Surrounded by a captive audience, Robert La Blanc ’56 tells the story of a World War II captain who lost the use of the rudder when his ship was torpedoed during a battle at Truk and was stuck dangerously pointing toward Tokyo Harbor. He’s probably told this story hundreds of times at the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum, but you would never know from listening to him.
La Blanc is a volunteer docent for the legendary aircraft carrier, docked on New York City’s West Side, and gives weekly tours of the fo’c’s’le, chain room, junior officers’ quarters, Marines’ quarters, and some of the gun emplacements.
He’s been volunteering on the Intrepid for about a year and half. He started out greeting visitors at the ship’s entrance but then jumped at the chance to take the 12-week docent course, in which prospective tour guides study all aspects of the ship and its history. After training, La Blanc ended up in a specialty area — also his favorite — the fo’c’s’le (an abbreviation of forecastle, which he also notes is a good Scrabble word).
“I generally give somewhere between four and six tours a day, and spend one or two hours in the admiral’s quarters,” he says of his Tuesday schedule.
La Blanc greets everyone with a warm welcome, often connecting with the many tourists through geography — he’s been everywhere. When he takes visitors into the chain room, where the anchors are connected to the ship, he humorously tells them of doubting sightseers trying to lift the links, which weigh 200 pounds — and they’re welcome to try, too. Up on deck, he encourages them to get behind the 40mm gun — just not to aim at the neighbors.
It can be a long day on his feet, but La Blanc is so enthusiastic about the Intrepid that he shows no signs of fatigue.
“I love seeing how excited our visitors get when they hear some of the things that the ship did,” he says. “I mean this is an absolutely incredible ship!”
A Storied Family
It’s a great fit for a history buff whose hobby has been studying the Civil War, in which his grandfather served.
“Not very many people who are alive today have a relative that was in the Civil War, but my grandfather was 14 years old and was a water boy at Gettysburg for the Union,” he says. “And my dad was in World War I, and my two uncles, my brother and my cousin were in World War II, so I’ve had a great interest in both the Civil War and World War II. I’ve read just about every book that was published on the war in the Pacific, and so this was a natural attraction.”
In addition to his forefathers, La Blanc, who grew up in Queens, served in the military, too. He was commissioned as a second lieutenant after graduating from the College with a bachelor’s in electrical engineering, and spent three years as the communications officer for a base in the Arctic, as well as 10 remote radar sites in what was then called the DEW Line, Distance Early Warning, which looked for Soviet missiles possibly targeting the United States.
He then went on to a successful career in the telecommunications industry. Among other positions, he worked at Salomon Brothers for 10 years, where he was a general partner and founder of its telecommunications team, before joining Continental Telecom, Inc. (now part of Verizon) as vice chairman. La Blanc also managed to find time to earn his MBA from NYU. He founded Robert E. La Blanc Associates, Inc. in 1981, an information technologies consulting and investment firm, from which he retired in January 2010.
A Spirited Second Act
It didn’t take La Blanc very long to realize that full retirement wasn’t for him. “It took about a day. I’m serious,” he says. “The problem is you work all your life, and your brain is as busy as it can be, and you stop working and say to yourself, what do I do?”
Really the problem you have as you get older is keeping your mind and yourself active, and you’ve got to do something positive, something good.
His wife, Betty, a docent herself, suggested he become one, too, and at the Intrepid. It was great advice. Between his docent duties and his participation in the choir at the Church of Saint Ignatius Loyola on the Upper East Side, where they now live, La Blanc has found a second act.
A Manhattan College trustee emeritus, as well as an honorary doctorate degree recipient, he has involved himself in many professional and charitable organizations throughout the years. He’s always believed in service, and is most proud of his scholarship fund at Manhattan and the Archdiocese of Newark but especially of its recipients. And his second act seems to befit his philanthropic philosophy perfectly, not to mention his aversion to slowing down.
“I get a great deal of joy out of giving these tours,” La Blanc says. “Really the problem you have as you get older is keeping your mind and yourself active, and you’ve got to do something positive, something good.”
As for how that story about the hapless captain ends, you’ll have to ask La Blanc on his next tour. He tells the story better anyway.
Photo by Darcy Rogers