Robert J. Nippolt, 85, a former airline pilot, orchardist, U.S. Marine and Air National Guardsman, died on Sunday evening, Sept. 20, 2015, at his home in Hood River, Ore. The cause was cancer, which he battled with his characteristic determination and humor.
Robert will be remembered for having built the castle on the Little White Salmon River, Washington, which he filled with a collection of antiques, art, military paraphernalia, music, and books. His charisma, his wit, and his intelligence attracted many friends, with whom he shared his love of Celtic music, English literature, tennis, and cribbage.
The experiences which animated his life were his childhood separated from his family in St. John, N.D., the classical education he received at St. Anthony’s High School in Long Beach, Calif., the disciplined fraternity of the Marine Corps, and his service in the Korean War.
Robert John Nippolt was born on Jan. 21, 1930, in Omaha, Neb., the eldest of four children of the late Irwin Nippolt and Eleanore Byrne Nippolt. When he was a young boy, his family separated and he lived on his grandparents’ farm in St. John, N.D. He learned how to box. His uncles were military pilots, and his grandfather had built the Coghlan Castle in St. John. His family later reunited in Long Beach, Calif., where Bob graduated from St. Anthony’s High School, excelling in wrestling and boxing.
Robert enlisted in the Marine Corps as a private in 1947. After his training, he became the Marine Guard on a naval ship in the Sea of Japan. His boxing entertained the men, and won him a plum job in China and Japan, driving for General David Monroe Shoup, who later became the 22nd Commandant of the Marine Corps. When the Korean War broke out, Bob served two tours in south and central Korea, between 1951 and 1953, with the A11 Company Marines. He was haunted in life by the brutality he witnessed and participated in, but his personal pride and patriotism sustained him. He was wounded in action several times, and awarded the Purple Heart medal and the Good Conduct Medal, among others.
After the war, he attended North Dakota State University, where he played football and basketball, and was a member of Theta Chi fraternity. He kept himself physically fit, and had a civilian job training soldiers, and through this work he was invited to become a fighter pilot. He left school, and in 1957, completed aeronautical training in Laredo, Texas. He then returned to North Dakota State and earned a B.A. In English.
Bob then started flying with the 178th fighter interceptor squadron of the Air National Guard in North Dakota, known as the “Dirty Green.” The heroics, and antics, of this squadron are too numerous to mention. He was teaching English at Shanley High School in Fargo, N.D., coaching wrestling, and flying. He met his wife, Sharon “Toni” McNamee, of Grand Forks, N.D., playing mixed doubles. They were married in 1958, and had five daughters.
A few years later, he moved his family to San Juan, Puerto Rico, where he flew the F-14 and taught English at a civilian school. After another move, the family settled in Laguna Beach, Calif., an artist colony and tennis Mecca. He loved buying and rehabbing real estate, a lifetime hobby. When he wasn’t flying, Bob played a lot of volleyball and tennis with his daughters. He was unconventional, once replacing a living room ceiling with a parachute. During this time, he flew jets out of Los Alamitos, and began his 30-year career as a commercial pilot with United Airlines.
By 1969, he was noted for flying a thousand hours in the A-4 Skyhawk. He also loved jumping out of airplanes and, in 1971, at age 41, he received an age waiver to join an airborne unit. He completed his training in Fort Benning, Ga. Later that year, he was awarded the Navy’s Commendation Medal for Heroic Achievement after saving the life of a man whose parachute had not opened during a jump at an air show. He retired from the Marine Corps in 1975 with the rank of lieutenant colonel.
The Nippolt family moved to The Dalles, Ore., in 1974, where the girls learned to ski, and ride horses. They bought a fruit orchard in the Hood River valley and moved onto the farm the next year. There, he built and indulged a horse arena before eventually paving it for tennis.
Bob retired from United Airlines in 1981. Eventually, with his children in college, he divorced, and moved to Husum, Wash. He built a teepee, and began building the castle. He loved the quiet and solitude, but also held raucous Halloween costume parties. During these years, he influenced many young tennis players, coached volleyball, and stayed young playing racquetball and tennis.
His social circle widened and he had a lot of fun as he pursued interests in politics, athletics, music, poetry, and building. He was a perpetual student, continuously improving himself and pushing his personal boundaries. Even in retirement he was a courageous man, unconfined by conventions and blessed with many gifts.
In his 80s he became a champion of a local hero of aviation, the late Ken Jernstedt. Despite his illness, Bob led a project to build a Jernstedt memorial, which was supported by many friends and community members. Despite his maddening unreliability, his dismissiveness of things that disinterested him, his at-times acerbic wit and aggressiveness, he was generous and beloved in his community.
He is survived by his daughters: Ellen Nippolt, Teresa Vetter, Kate Huttemann, Nilsa Zeman, and Annie Bryant; 12 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren; his brothers, John Nippolt and Jim Nippolt; and a sister, Elaine Miller.
Funeral arrangements are being organized by Gardner Funeral Home; 509-493-1323. There will be a viewing on Sunday, from 5-7 p.m. at St. Mary’s Catholic Church, 1501 Belmont Ave. in Hood River. Funeral services will be held at St. Mary’s on Monday, at 11 a.m. followed by burial at Idlewilde Cemetery in Hood River.
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