Bob Muse didn’t know how to do things small.
His kids and grandkids called him Big Bob or just Big, because everything about him was bold.
He saw combat in World War II as a Marine fighter pilot. He was a successful lawyer. He was married to the same woman, the great Judge Mary, for 67 years. They had 11 kids, seven of whom became lawyers, while the others became doctors, a teacher, a businessman. They had 36 grandchildren, 10 great-grandchildren.
That guy in “The Most Interesting Man in the World” beer commericials was modeled on Bob Muse. When he was in his 50s, he took up skiing and learned to speak German.
When it ended Thursday after 92 years, Bob Muse’s life was a sweeping epic, sketched on a canvas that stretched halfway around the world. And if you had sat with him in his study in Brookline, where his cigar smoke lingered as if it couldn’t bear to miss one of his stories, he would have told you his single greatest accomplishment in nearly a century on this earth was getting Bobby Joe Leaster out of prison.
In 1970, Leaster was 21 years old, barely off the bus from a little patch called Reform, Ala., when he was charged with shooting a Roxbury convenience store owner to death in a robbery. He didn’t do it and had an airtight alibi. But that alibi evaporated when the girlfriend he was with, far from the murder scene, told the cops he wasn’t with her. She was white, he was black, and it was a time when that sort of love didn’t speak its name.
The evidence was weak, but the rush to judgment was strong, and Leaster was doing life in prison when Bob Muse handed a file to his son Christopher, a freshly minted lawyer, and suggested he check out the case. Father and son spent nine years on appeals, without being paid a dime, until they found a new witness and Leaster, after being locked up for 15 years, walked out a free man.
“I owe my life to Mr. Muse,” Bobby Joe Leaster, 63, was saying Monday, after he walked down the aisle at St. Ignatius Church in Chestnut Hill, behind Big Bob’s casket. “I call him Dad.”
Leaster’s life wasn’t the only one Bob Muse saved. Muse was a 24-year-old fighter pilot in the spring of 1945, when he flew into the Battle of Okinawa and saw a kamikaze dive-bombing toward an American warship. Muse flew through the flak and shot the Japanese plane from the sky. Three hundred men on the USS Henry A. Wiley lived, and their children were born, because of Bob Muse. He got to know many of those men, who adopted him as an honorary crew member. And he never forgot the Japanese pilot whose eyes he looked into before he shot him down.
“He prayed every day for the young man he killed,” his daughter, Mary said. “He learned the value of life by taking the life of another human being.”
To Bob Muse, winning the freedom of one man wrongly imprisoned was as important as saving the lives of 300 men. Justice meant that much to him.
Leaster has worked with at-risk kids in Boston for the last 24 years. A few weeks ago, he went to see Bob Muse for the last time. They sat in the den in Brookline, and, amid the cigar smoke, Muse told Leaster he was as proud of him as he was of any of his kids.
“You left the bitterness behind and made something of yourself,” Muse told him. “You gave back to a city that took so much from you.”
Bobby Joe Leaster smiled and leaned in to hold the old man’s hand.
“Thanks, Dad,” he told Big Bob Muse. “Everything I did, I did to honor you.”