14 October 1997
Memoir by Michael Usey
1 Cor. 9.24-27
In his letter to his friends in Corinth, Paul uses images of both boxing and running as he describes what it means to be faithful to Christ. They are important images to him, for he uses them more than one in his letters. It is likely that Paul himself was an athlete, perhaps even a runner and a boxer. Hellenistic Jews like Paul frequently participated in the gymnasium, the Greek course of instruction that included vigorous exercise and competition.
And of course, Paul's point is to persevere in the Christian race throughout one's whole life. Just as an athlete must keep on training and running and sparing and lifting weights, so must we Christians keep on with training in faith, with acts of justice and mercy, prayer, fellowship, good works, Bible study, and worship. Paul, who had coached many people on their faith, did not want to be disqualified himself for a lack of spiritual discipline.
This passage is a fitting summary of Bob O'Neil's long life. He was born not far from here in Benson, east of Raleigh. His mother died of the flu when he was 12 in the worldwide flu epidemic of 1918. His three brothers, his wife Flora, and his daughter, Linda Little all preceded him in death. When he died Sunday morning, he was 89: his was a full, punched ticket. If you had asked Bob how old he was, he would have said, "39." He said it often, and acted like he believed it. For most of his life Bob had enjoyed excellent health--due in large part to his physical fitness and his love of sports. Bob was a semi-pro boxer in the '20s. His career ended in Charleston, SC, when another boxer broke Bob's nose. It was his last fight, but far from the end of his love of sports.
He loved softball and baseball. He played softball on the church team for many years, especially after the World War 2. Bob was also an umpire for baseball, even on the college level--Elon and Guilford games, an avocation he was to pursue until he was 75 years old! Isn't that amazing? And he only quit then because of his first significant health problem with his heart. His son remembers that Bob umped a double-header--two games of seven innings each--when he was 71 years old, a feat I could not do today, and I am 39. For most of his many years, Bob enjoyed marvelous health.
Bob was sporty in every way, and loved to wear colorful outfits. The sporty casual clothes of the 70s suited him especially well. He encouraged this same healthy lifestyle in his children. For her 12th birthday, Bob bought his daughter Beatty a basketball backboard. When Richard was recovering from polio, Bob faithfully helped him with his exercises for 5 years afterward--a dedication which helped one of his legs to regain its strength. Bob loved Carolina basketball and the Atlanta Braves--it's not hard to love a man with good taste in teams.
One of the happiest time in Bob's life was when he in the Navy during World War 2. For him, this was the big adventure of his life. His ship was in the carrier group that Winston Churchill and FDR met aboard in the Atlantic, and he remembered hearing Churchill's voice over the intercom. He was on a destroyer for 3 years; they crossed through the Panama canal, and was there for the rest of the war in the Pacific theater. In fact, his battle group was the first to enter Tokyo bay near the end of the war.
Bob maned the medium size guns, and he remembered the time that he and some other men crossed under the huge guns of the destroyer just as they detonated. He should have been deaf as a result--for the roar of those big guns are literally deafening--but his hearing remained fine. He also remembered that the time he saw the most men cry was on board ship off the coast of Australia. The ship's mess had taken a several months supply of beef, but after a couple of meals of it, many men were ill. The beef was tainted, and had to be thrown overboard. The sight of all those steaks falling in the ocean caused many a tough veteran sailor to cry.
Before and after the war, he worked for Mo-Jud mill. In the 1950 he became a contract painter, which as all of us know is not easy work. There are probably very few walls in this church building that he did not sand, prep, paint, and repaint; his children remember him painting the high steeple that is above us still.
Bob was man of the church. He was a deacon here at College Park--not in name only but a working deacon. He wasn't the type to teach SS or to lead in prayer, but he supported every program of this church. Bob would help you anyway he could, and he gave a lot of time and effort to living out in deed Christ's love. He loved people, to be around them and to greet them--and people loved Bob. He loved to stop by the nursery and to see and hold the babies. He had a kind of "baby magnetism," in which babies seem to be calmer in his arms--maybe in part because of his wonderfully silly grin. Most adults who grew up in this church were held by Bob when they were a baby.
Bob was punctual, a rare quality in the '90s. He was on time, and most often at least a half an hour to an hour early. This made him at natural at as a greeter. For many, many years, Bob was a greeter outside on the sidewalk--there with a welcoming hand and word to visitors and members alike. Since his death, people have been telling the same thing about Bob: that he always made them feel good when they talked with him, that he loved to be a playful tease, that he never talked bad about anyone (if he didn't have anything good to say about someone, he simply kept silent), that Bob was positive about life in the best sense of that word. This positive attitude toward life is in short supply these days. He loved life and his family, friends, and church.
He was like a father to Edd, his son-in-law. And Bob took tender care of his wife as her health failed, and of his granddaughter, Maria. One of his sons, Richard, was one of three white students at Greensboro College who sat with the four black students in the now-famous Woolworth. Not everyone in the family approved of this at the time, and for one reason or another Richard could not go home for two weeks. But during that time, Bob bought Richard clothes and food, and was proud of his son (in his own way) for what his son had done, and that he had taken a stand.
When Bob finally moved from his house to a retirement home, he was excited that the ratio of women to men was 4-1, for he loved to flirt and to carry on. There he met his good friend Mozelle Moore who was his close companion during the fall of his years.
As Paul said about himself, Bob has run the good race, and fought the good fight. It's not something many of us can truthfully claim about our lives. Shortly before he died, Bob's son was with him in the hospital room, and his favorite baseball team, the Atlanta Braves, were on television. At the time of his death, Bob in the presence of that which he loved best: sports and family. The Braves won that night, fittingly enough. Bob's last coherent words were these: "Dean Smith resigned." For Bob who loved life and sports so much (especially Carolina basketball), it was a wonderful and appropriate thing for Bob to say--one great man recognizing the gifts of another at the eve of his life. To God be the glory for the life, love, and laughter of Bob O'Neil.