[Hpn] Sacramento, CA - Obituary: Robert L. 'Shorty' Roff, noted Sacramento hobo - Sacramento Bee - August 10, 2002

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Mon, 12 Aug 2002 06:19:17 -0500

Obituary: Robert L. 'Shorty' Roff, noted Sacramento hobo

By Ted Bell - Sacramento Bee - August 10, 2002

A week ago, friends of Robert Louis Roff gathered at the Old
Tavern in midtown to say goodbye to the man who recently had died
of cancer.

Very few in the overflow crowd knew that they were there for
Robert Roff.

They all knew him as "Shorty."

Shorty was, proudly and unapologetically, a hobo.

Those who knew him say he arrived in Sacramento in August 1973
when he accidentally fell off a train that was heading south on
the Union Pacific Railroad tracks just behind the Old Tavern on
20th Street.

Although he would frequently return to riding the rails to places
as far east as New Jersey over the next 28 years, Sacramento was
his base.

He lived in various places while in town: along the Sacramento
River in Broderick; temporarily with friends in an apartment or
motel rooms; even in a back room at the bar.

Shorty was born in New Jersey on July 31, 1940. He was orphaned
shortly afterward and spent the first seven years of his life in
a children's home. He ran away from the last of a series of bad
foster homes when he was 13 for a life on the road.

The next 20 years are undocumented, but his many friends share a
common belief that Shorty worked up and down the East Coast as a
deckhand (or captain, depending on the story) of a tugboat and
for a crew ferrying yachts from New Jersey shipyards to

He worked on ranches in Wyoming and New Mexico and did odd jobs
as a handyman.

All the while, he rode the rails.

One friend, Mike Buchanan, said Shorty was an independent man who
took pride in his ability to pay his own way. He wouldn't
frequent Loaves & Fishes for a free meal.

"He called himself a hobo because hobos work for their keep,"
said Ron Johnson, another of Shorty's friends. "Tramps, he said,
just ride rails and freeload."

"Sometimes he'd just pick and leave and go where the trains go
for a while, and then he'd be back in a few months," said Tanya,
an Old Tavern bartender.

"He said he wanted to see Mexico, so a few months before he died
he went down there for a while. He brought back a beautiful
bracelet for my baby."

On his trips, Shorty would return to New Jersey periodically to
spend time with some children he had fathered and other family
members. And then he would return to roaming.

Friends like Buchanan and Johnson said Shorty was a very likeable
guy, honest and completely loyal to his friends.

But Shorty could get riled up.

"If he knew you, he could joke about his height (about 5 feet 5
inches)," recalled former Bee photographer Michael Williamson,
the co-author of a book, "The Last Great American Hobo," that
featured Shorty as a character.

"But if anyone referred to his height as short, you would have
trouble. He was utterly fearless. He'd take on bikers who would
be astonished at what was coming at them. He developed the
persona of a pit bull and he had a genuine dislike for authority
because it had abused him all his life."

Much of Shorty's time in Sacramento was spent living in camps
along both sides of the Sacramento River.

"Hell, I ain't homeless," he once told a Bee reporter. "I got a
home right here."

Once he was diagnosed with cancer, he managed to get some Social
Security and got a small apartment where he spent his last months
under the care of some friends. He died July 27.

Told of Shorty's demise, Williamson said: "People think the river
guys are cut off from the world. But, in fact, they are very
aware of what's going on in the world and that's why they don't
want to have anything to do with it.

"The world doesn't want men like Shorty around and Shorty didn't
want to be around that kind of world. 

All he ever asked for in life was to be left alone."

Buchanan will ride a freight train soon to plot out the route Shorty
used to take back to New Jersey and mark some areas where
he will later scatter Shorty's ashes.

That was Shorty's only other request.

Ted Bell can be reached at (916) 321-1071 or tbell@sacbee.com
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