In The Limelight

Bob "BK" Kimball

Story by Teresa Nguyen

February, 2021

“I came home from the Army in March and had about $800 to spend. By the first of April, I decided to purchase an old, farm pickup truck for $500, bought some 2 x 4’s and some hand tools."
~ Bob Kimball

Founder and Past President of Bob Kimball Properties
Former President and Founder of Bob Kimball Incorporated
Former President of Wisconsin Builders Association
Former President of Rock County Historical Society Board of Directors
Former President of Janesville Noon Rotary
Donated Kimball Education Center
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Veteran


Some of Bob Kimball’s Awards:

2017 Hometown Hero Award from the Wisconsin State Assembly
2017 RCHS History Makers Generations Award
Janesville Noon Rotary Harris Fellow Award
Rock County Hall of Honor Award 

Anchor
A Janesville Legend
He was known as Bob, or BK, Mr. Janesville or simply, Captain. He went from living on a small farm in rural Rock County, doing morning and evening chores and walking to and from school, to becoming a successful businessman. One might never have guessed that a young, rural Wisconsin farm boy would grow up to own and operate the very successful Bob Kimball Properties, yet Bob became an inspiration! He was ambitious, yet kind, hardworking, while thoughtful, driven, yet generous in spirit. Such balance in character is a rare personality to know. Bob was indeed a legend. How fortunate for Janesville that he was one of our own!
The following poem amazingly reflects the essence of who Bob really was.

“Success” 


by Bessie Anderson Stanley

    
He has achieved success 
who has lived well, 


laughed often, and loved much; 

who has enjoyed the trust of pure women, 

the respect of intelligent men and 
the love of little children; 

who has filled his niche and accomplished his task; 

who has left the world better than he found it 
whether by an improved poppy, a perfect poem or a rescued soul; 

who has never lacked appreciation of Earth's beauty or failed to express it; 

who has always looked for the best in others and given them the best he had; 

whose life was an inspiration; 
whose memory a benediction.

 
The Captain, BK, on his Mississippi River raft

The Early Years

Bob was born in Chicago in 1932. There were four siblings; one girl and three boys. Bob was in the middle.

His father was an electrician. They moved around quite a bit and finally settled in Rock County in 1941. Bob’s father bought a farm out on Russell Road, between Newville and Highway 51, a beautiful, quiet location to raise a family.

It was a small farm by today’s standards. They had had pigs and sheep and, of course, a horse. The neighbors on both sides of the Kimballs knew them and Bob walked to school and played with the neighbor kids.

As rural kids do, he learned the value of responsibility and hard work, while on the farm, tackling morning chores for a couple of hours before the school bus arrived. As was typical, the Kimball siblings returned for more chores again after school.

 
Janesville High School - now Marshall Ap
 
The old Janesville High School on Main Street

Education

Bob attended Consolidated School and would walk about a mile and a quarter to and from school every day. Winter was rough and his dad would have to pick the children up on the tractor if the snow was heavy.

As a Janesville Bluebird, Bob attended Janesville High School down on Main Street. He dreamed of going to college, to UW Madison, though he had never been there. His parents never talked about college, as they just couldn’t afford it.

It was his high school ag teacher, Mr. Wesley Wiseman, who encouraged Bob to go to school. He came out to the farm and talked to Bob’s parents. Bob saw them talking and knew something was happening.

Mr. Wiseman told them that Bob should go to college, that there wasn’t much of a future for him simply doing chores on the farm. It was Bob’s decision, but it was Mr. Wiseman, who really convinced Bob’s father that he should go to ag school.

That was in August and Bob started at the University of Wisconsin in September. Mr. Wiseman generously donated a one-year scholarship for tuition! Back then that was $160, which was a lot of money in those days.

In order to pay for the remainder three years, Bob worked in construction. He was on a bridge crew, building bridges in southern Wisconsin and around Janesville, mostly in Rock County.

At the university, Kimball studied Animal Husbandry - an agricultural study of animals raised for meat, milk, eggs, etc. He learned about care, selective breeding and raising livestock. Bob desired to be a farmer.

But, plans often change and, on the day that Bob left for college, his father sold the farm. 

U.S. Army

World War II brought a kind of national service and dedication to country that was unequaled, even in today’s America. In the years after the great war, joining the service was an honor and a duty, and, like many young men, Bob entered the U.S. Army. He served for two years in the late 1950’s, post Korea. 

Bob was based in Fort Leonard Wood, a U.S. Army training installation in the Missouri Ozarks. He served in the Army Core of Engineers because of his experience in bridge building. 

If he had signed up for three years, Bob might have been sent to Europe. After the army, he finally returned to Janesville.

The Business Begins

At the time, Bob was jobless and, aside from farm chores, he had only worked in construction before entering the service. He left the army in March and said this about his decision to start his own business, 

“I had about $800 to spend.  By the first of April, I decided to purchase an old, farm pickup truck for $500, bought some 2 x 4’s and some hand tools. I hired my brother-in-law and my younger brother for a while.”

Bob Kimball, Incorporated began! That was in 1958.

 
 
 

Working with family wasn’t ideal, and after they left the job, he hired other people he could train to do quality construction work.

 

One of Bob’s sergeants in the Army, Bill Schultz, was his bookkeeper. One of his crew guys was Carl Larson, who was also in the service with Bob. He stayed on for several years.

Bob Kimball Business Grows

Through the warmer months, the business flourished. Then, Bob would shut down in winter and travel down to Florida for a month to visit friends. By March, he would return and get the equipment out.

It was about five years before Bob could afford a building. He first used farm buildings, renting the first floor of a barn to store equipment. Eventually, Mr. Kimball bought an 80-acre farm north of town, near Edgerton.

Later, he bought a farm on Wright Road, near where Harrison school is. Eventually, with typical BK generosity, Bob donated that land to the City of Janesville. 

Meeting Nancy

A friend introduced Nancy to Bob. Her first teaching position was at Wilson Elementary in Janesville. Nancy had taught there for 3 years and then went to Milwaukee. Nancy had come back for a weekend to visit friends, which was when she met Bob. That was in 1962. 

This John Ruskin poem was hanging in Bob's office
Bob married the love of his life, his beautiful Nancy, in December of 1963.

Family


Nancy continued working as a substitute teacher up until having the children. Then she took a break from working to devote her time and energies toward raising the twins. When the children were in junior high, Nancy resumed working as a real estate agent.

The couple didn’t know they were having twins, but along came Todd and Robin! The Kimballs have always been very proud of their two children. 

Todd went into the business with his dad. BK used to joke with Jim Cullen about hiring each other’s sons, so they wouldn’t have to answer to Dad. Bob had said, “It was a good idea, but we never followed through.”

Todd has followed in his father’s footsteps, managing Bob Kimball Properties, Inc., which rents apartments, warehouses and storage units. The apple didn’t fall far from the tree and, like BK, Todd has also dedicated many hours to the community, serving on a Downtown Janesville, Inc. committee and helping out at numerous community events whenever he is needed.

 

Robin’s children created this loving and sweet singing tribute to their grandfather, tweaking the lyrics to “Proud Mary” to perfectly fit BK and what he meant to them and so many. Robin wrote, 

Nancy and Bob Kimball's Wedding Day
“My Dad (BK) lit up when his 3 grandchildren played their instruments for him either in person, or when we would visit and they would play their violins for his Janesville Noon Rotary group. He was so proud! Oliver, Lydia and Dorrit wrote and played this familiar tune with their own words that described my Dad (BK) six years ago when we celebrated his 82 birthday.”
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Bob, Nancy and the family

Expanding The Business 

After purchasing farmland, Bob began buying property in town. Residential areas were growing, so he bought 120 acres and subdivided it. They built an apartment complex on East Milwaukee, pouring the basement to the complex just the day before Bob and Nancy’s wedding!

Then, Bob began constructing buildings, with the personal goal to build one a year for his retirement plan. He first built two apartment complexes, Todd Terrace and Robin Enterprises. Nancy’s role was in renting the apartments.

Mr. Kimball then bought the historical Peters Block of 1913, located downtown on East Milwaukee Street. Eventually, Bob bought and refurbished several historical downtown buildings.

 

The Bob Kimball Properties company leases commercial and office space, with RV and camper storage units on Todd Drive. They also rent furnished, executive condos downtown. The customers range from large industry leaders to small contractors and homeowners.


Bob’s Big Projects

Lab Safety, now Grainger on Wright Road, was one of Bob’s favorite projects. Don and Geraldine Hedberg, cofounders of Lab Safety Supply, gave Bob the opportunity to build the two Lab Safety buildings, each across the street from the other. Bob and Nancy have since enjoyed many visits with Don Hedberg down in Florida. 

Bob Kimball built the former Lab Safety Supply, now Grainger, buildings

Another big, favorite project was building the Holiday Inn Express on the north side, near Highway 14.

BK never seemed to slow down and always enjoyed the work over the years. That amazing work ethic inspired his family, his friends and his employees alike. 

Community Involvement

Bob was very involved in the Janesville Noon Rotary, contributing to the club in a wide variety of ways. Mr. Kimball also served as president for one term. He was also a recipient of the club’s Harris Fellow Award. 

Bob also served on the Business Improvement District board for downtown Janesville and served on the Downtown Development Alliance (now Downtown Janesville, Inc.)

The Kimballs have dedicated countless hours of volunteer work downtown. Bob and his son, Todd, would spend time on weekends to help with event clean up, hang up banners, take down banners, etc.

 

In 2017, when the Rock River Charter School had talked about moving because they weren’t able to afford to stay in their building, Bob donated the building to the school. They renamed it the Kimball Education Center. BK valued education and made it a point to attend the students’ graduation every year.

Moving the Frances Willard Schoolhouse 

Bob enjoyed being involved in the Rock County Historical Society and was the President of the Board of Directors for two terms. Bob Kimball also built the new addition on the Helen Jeffris Wood Museum Center, as well, and had previously worked on some remodeling of the Lincoln-Tallman House as a gift to RCHS. Another community great, Jackie Wood, was instrumental in getting that remodeling off the ground and Bob often called Jackie the “Queen of Downtown.”

The Frances Willard one-room schoolhouse was first established south of town, near where Cedar Crest is now located. Later, it was moved to the Rock County Fairgrounds for several years. Eventually, the fair didn’t want it on the grounds, so BK came up with a plan. 

Bob Kimball volunteered to pick it up and move it to the RCHS campus, which was then under the wonderful direction of Mike Reuter.

Bob and Frances Willard Schoolhouse.jpg
Bob Kimball relocating the Frances Willard Schoolhouse
He had to use a large crane to move it up from the street (Franklin) to where it sits now. 

BK kindly donated the foundation plus the equipment and service for the move! Volunteers continued with painting and other work on the building. 

A Drywater Productions video of the relocation of Janesville's Frances Willard Schoolhouse

Rotary Botanical Gardens

BK and his crew also contributed a variety of work at the Rotary Botanical Gardens, both with construction and other volunteer work. 

It was JP Cullen who built the Education Center and Bob Yahr who began the plans for the gardens. In true Kimball fashion, Bob was there, helping wherever and whenever he was needed.

Hobbies and Passions

BK began collecting corkscrews until he had well over 5,000! He made a lot of friends through all of his collecting. One friend advised Mr. Kimball to move on to collecting antique match safes, little containers that held matches with a rough side for striking. So, that became his newest obsession. They’re all different styles, and were, at one time in history, like jewelry items for guys.

 
A photo hangs in Bob's office of the woo
Bob created a beautiful wooden United States Puzzle in his woodshop

Bob also had a collection of John Deere tractors, but eventually downsized that collection. Fishing was another favorite activity for Bob and he loved participating in the car and bike shows.

BK was known as a talented woodworker. He liked to putz and, when he built his office, he made sure to create a place to putz! Bob’s woodworking shop was on the upper level. 

Bob once said, “Whenever I want to make something, I go up there. It’s my ‘toy room’.” He creatively carved two very large wooden maps, like puzzles, of the United States and gave them to his children. Each carved state is made from that state’s official state tree wood.

He would either collect pieces of wood himself or would ask friends in those states to send a board, which they did! He also created a key, describing each state tree.

What an incredible gift! When Bob finally got it done, he had the art piece professionally photographed and then had multiple, smaller, vinyl copies made and mounted on frames.

Travels

Bob and Nancy took several trips to Europe where they would meet members of the collector clubs.

 

On another trip, BK traveled with Don Hedberg, Dr. Greg Campbell, former president of Carthage College, and Kimball’s son, Todd, to Africa and climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro! His sense of adventure never ceased!

In a different excursion, Bob’s whole family went on a fun Safari and, more recently, Bob took all the boys on a fun trip to the Galapagos Islands.

The Captain

The longest and most daring adventure happened when, together with his friend, Robert Ozburn, Robert’s son Chris and Bob’s son Todd, BK built a raft with the goal of floating down the Mississippi from Prairie du Chien to New Orleans! The idea began with Robert Ozburn, who had taken a shorter trip on a Mississippi raft, while in college. After discussing the plan, the two Bobs and their sons decided to team up and finally do it! 

African Safari with the family.jpg
Bob and family on a safari

It took “Bobs and Sons” five years and eight different trips, each time picking up where they left off, to complete the trip. They could only continue when the boys weren’t in high school or working. They sometimes took a few other friends so that there were always four on the raft.

1985 Trip 8 coming in to port.jpg
Bobs & Sons finally reaching New Orleans! 
Their raft was nearly sinking after the 1900 mile trip.

The challenge brought the boys closer to their amazing dads, as the four brave men navigated locks and dams, crazy currents, some very close calls and the trials of sharing the channel with large barges, boats, ships and unwelcomed snakes.

To read the full, amazing Kimball/Ozburn raft Mississippi adventure, click on the link:  Janesville's Tom Sawyer & Huck Finn

Janesville is Home

Bob saw the community on the upswing and noted, “Good things are happening.”


Though Bob and Nancy go down to Florida every year, BK never desired to move down there. He had family here and he knew that he and Nancy would always have a home here in Janesville. 

Bob once said, “Janesville and Rock County were home to me as long as I can remember!” 

Farewell to the Legend

Mr. Bob Kimball left our world in February of 2021. He leaves a Janesville legacy like no other. BK was a giant in our community who contributed so much to our beautiful city, its businesses and community organizations. 

He will be greatly missed by his beloved wife, Nancy, his beautiful, successful twins, Robin and Todd, their loved ones and his darling grandchildren. BK has left behind many, many friends in Janesville, around the country and in other parts of the world, whose lives Bob touched on his amazing, inspiring journey through life.

Rest in peace, Captain.

 
Lifetime Generations Award from RCHS.jpg
Family at  Belmond Charleston Place.jpg
The Kimball Family - Nancy, Bob, Robin, Charlie, Jeni and Todd
In 2017, Bob recieved the
RCHS History Makers Generations Award