a variety of industries, including mining, paper, oil refining, wastewater, and manufacturing, Norcia said.
Essentially, those trained in the field are among “a handful of people” who know how to maintain and run industrial machine control systems — things “run by electromechanical devices.”
“It’s somewhere between an electrician and an electrical engineer,” Norcia explained. One former graduate, he said, landed a job at Disney World.
A large part of coursework is “teaching students how to figure things out,” he said.
He and Bob were a good team in doing just that. “Bob was unconventional, in a good way. He had the vision and creative abilities. I’m more analytical,” Norcia said.
In fact, Bob often ribbed his co-instructor. Bob claimed he was like the plate spinner in a circus, spinning plates on sticks. “I’ll hand it to you, and don’t let the plate drop,” Bob would tell Norcia.
The duo’s working relationship soon grew into a solid friendship. The families would often spend time together.
“I considered Bob an older brother,” Norcia said.
“The feeling was mutual,” Stevens replied.
“You can’t replace that kind of stuff,” Norcia added.
Norcia said he always dreaded the day Bob retired, often thinking to himself, “How would I do it without Bob?”
Bob was 10 years his senior, and Norcia assumed that’s what would eventually transpire.
Unfortunately, he said, his friend and coworker was diagnosed with cancer — neuroendocrine pancreatic cancer.
Bob, however — who was also raising two grandchildren with his wife — worked for as long as possible, even while doctoring locally and in Minneapolis and Rochester.
“What impressed me,” Norcia said, “was how good his attitude was” during Bob’s 3 1/2 years battling the disease.
“He was dedicated to his students, even while going through chemo,” Stevens said.
In the fall of 2018, Bob intended to continue teaching, but “he couldn’t do it anymore,” she said. “He was crushed. He loved teaching.” And, yet, “never once did he ask, ‘Why did this happen to me?’”
Stevens said the cancer “never robbed him of his spirit. Even when he was at home in hospice, he wasn’t giving in. He was a fighter, and it served him well,” she said tearfully.
On Dec. 21, three weeks after turning 67, Bob died.
He left “big shoes to fill,” Norcia said. Scott Hoffman would later take Bob’s place — and “he hit the ground running.”
“He looks like a young Bob,” Stevens smiled.
Stevens’ quest to honor and memorialize her husband at the college led her to Wertanen’s painting.
It was perfect in nearly every way, she said.
It had a river and trees and an old log cabin; it was an autumn scene — “everything that was the essence of Bob,” who loved to duck and deer hunt in the fall.
Something about the artwork spoke to Stevens, despite it lacking two important details — a moose and a canoe.
Stevens contacted the artist, seeking to commission a piece, yet still greatly drawn to that particular painting.
Wertanen subsequently surprised Stevens by adding a moose and a canoe to the piece. “And she donated it to the family,” Stevens said. “She is the kindest, most gracious lady.”
Bob, who “had an artistic mind,” also enjoyed oil painting and woodworking, Stevens said, and he would appreciate Wertanen’s talent.
Long after falling in love with Wertanen’s painting, Stevens learned something else about it.
The cabin was a depiction of Eveleth’s first building — a mining office and superintendent’s residence, constructed in 1893.
“I got chills,” Stevens said.
The painting is now appropriately displayed on the campus where students study trades, often mining-related.
“It’s come full circle. It was meant to be.”
A plaque under the artwork reads, in part: “Bob was fortunate to be able to return to his roots, teaching in the field he loved, giving back to his beloved Iron Range.
“He loved his work, never considering it a job, but something he truly enjoyed, passing on his knowledge and skills to his hundreds of students throughout the years.”
Norcia smiles once again.
Bob would finally be happy with the art outside his doorway, says his friend.