Robert L. Van Nest

February 27, 1938 ~ January 5, 2022 (age 83)


Jacksonville, FL - Robert L. Van Nest passed away peacefully on January 5, 2022, at his home in Jacksonville, Florida.  Born in Rhinebeck on February 27, 1938, Robert was the only child of Eugene Alexander Lewis Van Nest and Erlynne (Sterner) Van Nest.  Grandson of Lt. Col. Eugene A. Van Nest and Mary Regina (Near) Van Nest, he was also descended from the Rowe family of Milan.


Born during The Great Depression, Robert was initially raised at Rowlands, the family farm on Academy Hill Road in Milan, where he lived with his parents, paternal grandparents, and uncle and aunt, Reginald Rawson Van Nest and Ruth (Quigley) Van Nest.  After a few years, Robert and his parents moved to Poughkeepsie, and then to Sarasota, Florida, where he was graduated from high school and Florida Southern College, the oldest four-year private college in the state of Florida, with a degree in industrial arts.


While at Florida Southern, Robert also took part in many choral groups and other musical activities.  Blessed with a beautiful baritone voice of operatic quality, he won a scholarship to Fred Waring’s Music Workshop in 1958, and appeared as the male lead in several adaptations of Broadway shows and other productions in Florida, including South Pacific, Guys and Dolls, Pajama Game and Brigadoon.


After college, Robert moved north and began a teaching career in industrial arts at the East Haven Junior High School in Connecticut, continuing to sing in various productions and winning first place in the 111th East Haven Exchange Club talent competition.  Shortly after, he sang the lead in Bells Are Ringing and accepted roles in several other theatre productions, including the Cheshire Community Theater, employing his carpentry skills in set construction and prop-making as well.


In 1962, Robert joined International Voluntary Services (IVS), a private, nonprofit organization that placed American volunteers in development projects in third world countries, completing two teaching tours in Laos.  Southeast Asia was the focus of the organization at that time, and during the early 1960s, eleven IVS volunteers were killed or died in accidents, and three were captured and imprisoned by the North Vietnamese.  He continued singing and narrowly escaped the bombing of a Bangkok supper club where he was appearing.  Robert often remarked that his time in Southeast Asia was the defining experience of his life, and fifty years later he returned to Laos with another IVS volunteer from the period, marveling at all of the changes that had taken place in the succeeding half century.


Returning from Laos in 1966, Robert settled first in Rutland, Vermont, teaching industrial arts there and continuing to sing, appearing in Little Mary Sunshine.  He then returned to Connecticut, to again teach in the East Haven Junior High School and to sing in musical theatre in the area, appearing in Yale Repertory Theatre productions with Sigourney Weaver and Meryl Streep in 1974 and 1975.  He also traveled frequently to New York City during that period, to collaborate with a young composer on the lead in a bible-based musical she was writing, entitled Jericho.


After a time, Robert again moved south, first to Rockingham, North Carolina, and then to Jacksonville, Florida, where he was engaged in the carpentry and building trades as the master craftsman that he had become.  He passed away surrounded by his beloved cats and the hallmarks of the craft that he had practiced for more than 60 years.


Robert is survived by his two first cousins, Priscilla Albertson (Randall) of Red Hook and Elizabeth Van Nest of Troy, as well as several other cousins, nieces, nephews, and close friends in Florida. 


Arrangements are private through Dapson-Chestney Funeral Home in Rhinebeck with burial at the convenience of the family in the Old Stone Church Cemetery beside his grandmother as was his wish. 


Those wishing to make donations in Robert’s memory may do so to a local animal shelter of their choice.


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