Monday, Aug. 3, 2009 | Bob Tugenberg knew Chula Vista’s every nook and cranny. On drives throughout the city he would scour neighborhoods and explore expanding boundaries. He was often a step ahead of them. Curiosity guided his car mischievously under cordons and around barriers, onto yet unpaved roads to inspect the developments that were going up around them.

As a member of Chula Vista’s Planning Commission, Tugenberg had developed a fascination with growth. Long after the end of his eight years advising the City Council’s decisions on urban expansion, his Buick sedan could be seen ambling along Chula Vista’s evolving peripheries. While listening to classical guitar inside, he envisioned, fascinated, how the city would change.

He called those drives Uncle Wiggilies, after a series of children’s books about an adventurous rabbit. He took friends and family along, and narrated the city’s past, present and future. Just as often, though, he went out alone.

Tugenberg died July 25 at the age of 84. In April, he was diagnosed with lung cancer, his wife, Bobbie Tugenberg, said. Friends and family remembered him as a witty intellectual who impressed with his knowledge of history and current events, and who was eager to share it with those who would listen. They remembered his floppy terry cloth white hat, his trademark, and that rugged terrain was no obstacle to Tugenberg’s inquisitiveness.

Friends would take mountain bikes to roads he told them he had discovered while driving. Once, making it to the peak of a mountain, he encountered an impassible barrier. Unable to turn his car around on the narrow road, he backed all the way down. “He took that Buick on roads that Jeeps weren’t designed for,” said Bobbie Tugenberg, who rarely joined him. “I preferred paved roads.”

Other friends were more willing.

“It was true exploration,” said Kevin McCabe, who accompanied Tugenberg on many Uncle Wiggilies. “We’d see an area on the map and head out in that direction.” While driving, they discussed politics and development, and how they had both “hit the jackpot with our wives,” McCabe said.

Robert Tugenberg was born Aug. 7, 1924, in Milwaukee. He graduated from high school while the country was consumed by war, and in 1943, he enlisted. Though he had hoped to join the Marine Corps, he was recruited into the Navy and deployed to Guam, where he served as a radio operator. He was honorably discharged in 1946, and returned to the United States.

It was in Chicago in 1954, while he was working in sales at Everfast Fabrics, that he met a teacher named Bobbie Harris at a party.

They began dating seven months later, and by December of 1955, had married.

He retired from Everfast in 1967, Bobbie Tugenberg said, “or as he liked to say, was in between jobs.” He wanted to leave Chicago, but didn’t know for what city. “He wanted to move, but always where there was a college, because then there would be culture,” she said.

After trips to Arizona, which his wife thought too hot, and Colorado, which she thought too cold, “he told me, ‘Well, Goldilocks, what about San Diego?’” she said.

During a vacation in 1973, they passed a sign announcing the city of Chula Vista. Neither had ever heard of it. After conferring with a friend who lived in the area, they bought a house near Southwestern College, and the following year transplanted themselves and their children, Steven and Toni, to California.

“We only had one car, and didn’t know that nobody walked here,” Bobbie Tugenberg said. “I walked to work, and the kids walked to school. We walked everywhere.”

Tugenberg took classes at the local community college, and earned an associate’s degree, though his wife said he could easily have satisfied the requirements for a bachelor’s.

“That wasn’t important to him. It was the learning that was important,” his wife said.

In 1984, he was appointed to a seat on the Chula Vista Planning Commission. He served for eight years, and during that time developed a nuanced understanding of the difficulties his city faced as it confronted suburban expansion.

During those years he carefully perused developers’ proposals before making recommendations, and insisted on visiting the sites slated for development.

“We once went out on a really hot day to a canyon site,” said Joanne Carson, who served on the commission with Tugenberg. “There was dust, and snakes, and he loved it. He loved his job.”

He was particularly proud of Chula Vista’s Eastlake development, in which he played a major role, and had hoped to see the city become a vibrant cultural center.

As a lover of nature, though, he insisted on tempered growth and was saddened by the development of natural landscapes on which he’d often hiked. His philosophy on growth evolved from one in which he generally opposed it, his wife said, to advocating measured expansion.

“He thought growth should be controlled. He thought there should be more high rises because there was so much building outward,” his wife said. “And he was always concerned with where the water was going to come from.”

Unlike most homes in his neighborhood, his had no lawn. Instead, he layered it with gravel and planted native varieties of cactus. In his backyard, he planted fruit trees.

“He thought if you could eat it, you should water it,” Bobbie Tugenberg said. “But nothing else.”

In his last several months, while at home, he experimented with growing strawberries.

He was an avid reader and classical music enthusiast. On the inside covers of books lent to friends, he would playfully write, “This Book Stolen From Bob Tugenberg.” When his son was in grade school, he typed up his school papers, and when he was in college, he delivered beer.

He never tired of discovery.

“He lived and breathed the life of Chula Vista,” said Miriam Newman, a family friend.

As his physical strength diminished toward the end of his life, his friends said, he was no longer able to explore the region as extensively as he previously had. But his intellectual capacity never faltered, they said, and he continued going out when he could.

“The last drive he took me on was to show me one of the poorest neighborhoods in Chula Vista,” said Thomas Young, a family friend. “It was a perfectly good neighborhood, but he wanted to point out there was a community that poor in Chula Vista that people never see.”

Please contact Adrian Florido directly at adrian.florido@voiceofsandiego.org with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.

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