Robert (Bob) Blackwell Jr., a former top CIA analyst who provided advice to presidents and policymakers on the Soviet Union and Europe, died Nov. 3 at age 76 from complications of Alzheimer’s disease.
A native of Atlanta, the son of Robert Blackwell Sr. and Carolyn Jackson, Bob was the first on his side of the family to go to college, graduating from the University of Georgia with a B.A. and M.A. in political science. While teaching a graduate course at the University of Michigan, where he earned his Ph.D., he met and fell in love with a student, Carol Burns. He gave her a “C” in the course, and she likes to joke she retaliated by marrying him. They enjoyed 51 years of happy marriage that produced two children, Jennifer and Robert, and five grandchildren.
After serving as an assistant professor of political science at Emory University for several years, Bob was approached in 1975 by the Central Intelligence Agency to serve as an analyst. He moved his family to Great Falls, Va. and enjoyed a 30-year career at the Agency, rising to become, among other roles, the National Intelligence Officer for the Soviet Union. During his career, he briefed several presidents, members of Congress, cabinet officials, ambassadors and foreign diplomats on Russian activities, providing critical insight before, during and after the fall of the Soviet Union.
Asked to brief then-Vice President George H.W. Bush in 1982 before he flew to Russia for the funeral of Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev, Bob talked his way onto Air Force Two for the trip. He was later invited by Bush to attend the funerals of the next two Soviet leaders. The unofficial motto of their trips became: “They die, we fly.”
Bob continued to play a vital role at the CIA in the last days of the Soviet Union and beyond. Hanging at home is a framed photo of President Bush shaking hands with Mikhail Gorbachev, with President Bush’s handwritten inscription: “Thanks for your valuable help in making this handshake possible.”
Outside of work, Bob was an avid skier, traveler and photographer who closely followed the University of Georgia Bulldogs and his beloved Atlanta Braves. He enjoyed games, including shooting the moon at hearts and besting most anyone at Trivial Pursuit. He coached his daughter’s basketball team, was active with his son’s Boy Scout troop, and was passionate about the church choir in which he sang tenor.
Bob retired in 2005 and was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s a year later. He faced this diagnosis with his characteristic courage and spirit, enrolling in clinical trials to do his part to find a cure for the disease that claimed his mother, aunt and grandmother. In 2009, he spoke at the Alzheimer’s Gala on the challenges of living with the disease. He was featured in several articles on Alzheimer’s in USA Today and wrote a blog for that newspaper.
Bob was a man of singular intelligence, integrity and warmth who will be dearly missed by his family and friends. A service of remembrance will be held at 11 a.m. on Saturday, Nov. 17 at Andrew Chapel United Methodist Church in Vienna, Va. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to Andrew Chapel Memory Café, a social group for persons with dementia and their caregivers (www.andrewchapelumc.org) and Friends Club, a social group for men with early-onset dementia (www.friendsclubbethesda.org).