Robert L. Russell – An American World-class Mining Engineer, Explorer, and Philanthropist
Robert Labarre Russell (“Bob Russell”), age 87, of Kellogg, Idaho passed away on January 22, 2021, in Spokane, WA. He was born September 25, 1933, to Margaret Browell and William Russell of Allentown, PA. Bob and his wife Mary Katherine (“Mary K.”), who he met in the summer of 1953 in Kellogg at the local pool, were married in 1954 and graduated together from University of Idaho in 1956. Together they were blessed with 66 years of marriage, 12 children (6 boys and 6 girls), 30 grandchildren, and 6 great grandchildren.
Bob grew up near Asheville, NC with his brothers Rev. William (Bill, departed) and James (Jim), where he developed a passion for rocks, gems, and geology in the Blue Smokey Mountains near his home. His passions led him to a unique and unparalleled life and mining career spanning more than six decades, four continents, and eight countries. After graduating in 1956 from the University of Idaho School of Mines in Moscow as a mining engineer and ROTC officer, Bob served in the US Airforce for four years. He frequently recounted memories of being part of a handpicked team of young cartographers identified for the US Airforce tie project of 1956 to map the Philippine Islands and other areas of Southeast Asia. After fulfilling four years of military service, Bob and Mary K. returned to the Silver Valley of North Idaho, where Bob began work as the senior exploration geologist for American Smelting and Refining Company (ASARCO) with whom he spent several years mapping and surveying geological deposits in northern Canada and Alaska.
With hard work, a high intellect, and being a quick study, Bob soon joined the Bunker Hill Company in Kellogg, the largest expanding mine then in the valley, where he began as a mining exploration engineer and quickly worked his way up to mine superintendent. Bob’s initial introduction to the Bunker Hill mine involved a blasting incident where he arrived first on site to recover a man who perished in a stope accident. Thereafter, Bob became a champion and entrepreneur at the forefront of expanding mine safety throughout his career. At the Bunker Hill, Bob’s ingenuity became apparent, and he designed mine drilling equipment, management techniques, and mine safety equipment and models still in use around the world today. In 1972, the Sunshine Mine, in the midst of the greatest mine fire in US mining history, asked Bob to join a specialized team of experts to extinguish tunnels still engulfed in flames and save two survivors trapped for nearly 7 days. After the disaster, Bob was asked to assist in getting the mine back into production and eventually assumed the Sunshine Mine General Manager position. He brought the mine back to a higher production rate than before the fire and with improved safety standards.
Bob was always striving for excellence in his field -- developing solutions to complex mining extraction and efficiency problems, improving productivity, and continually driving mine safety. As US environmental and occupational regulations increased and began to drive changes and mine closures, Bob’s mining career moved beyond the Silver Valley. Bob first moved his family to north central Wisconsin, where he worked as General Manager for Exxon’s Crandon Project, doing preliminary research, government relations, and permitting for a new mine. While he completed all permits and forever changed major US mining regulations, the future mine site never opened after his departure due to ongoing battles amongst environmentalists, American Indian tribes, sportfishing enthusiasts, and the State of Wisconsin.
With continued optimism for US mining, Bob moved his family back to Kellogg in 1984, and later to Spokane, WA, where he started RL Russell Associates and began his own mining consulting business. While he was able to secure consulting work in the US, the heavy US environmental regulatory environment drove him to find projects that benefited most from his expertise in Central America, Canada and eventually Africa. His endeavors into large-scale overseas mining really began with his consulting for Fluor Daniel Mining and Metals and then for the World Bank on the world’s largest copper mines on the African copper belt. By 1989, he began work as vice president and General Manager of Freeport McMoran’s Grasberg Mine, the largest gold mine in the world and 2nd largest copper mine in the world, in Papua New Guinea, Indonesia. Located on a remote Indonesian island, this humble mining engineer from Kellogg was confronted by stone age tribes, thousands of miles of heavy jungle, mountains climbing into the clouds and covered by ice-age glaciers, and an imposing Indonesian government. Bob took on a massive expansion of the Grasberg mine and frequently recounted the days that he had to negotiate with indigenous tribal leaders whose heads were adorned by feathers, faces heavily painted, large bones protruding from both nostrils, and nothing covering their bodies but for a long root roughly obscuring their male appendages. Bob was successful in expanding the mine, ensuring continued safety with over 2M man hours without accidents under treacherous conditions and providing new services for the men working in the mines.
Having overcome the challenges of the Grasberg Mine in Indonesia, in 1995, Bob moved to the continent of Africa where he took over as General Manager of Zambia Consolidated Copper (ZCCM) - Nchanga Division (one of the largest copper mines in the world) near Chingola, Zambia, again to improve production, efficiency and safety. This time he was met by impoverished conditions of the mostly African mine workers, an aids epidemic, challenges of mine theft and vandalism, and a Zambian government that was growing in opposition to expat management. Again, against the odds, Bob developed close relations with his workers and the government, improved mine conditions, ensured food, safety and medical treatment for the miners, and expanded production beyond expectations. Bob was one of the last US engineers to exit the ZCCM copper mining conglomerate. He moved back to the US and continued to consult for the US Bureau of Mines and companies like Behr Dolbear as an independent engineer overseeing projects like the expansion of the Stillwater Mine, a platinum/palladium complex near Nye, MT. He also became a Trustee to the Northwest Mining Association and was active in defending mining as well as contributing to laws affecting mining in the Western United States. Over his career, Bob received many awards for excellence, most notably in mine safety, and he worked to meet or exceed environmental standards and be culturally sensitive to the communities in which he worked.
Bob the miner was a culturist and philanthropist who continually worked to improve the lives of nearly everyone he touched. He found that his greatest successes were achieved by bringing harmony between the community, the people working in the mines, and the culture around him. He took great delight in reading and researching about the history of the people where he worked and understanding their culture extensively, including religion, languages, foods, and arts. In Indonesia, 10,000 miners had moved to work in the mountains at 13,000 ft above their jungle homes and from the surrounding islands, and he realized they needed a mosque to practice their religion. He ensured construction of a mosque near the mine site and allocated time during mining shifts to allow for religious observances. He also added a hospital and medical clinic to the Indonesian mine site, bringing critical care to the indigenous people on top of the mountain as well as in the jungles below.
When Bob lived in Zambia, Africa was at the height of the AIDS pandemic. His compassion and commitment to the people that worked for him and around him was witnessed daily. He ensured the miners had a meal each day before their mining shift, and he ensured bags of mealy meal were reinstated for the workers to take home to feed their families. He worked to build a large and much-needed hospital near the mine site in Zambia to care for people within the community and at the mine. He also used mine carpentry resources to build coffins and help with burials, which were many at that point in the pandemic. He rebuilt churches within the community and provided musical instruments, like guitars, which had never before been seen by the local people. This gave him great delight to share his love of music. And he transformed the lives of two local Zambian girls that he and Mary K. had grown to know well by providing high school and college educations. He was a proponent of equality - he believed in finding the best person for the job, regardless of race, color, creed, or any other factors, which provided advancements into management for many indigenous people under Bob’s leadership who previously had been overlooked for positions. This ability to resonate with people, needs, cultures and look past differences was unique and truly made Bob stand out amongst his peers. He touched thousands of lives for the better and was beloved by many around the world.
Wherever he was working abroad, his wife Mary K. always found her way to him, with and occasionally without the children, and in some of the most remote areas of the world. Mary K. herself had graduated from college with Bob when she was 20 in accounting, and frequently was found late nights typing notes for Bob on his many mining consulting projects. They truly were life partners and soulmates. Bob and Mary K. loved their adventures overseas and always found ways to be a part of and support the local Catholic churches, schools, communities, and cultures where they lived. They also could be found hosting lively dinner parties with friends and family, where Bob would entertain with harrowing true-life tales of adventure and exploration.
As his consulting work wound down and at an age when most would consider retiring, Bob forged new mining ventures with the vigor of someone half his age and started new mining companies with some of his sons domestically and overseas. Of note, he identified the world’s largest molybdenum deposit (the Mt. Hope Project) near Eureka, NV, and began a company that would be listed on the American Exchange as General Moly (GMO). He and Mary K. together stood at the American Exchange and rang the stock market bell together. He also identified and negotiated rights to industrial mineral deposits in Southeast Asia. And, with a sharp memory of his early exploration days, Bob dusted off maps and located one of the world’s most significant gold deposits (the King King Project) for the 21st century in the Philippines, which began Augustine Gold, another family venture. Under Russell Associates Engineering and Technology, LLC, he took great joy in supporting his sons in various mining ventures and supported their entrepreneurial startups beyond mining in energy, transportation, space, drilling, construction and more. Some projects were successful and some not so successful, but Bob took interest and supported every project. Taking risks and finding adventure in new ideas was part of Bob’s DNA and kept him young at heart as he moved through the last decades of his life.
Bob’s passion for mining and rocks was as deep as his passion for his family and his Catholic faith. Bob was first and foremost a family man. With a large family that grew in size over the years, Bob worked hard to ensure his family was taken care of and that his children and grandchildren had opportunities for education, arts, and sports. He put the youngest four of his children through Gonzaga Prep in Spokane and a few of his grandchildren through Gonzaga University, which led him to be one of the Zag’s basketball team’s oldest and greatest fans! He even managed to attend some of their playoff games in his last years. When at home, Bob especially enjoyed family dinners around the table with talk of the day's events, long conversations on topics from politics, history, and religion to mining, and attending his children’s and grandchildren’s sporting events, ballets, and concerts. Despite his extensive work and travels, he rarely missed a holiday with family, high school or college graduation, wedding, first communion, confirmation, or even birthdays.
In his early days of living in Idaho, Bob and Mary K. built a large Cabin near Clark Fork, ID. The cabin was nearly built entirely by hand by Bob and his eldest sons, and it became a place of great joy and where the family enjoyed ruckus card games, campfires, and hikes in the Idaho Rocky Mountains. While the old cabin collapsed under extreme snow conditions in ‘97, the new cabin, a tribute to the old, stands tall and was one of Bob’s favorite and final destinations, where he spent his last Christmas holiday and New Year. Before succumbing to illness on Jan. 22, 2021, he had been working there on his latest project to pen an autobiography of his experience and knowledge of running some of the world’s largest mines and his secrets to growing their productivity exponentially.
Bob touched the lives of many around the globe in positive and meaningful ways, and his expertise in mining and geology was sought and valued by world experts until his last days on this earth. Most memorably, Bob taught his children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren many life lessons -- work hard; take time to experience and enjoy life; pursue your passions and dreams; be compassionate and open your eyes to the needs of others around you; have honesty and integrity in all actions; continually learn and grow through reading, education, and conversation; and most of all be faithful to your family and almighty God.
Bob is survived by his wife, Mary Katherine Russell, 11 of his 12 children (Margaret, David (wife Liann), (Katherine - Departed, husband Michael) Campbell, Marvin (wife Darlene), Elizabeth, Marian, Matthew (wife Cindy), Anne, Andrew (wife Melanie), Charles (wife Annie J.), Mark (wife Victoria) and Jeanene (husband Ford)) Perry; 25 of his 30 grandchildren (Mark T. Russell, James Russell, Dane Russell, Christopher Russell, Nicholas Campbell, Kali Campbell, (Luke Cernick- Departed), Tobias Cernick, Nate Cernick, (Ben - Departed), John Cernick, Daniel Cernick, Rachel Cernick, Evianna Cernick, Isaac Franson, Caleb Franson, Drake Russell, Blaise Russell, Larkin Russell, Trevan Russell, Makenzy Brown, Madelynne Brown, Whitney Russell, Jake Russell, Grant Russell, Alex Russell, Noah Russell, Isabella Russell, Webster Perry, and Arianna Perry); and 6 great grandchildren (Carissa Cernick, Nathaniel Cernick, Elaina Cernick, Ona Campbell, Ava Shay Russell, and Luke T. Russell.)
Services will be held as follows at St. Rita’s Catholic Church of Kellogg with Father Jerome Montez officiating. Wake and prayer service on Thursday, February 4, beginning at 5 p.m. and Memorial Service on Friday, February 5, at 11 a.m. A Zoom meeting will be set up for family and friends to join online, and the link will be made available at www.robertlrussell.com. It is suggested for anyone attending services to please wear a mask with social distancing, per CDC guidelines. The family suggests that memorials may be made to the St. Rita’s Catholic Church of Kellogg.
Messages of condolence may be sent to the family online at www.shoshonefuneralservices.com. Shoshone Funeral Services, Kellogg, is assisting the Russell family with arrangements.