Bob Balsam just wanted to go home.
He’d worked as the Miami Beach Convention Center’s general manager since 2008, forging a reputation among the local business community as a genuine man with a tireless work ethic. But he wanted to go back to Cincinnati, where his partner, Arnold Chavez, and Chavez’s nephews live. Arnold and the boys, 13-year-old Carl and 15-year-old Jan Rae, were the loves of Balsam’s life.
Despite the strain of distance, the family reunited as often as they could. Chavez and the boys would come down for monthly visits, spring break and summer vacation. Balsam would go up for holidays. It was tough, but they made it work.
Then Balsam found the opportunity he’d been waiting for earlier this year, taking a position in Cincinnati and moving back in late June. Finally, Balsam would get to be in his family’s daily life — helping the boys with homework, going to their swim meets and concerts and enjoying life with Chavez. But in July, he and Chavez were at a Cincinnati Reds game when suddenly felt ill.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Miami Herald
“I thought he was just coming down with the flu,” Chavez said.
Within a week, doctors found cancer in Balsam’s liver. After a brief but gallant fight, Balsam died Dec. 5 at the age of 57. A Texas native, a memorial service will soon be held in his hometown of Galveston.
Chavez and Balsam were together for 18 years after they met walking down the street in San Diego.
“I turned around, and he thought I was going to beat him up,” Chavez said, chuckling.
Instead, the romance flourished during the next two decades, and Chavez went with Balsam wherever he needed to go for work. Not long after landing a job in Cincinnati in 2007 with Global Spectrum, the company that manages the Miami Beach Convention Center, the MBCC needed a general manager.
Balsam got the call, and he became a beloved member of the business community during his seven years here.
He developed a close friendship with Ceci Velasco, executive vice president and chief operating officer of the Miami Beach Chamber of Commerce, who remembers him as a “gentle cowboy” with a big heart.
“He was incredibly dignified, and has so much integrity,” she said. “One thing about Bob is he didn’t go through the motions. He consistently put himself into everything he did, and he was so thoughtful about his participation at personal and professional levels.”
Whether it was preparing for events large and small at the convention center or just coming over to help Ceci move furniture, he left a lasting impression on his those who knew him.
“People are walking around with little pieces of him,” she said.
Matt Hollander, Balsam’s successor at the convention center, said Balsam left an enduring legacy.
“I can tell you that by reputation and coming in to fill his shoes, he was clearly well-respected by the staff and by the community.”
Balsam also served on the chamber’s board of governors, and the SOBE Institute of the Arts board of directors, as well as being active in the Miami-Dade Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce.
In an interview on the Miami Beach chamber’s online radio show in 2012, Balsam shared why he loved Miami Beach.
“It’s the diversity,” he said. “I love the diversity. Every day it’s something new, with the tourists, with the people that move here. It just really lends to a great time every day.”
He made it clear he was dedicated to making clients’ events come to life at the convention center.
“When they come to us with a dream, we have to produce it,” he said, explaining that planning for events involved working as a tight-knit team with catering, audio-visual and information technology and communications partners. “We come together and work as a family.”
Even with his dedication to the convention center, especially as it prepared for an upcoming $500 million renovation, family was his priority.
On Tuesday, Chavez said Balsam was the boys’ hero, and he promised to carry on Balsam’s legacy.
“I wish I could have kept him longer,” he said, “but he’s not suffering anymore.”
Follow @joeflech on Twitter.
A previous version of this story misspelled Ceci Velasco’s name and had Bob Balsam’s age as 53.