Robert F. Cole

Date of Passing:

December 3, 2023

Robert F. Cole, 83, passed away in the early morning of December 3, 2023. His wife Phyllis and daughters Sarah and Rachel accompanied his last days at Hope Health Hulitar Hospice Center in Providence.

Robert (Bob) was born in Spokane, Washington, on March 14, 1940, the son of Lillian Montgomery Holt and Robert Holt. Growing up across the western states, he later took the surname of his stepfather, Cole. Educated within the Catholic Passionist order, Bob studied for the priesthood, and even after finding a different direction in life held on to the faith and commitment to social service that he had learned there. He took graduate degrees from Harvard Divinity School, SUNY Albany, and Harvard Kennedy School before gaining a doctorate in Social Policy at the Heller School of Brandeis University.

Bob’s professional life has been in mental health administration: he moved from directing the Concord area for the state of Massachusetts and deinstitutionalizing a mental hospital within it, to implementing a program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation on behalf of youth agencies across the country, to taking part in residency training for the Psychiatry Department at the University of Connecticut Medical School. Even in retirement he has sought ways to improve public care for the mentally ill, regardless of financial need.

Meanwhile Bob has been a wonderfully loving father and shared his many avocations with family and friends. All his life he has been devoted to dogs, especially Irish setters; he has been a hiker and camper; later on he took up Scottish Country Dancing; he loved all kinds of music and was a gifted singer. Living in Rhode Island, he and Phyllis have found great pleasure in singing with the Chorus of East Providence.

In addition to Phyllis, Bob is survived by Sarah and her husband Tim Biggins of Brooklyn, New York, by Rachel and her husband Isuru Seneviratne of Jackson Heights, New York, and by grandchildren Greta and Teddy Biggins and Ruthie and Benja Seneviratne.

In addition to a private Mass of Christian Burial, a memorial service will be held on Saturday, February 24 (1:00) at Phyllis’s church, First Unitarian of Providence, which has also provided an important community for Bob. In lieu of flowers, memorial donations may be made to Loaves and Fishes, 1520 Broad Street, Providence, RI 02905, a service organization providing food to those in need, with interdenominational sponsorship including both St. Luke’s Catholic Church of Barrington and First Unitarian of Providence. See for details.

Online Condolences


  1. Dear Auntie,

    I’m sorry for your loss. And to you as well Sarah, her husband Tim Biggins of Brooklyn, New York, by Rachel and her husband Isuru Seneviratne of Jackson Heights, New York, and Greta and Teddy Biggins and Ruthie and Benja Seneviratne. I hope the holiday season brings you all good tidings and healing. You’re in my prayers especially you auntie.


    Your advisee


  2. My Dear Friend Phyllis of many years – I am saddened to hear this news about your dear husband Bob of 51 years. My sincere condolences to you and your daughters and family. I know you were a close loving family which is a gift. I only met Bob once and enjoyed talking with him. His life’s story is quite fascinating with all his various interests and accomplishments. Nothing or nobody can fill the void left with Bob’s passing, and I pray that the comfort of family and friends, along with your spirituality, will sustain you during this difficult time of mourning. May He Rest In Peace.

  3. Dear Phyllis,

    I lost my grandfather at 83 many years ago. He was my best friend, and a close fishing companion, for the seemingly endless summers of my teens. Indeed I wish they were endless. I still live and deal with his loss. Your late husband was surely to you as my grandfather was to me, and of course much more. There are no words for such devastation. Thinking of you, and extending a bear hug from across the Atlantic.

  4. Dear Phyllis and family,

    We, too, knew Bob through Scottish Country dancing. Not only from the Middletown class, which he attended throughout his time at UCONN, but we also danced with Bob at Pinewoods Camp in MA, and even at the UN in NYC! Bob was very active in the dance world. He was a quiet, humble and kind man and we were blessed to have known him. We are so sorry for your loss.

  5. Dear Phyllis and Family,
    I met Bob at a Scottish Country Dance Class in Middletown, CT. We shared many dance class sessions together and many a Highland Ball. He enjoyed dancing and especially assisting new class members.
    From interacting with Bob socially and now reading his obituary I can see from his education and background what a great husband, father, grandfather and friend he was to many. He touched us all in his simple kind way! The world has lost a great man!
    Sincerely, Everett Munro, New London, CT

  6. Dear Phyllis, I am so sorry to hear of your loss. Bob sounds like an extraordinary man, and I’m sorry I didn’t have the chance to meet him. He clearly touched the lives of many people and will be long remembered.

  7. Dear Phyllis,
    I am so saddened to hear this news and find myself thinking of when and where Bob and I may have crossed paths when I was a kid in Concord. I can’t help but imagine that there must have been some context when we were all singing together in the same place (hymns at First Parish? holiday songs on the town green?) even if we didn’t yet know one another.
    In this time of grief and loss, may you and your daughters and beloved friends all hold each other close. And may you be comforted by knowing how many of us are thinking of you in this time. As we say in the Jewish world, “may his memory be for a blessing.” Clearly, that is already the case! Sending love from Vermont, Becky

  8. Dear Phyllis, On behalf of the Board of Directors of the Thoreau Society–but just for me, too,–I send love as you experience Bob’s loss with your family. I’ll be thinking of you, holding your heart close. Sending hopes for peace across the miles.

  9. Dear Phyllis, Sarah and Rachel,
    What a hard loss for your family, and for the world. Bob shone his very special light in so many places, making the world a better place. He exemplified the Jewish concept of ‘Tikkun Olam’ or repairing the world. And during our shared Main Street era, and beyond, his devotion to the three of you was so obvious and inspirational.

    I will be holding all of you in my heart.


  10. Dear Phyllis,
    I am sending my heartfelt condolences to you and your daughters. Knowing how much joy Bob experienced by singing in our chorus is wonderful. If there is anything at all that I can do, please let me know.

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