Robert Eastham was 9 years old when he started working at his father’s service station on the corner of Wisconsin Avenue and Leland Street. Sixty years later, he’s still there, running the family business on the same spot in the same way. Eastham’s has often ranked among the top 10 Exxon stations in the country based on sales and service, and when I asked for his secret, Bob quickly replied with one word: consistency. “You’re only as good as you are that day,” Eastham says in his cramped office. He’s wearing blue shorts to honor a burst of early spring warmth. “You could have the greatest reputation in the world, but if there’s a customer standing in front of that service desk and he’s disappointed in you or has a problem, you need to take care of it right then. The hardest thing in business, I’ve learned in my 60 years here, is being consistently good.”
Bob Eastham is not a doctor who saves lives, a general who commands troops or an astronomer who discovers stars. He pumps gas and fixes cars. But he does this job as well as it can be done. He takes great pride in his work, and his father is never far from his mind.
The elder Eastham, Robert L. Eastham Sr., a farm boy from Culpeper, Va., was a troubleshooter for Standard Oil in 1927, when he was assigned to fix a failing station in Bethesda, then a small town north of Washington, D.C. Wisconsin Avenue was one lane in both directions, and the station had a gravel driveway, but the farm boy liked the area and saw its potential. Within two years he had taken over the business, constructed a new building, put his name on the door and settled down in a small house around the corner.
He was a powerful figure, with “huge arms” and “hands as big as ham hocks,” who often dealt with his only son by “screaming and hollering,” Bob Eastham recalls. “My father was really tough on me. No matter what I did, it was wrong. When I zigged, I should have zagged, and vice versa. When he told me to sit down, I didn’t even look for a chair, I just sat.”
The son grew to be as large and as strong as the father, and he ducked out of work long enough to become a star football player at Bethesda-Chevy Chase (B-CC) High School and win an athletic scholarship to the University of Virginia. But during his freshman year, in 1958, the elder Eastham suffered a debilitating heart attack and summoned his son home to take over the business.
Bob’s only time away from Bethesda after that was a four-year detour in the Marines during the early ’60s, and he tells that story with his typically wry humor: “I saw all those John Wayne movies like everybody else, but I learned that the bullets don’t bounce off you as they did John Wayne. I got the whole top of my head blown off in Vietnam.”
The elder Eastham died in 1967, but his son never lost the feeling that he had something to prove to that big man with the ham-hock hands. “It was very, very important to me to do the best I could,” he recalls, “and, in fact, I probably went too far.”
A service station is a dirty place, but every day at Eastham’s, the driveways were scrubbed and the curbs painted. Flowers bloomed in boxes next to the gas pumps. The owner arrived at 7 in the morning and left at 11 at night. His first marriage fell apart, and he now admits that his devotion to the station “was not a good commentary on my character.” But he had made a clear choice: business over family.