He was on the team that identified remains in the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, excavated graves in a Russian cemetery and navigated Easter Island with famed Norwegian anthropologist and explorer Thor Heyerdahl.
Robert Mann was brought on to assist with identifying the victims of the Pentagon after 9/11, called to Guam after a Korean airliner crashed and traveled to Thailand following the 2004 tsunami. He teaches part time at five medical schools and two colleges in addition to his primary job – forensic anthropologist and director of the Forensic Science Academy at the Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii. It is the largest forensic skeletal lab in the world.
A high school dropout, Mann credits Tidewater Community College for laying the foundation for a career he finds as fascinating today as he did 30 years ago – the study of bones.
As a 27-year-old discharged from the Navy, Mann had interests that ranged from writing music to racing cars. But realizing the value of an education and his desire to “take his life in a different direction,” he enrolled at TCC in 1976. “I didn’t know what I wanted to do, and money was a premium,” said Mann, who made the daily commute from his Virginia Beach home to the old Portsmouth Campus, now the Center for Workforce Solutions.
Mann, who had never applied himself before academically, embraced the math, biology, history and writing classes at the college. “In high school, it was about getting through,” he said. “For the first time in my life, I wanted to get good grades in college, and I was interested in learning.”
Mann recalls his American Literature professor at TCC poking fun at his tendency to write “flowerly.”
“That stuck with me and is something I still think about today when I write,” said Mann, who has authored four books and 115 scholarly articles. “I tend to be very animated and descriptive when I teach and have to remind myself to be careful when writing.”
Mann graduated from TCC in 1978 with a 3.8 GPA and an associate of applied science in education. He transferred to The College of William and Mary, where a class in osteology sparked his interest in bones. Encouraged by his professor there to study under the best, he transferred to the University of Tennessee to work under renowned forensic anthropologist Bill Bass.
It was there at what is commonly referred to as the Body Farm, a place he calls “a school for the living, taught by the dead,” he became even more immersed in piecing together skeletal remains to tell a life story.
After earning his bachelor’s and master’s from Tennessee, Mann briefly worked at the Shelby County Morgue in Memphis before a five-year stint as an anthropologist at the Smithsonian Institution. While in Washington, he examined thousands of skeletons, assisting with the identification of Jeffrey Dahmer’s first victim and traveled to Easter Island where he and two other anthropologists met up with Heyerdahl.
Mann vividly recalls going to the small airport on Rapa Nui to meet “Senor Kon Tiki,” as he was known on the island. “I had read ‘Kon Tiki’ as a boy, and from that day on, always admired him for his bravery, explorer mentality and determination. Seeing Thor for the first time as he exited the terminal that day made me feel like I was seeing one of the Beatles. He was truly larger than life.“
Mann, a diplomate of the American Board of Forensic Anthropology and the first anthropologist to be inducted as a Fellow in the College of Physicians of Philadelphia in its 200-year history, has been at his current position in Hawaii since 1992. Although the field might unsettle those with sensitive stomachs, he has never found it anything but rewarding, particularly when he is able to assist a family with closure by positively identifying remains.
“Returning them to loved ones, what you can do for a family is really incredible,” he said.
He and wife, Vara, also a community college alumnus, have lived on the island of Oahu for 18 years. A national speaker, he often refers to his TCC roots. “I’m a major proponent of community colleges,” he said. “Why not? It’s a community environment. You get good instructors. Some of the hardest classes I’ve taken were in community college. TCC paved my way for a career in anthropology and now I’m living the dream. I couldn’t be happier.”