Obituary

Robert J. Kohlenberg, PhD, ABPP

May 11, 1937 – November 28, 2021

“My mission is to engage as fully and deeply as I can with the world—including  interpersonal, cultural and physical realms. This includes: 1) striving to love ever more deeply and increasing the scope and intensity of my attachment to, caring for and benefiting others; 2) increasing my concern and involvement with solving sociopolitical problems; 3) passionately playing with ideas that foster creativity and intellectually challenging myself and stimulating others to do the same: and 4) learning about, deepening my understanding, and having hands-on involvement and connection to the physical and technological features of the world in which I live.” Robert J. Kohlenberg

Robert (Bob) Kohlenberg lived and died true to his personal mission statement. He passed at home peacefully on November 28, 2021 in the arms of his beloved wife Mavis Tsai, with his sweet dog Falcor snuggled next to him. Bob’s health was declining rapidly, and he was weary of what felt like endless medical interventions, so he made the courageous decision to end his life using VSED (voluntary stopping eating and drinking) with the support of his family, End of Life Washington, UW Family Medicine physicians, and Evergreen Hospice. Bob was clear about wanting to die being in full contact with his feelings of love for his family, friends, colleagues and his work. He welcomed his awareness of both how blessed his life had been and how sad he was to leave.

Bob was a beloved and treasured husband, father, brother, uncle, grandfather, great grandfather, clinician, colleague, mentor/teacher, and friend. He was known for his vast intellect and intellectual rigor, his deep curiosity about everything in this world, his sense of humor, his loving heart, his humility, and his generous spirit that touched countless others during his 84 years.  Hundreds of notes of appreciation and grief have already been sent to his wife Mavis and to their professional community. Everyone who knew him, read his work, saw him present professionally, is heartbroken that he has passed. If a life is measured by impact on others, then Bob’s life surely could not have been lived better.

Bob’s parents, Bess and Jack, brother Sidney Kohlenberg, and sister, Dorothy Bein preceded him in death. He is survived by his wife, Mavis Tsai as well as his brother and best friend David Kohlenberg, (wife, Liz). He has four children, Barbara, Andy, Paul (wife, Inez) and Jeremy Kohlenberg (wife, Anastasiia), and Joan Giacomini, his ex-wife and dear friend. He has 9 grandchildren with a 10th on the way, and two great grandchildren. He has many nieces and nephews.

Born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Bob began his career in his father’s plumbing business, then attended the Milwaukee School of Engineering. He said he loved being an engineer, but wasn’t very good at it, so moved to Los Angeles with his wife Joan and three young children, Barbara, Andy, and Paul, and entered graduate school in Clinical Psychology at UCLA.

Bob’s first job after graduate school was at the University of Washington, in the Department of Psychology. He retired in 2020, after a half century of service. He loved his work with his whole heart, even stating at one time “I should pay them to do this job.” From 1997-2004 he was the Director of Clinical Training, a period in which the program ascended to a top national ranking. His contributions at the state, national and international levels were recognized by the following accolades: Distinguished Psychologist Award from the Washington State Psychological Association, Fellow of Association for Contextual Behavioral Science, Society for Exploration of Psychotherapy Integration, and American Academy of Clinical Psychology. In addition, he was certified by the American Board of Professional Psychology, an indication of being at the top of his profession.

Bob’s theoretical orientation was behavioral with a strong Skinnerian influence. He was a Skinnerian through and through, even naming one of his boats “The Operant” (he loved to fish, to take long summer boat trips north toward Alaska). He was committed to applied behavior analysis, the application of operant principles to changing behavior. Over the years, he successfully applied operant principles to a wide variety of problems, including depression, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, pedophilia, multiple personality, persistent vomiting, headaches, littering, and energy conservation.

In 1980, five years after he and Joan divorced, he married Mavis Tsai; their love produced their son Jeremy. Professionally, Bob’s attention turned to the enterprise of psychotherapy as he was very inspired by seeing Mavis grow profound, loving, and transformative relationships with her clients. He worked to develop a behavioral account of what he saw her do. Together Bob and Mavis co-created Functional Analytic Psychotherapy (FAP), a treatment with an international following based on Contextual Behavioral Science, and which focuses on the authentic connection in the therapeutic relationship, where both therapists and clients work on acting with Awareness, Courage and Love (ACL). The publication of their seminal 1991 book, Functional Analytic Psychotherapy: Creating Intense and Curative Therapeutic Relationships, heralded a major new phase in Bob’s career. With the help of an anonymous donor, they co-founded ACL Global Project which has chapters in six continents to bring FAP principles to the general public.

Overall, Bob was a productive scholar, with over 100 journal articles and chapters, and six books to his credit. He was a brilliant instructor whose graduate course, “Behavior Change” had been a curricular mainstay since his arrival. Former students credit him and this course to have changed their lives. He and Mavis traveled the world, teaching FAP and transforming lives personally and professionally.

While Bob was a preeminent psychologist who was passionate about his work, his ex-wife Joan Giacomini reflects that: “he was also a very loving father, so inclusive, the best kind of role model for his children. He loved to fish and instilled that love into his sons. He was adored by them and by his daughter Barbara who followed in his footsteps academically. He was never an all work no play kind of a guy, got through the stress of graduate school with his brains and his fishing pole.”

Bob’s children cherished their hilarious and playful father. He loved exploring the Pacific Northwest, fishing, clamming, cooking elaborate Chinese banquets and eating with gusto. He could fix anything. It always seemed there was never a problem he wouldn’t lean into and figure out. He brought his engagement with life to everything he did, parenting, loving, arguing…staying present and engaged through the sweet times as well as through the difficult times. He instilled his best qualities into his children—mental acuity, curiosity about the world, kindness and generosity, an appetite not only for great food but for intellectual debate, and a wicked sense of humor.

Bob lived gently on this earth, with a preference for not eating animals that he felt had consciousness. He was enthralled by seeing people with their dogs; he was enchanted watching parents with their little children. Life delighted him. As he was thinking about the end of his life, he was completely clear about how much he loved life, that he was surrounded by the most wonderful family, colleagues and friends, and that he had had the most incredible and fulfilling career. His last words to his loved ones were filled with love and gratitude.

When you miss Bob, and want to touch him, put your arm around someone who needs love, that is where you will find him.

Bob always believed that the highest form of charity is anonymous charity, so do good without getting credit, and we believe you will feel him close to you.

Contributions in honor of Bob: Bob was passionate about bringing Functional Analytic Psychotherapy’s (FAP’s) principles to the general public through the ACL (Awareness, Courage & Love) Global Project, a nonprofit organization which he and Mavis co-founded. Contributions in his honor can be made at www.livewithacl.org.

ACL Global Project’s tribute to Bob (9 minutes):

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=faYs4k9mmd4

Bob’s Remembrance Celebration and Sacred Laying-In Ceremony (3 hours 15 minutes):

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=prMdkBhRoEE

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