Being Fully Human
Memoir by Michael Usey
September 9, 2010
Why are we humans here? Well, one good answer is from the Westminster catechism: What is the chief purpose of humans? The purpose for humans is to glorify God and enjoy God forever. As much as I like that answer, it’s too general for me. Most people think of glorifying God merely as worshiping and praising God, which has its place. A crucial one, really. Most Americans try to worship at least once a week, and we pray more than that. But glorifying God is much more than worship and praise. As the writer of Ecclesiastes put it, for everything there is a season. And a time for every purpose under heaven.
We glorify God when we are fully human, which means we are here to eat, drink, dream, dance, work, play, play hockey especially, ride cycles, fish, love, comfort, cry, celebrate, and a thousand other things. We are, in short, here to be human. Made in the image of God but different from God. Very different. God, for example, has the luxury of silence. We don’t. We must talk if we are to communicate with each other, and our talking gets us into trouble. God has no physical body. No estrogen or testosterone. I won’t even start on the troubles those two can cause. God has never been to the emergency room, much less the ICU. God has never taken a milligram of Prozac. As best we know, God will never have to die. God is, after all, God. But, God has made us human, and human we shall surely be.
The Hebrew Scriptures, with their characteristic frankness, tackle the question head-on, avoiding some pious answers sometimes associated with religion. The writer of Ecclesiastes (whom some believe to have been King Solomon) gives four concise directives: (1) eat, drink, and be merry; (2) work hard; (3) enjoy living with the person you love; and (4) respect God and keep God’s commandments. Simple, sensible and hard to argue with guidelines for being fully human.
Robbie Previtte knew what it meant to be fully human. He was so many things to so many people: son, brother, father, Christian, coach, husband, athlete, rider, friend, healer, deacon, uncle, just to name a few. When the writer of Ecclesiastes said, first, that we should eat, drink, and be merry, it wasn’t a directive to be a party animal, but rather to enjoy the life that God gives us passionately. This is something Robbie knew.
Denise Sprinkle told me about a time when they were growing up together; she was one of Sylvia’s closest friends, one of the few girls in a neighborhood of boys. Denise knew Robbie since first grade and even went to UNC and had the same major. One time when they were 12, Robbie told Denise with great pride that his mother had called him son and not Robbie. In his eyes, he had graduated from the boy Robbie to the young man son.
He loved sports as a boy, and loved to read. Robbie was the fastest on foot and on his gold Schwinn bike. No one could beat him running or biking. He could also pop a wheelie way longer than anyone else in the neighborhood. He was so fast he told Mike he could jump three of his friends lying down on the street. These 3 he cleared easily. “I can jump 6 of you,” Robbie said. So he lined up 6 of them, with his brother Mike on the end—figuring I guess that it would easier to explain if he landed on his brother than on a neighbor. He cleared all 6, including Mike.
If he wasn’t a safe rider as a child, he certainly was as an adult. Recently he talked with John Hammrick about riding safe on John’s cycle, and Robbie knew what he was talking about. Some may think that Robbie never had any stress, since he was so even keel but I think that’s wrong. Instead he told his sister that he could relieve his stress by an hour on his bike. Some might say the bike killed him, but as a rider myself, I much prefer Matt Lojko’s perspective when he said that, for most of those who ride, the bike extends our days, not shortens them, by relieving great stress and calming a troubled soul.
I played water volleyball with Robbie at Hamilton Lakes pool. We played together on the same team the Wednesday night before he was killed. Robbie wasn’t very tall, but he could jump and slam the ball with the best of us; besides, he had a bicep the size of some people’s thigh. In fact, I remember distinctly that he stuffed two-handedly a couple of the tall guys that night—he could jump and he loved to compete.
He loved to play racquetball with his brother Mike, and they battled each other like Godzilla vs. King Kong. Robbie would wear a blue shirt the exact color of the ball, in order to confuse Mike. But the last time they played, Mike had the last laugh. Robbie kept crowding the center of the court, so Mike hit the ball hard—so hard in fact that it become lodged firmly in between Robbie’s butt cheeks.
Robbie had a unique tattoo on his upper right arm. Sam said it was a nerd tat, since it was a multi-color representation of the nucleus of an atom in motion. The three protons were his three sons, and the electrons represented the various people in his life that he loved, he told me once: his parents, Mike & Jan, Sylvia, Debra, Bill & Diane, Dan & Mildred, Harriet, and others I can’t remember. What a perfect mix of who Robbie was to have a tattoo (his wild side) of a nuclear particle (his brilliant side) that represented the people he treasured (his loving side).
As a boy, Robbie almost won the punt, pass, and kick competition that would have let him compete at the Super Bowl half time. He could kick with either foot, and he lost on the final kick by inches. He played baseball for Glenwood and then Smith; played football too, running back for a while, then he played center at Smith. In fact, Jeff Bostick (who went on to be center for the Redskins) was second string behind Robbie. Even when he was at UNC, he played sports, coming home during the week to play softball with his church, College Park. The UNC football coach saw him kicking field goals one day—he was just doing it for fun—and he asked Robbie to walk on. Robbie decided not to, since it would interfere with his studies. He was also asked to play the line for Greensboro’s arena football team—that’s how tough he was—but again, he decided not to, since he’d be playing against guys half his age. But still, how cool to be asked.
Robbie enjoyed being an uncle too. Mildred and Dan remember he and Bill throwing Jennifer across the room when she was a preschooler in the den in their old house. Jen said that she learned from Robbie that truth that you can love family by teasing. If you told him anything, he remembered it, especially if the story were embarrassing to you; he would pick and tease, but never meanly. But most especially Robbie did not let moments pass by. He was not sparse with kind words, hugs, and praise.
The second advice for being fully human from Ecclesiastes is to work hard. Robbie saw several things as his work: his studies, his career, his parenting, and his coaching. At UNC he was a straight A student. He would go over to Sylvia’s room to study, where he helped her with her business courses. Because he studied and wrote about lasers (he even got an article or two published on them), rock groups playing in Chapel Hill or Carrboro would have him to check their lasers, as he did for Led Zeppelin and others.
What he did for a living is not easy to describe and some of you will know better than I what exactly he did. Part of the reason for this was that, despite his numerous successes, he never bragged on himself. Marty said he didn’t know how to describe it to his friends until he was a sophomore. One part of his career was radiation safety: he inspected nuclear power plants like Lake Norman; he wrote a plan for safer transportation for spent rods. Another part was selling radiological equipment, in which he was very successful, mainly because he was so good with people. He was a district manager, a trainer for sales people, eventually opening up his own company, which he eventually sold and was hired back by the new owners. He hated wasteful business practices that wasted huge amounts of time and money; he recommended, for example, a webinar rather than flying 15 people to a meeting. But whatever he did, he succeeded, because his leadership style was that rare combination on excellence and people. Even in those ill-fated years in which he sold Amway, he positively affected dozens of people’s lives because they knew he valued them. Robbie’s business was always people first.
Robbie was a great father, a part of his life work he took seriously. He strove to give them every opportunity, whether it was sports, education, experiences, or time with him. One of the earliest memories that Gray has of him is of the tire swing Robbie put up for the boys, with a 40 foot arc that would send them 30 feet in the air over even part of the driveway. Gray must have been 6, Marty 3, and Robbie would get a running start and push them hard. In fact, Robbie would get a running start and try to wedge his adult butt into the too-small tire. It’s an image for the ages.
He was a whiz at doing the laundry, but his cooking skills had to improve. For a while his cooking philosophy was a can, a man, a plan. His specialty during the holidays was cocktail weenies that he cooked in grape jelly.
He coached their hockey teams, from when they were 4 to 18, starting with the street hockey teams, the Gold Sharks for Marty, the Red Sharks for Sam, then on to the Comets. There were several years that they won most every game they played, one year they never lost anything to anyone. Robbie didn’t know everything about hockey. Marty says he really only knew 5 drills but they did those every practice. And he wasn’t a great skater. What Robbie did know well was people, he knew how to motivate boys and make them better, and he got the very best out each one of his players. Surely this is the definition of an excellent coach.
The third advice for being fully human from Ecclesiastes is to enjoy living with the one you love, which Robbie surely did. All of you here know how much he adored Sylvia. She and Robbie met in eighth grade at the pool. In a life-saving class taught at the pool, Robbie noticed the beautiful girl that he recognized from his school. There was a drill in which each person had to jump in the pool and take off his or her clothes in the water, and strip down to a bathing suit. Robbie counted out people in line and made sure he was Sylvia’s partner. Love first, lifesaving second.
When she and Robbie were first married, they were living in a trailer—not a mobile home, mind you. They lived in the “Park & Stay” trailer park in Chatum County. Their first night there it had been raining—more water—when it suddenly stopped. They were lying in bed quietly listening to the calm after the storm, when, in the absolute stillness, a small animal jumped with a bang on the trailer from a tree, and ran the length of the trailer. In one motion Sylvia jumped out of bed and practically hit the ceiling. Later that same night, when they had finally calmed down, a muddy dog starting bumping the trailer from outside, and all sleep fled that night.
Although he loved her greatly before they left for UNC, Robbie remembers one particular moment that he decided she was for him. Sylvia was a fresh-man, and the fall term had just started. She was standing on the steps of her dorm talking to a handsome guy. Robbie saw them from a long ways off and thought as he walked to her, “If I wait too long, I might lose her to some shmoe like this—so what am I waiting for?” He walked up to the boy Sylvia was talking to and said curtly, “Get lost, buddy—she’s with me.” Of course, Sylvia was always one step ahead of him. She had told Harriet of her love for Robbie, but said she just had to wait for him to figure it out. He eventually did.
One of the many great things about Robbie is how deeply he loved Sylvia, and how he did not let his grief over her death sour him to life or God. He went on with his life, just as Sylvia wanted him to. He loved again. He and Debra had been together about 3 years when he died. She was absolutely wonderful and adored his boys like they were her own. Once Debra and Robbie hosted a Super Bowl party for the College Park youth group, and she was the perfect hostess: fun, endearing, beautiful, and kept the food coming. This last is not as easy as it sounds, with a crowd of high school boys.
She picked the furniture in his house, and she has excellent taste. In fact, when he first moved in, he bought several picture frames, but never got around to changing the pictures that came with the frames. Sam said before he realized that the pictures were stock, he use to wonder, who are these people in the frames, and do we have any relatives that look like Nordic Land’s End models? She changed them; Debra brought order and stability and beauty and love to Robbie’s life.
The last directive from Ecclesiastes is to respect God and keep God’s commands. We read the passage from Matthew about the importance of doing good but not letting your right hand know what your left is doing. For many of us this would be a description of how we play sports, but Jesus meant to say that, when you do good works, don’t tell everyone and parade your righteousness. There are lots of acts of compassion and mercy that Robbie did that we won’t know about, because he didn’t mention them to anyone. One day when he was driving around town, he witnessed a man in his yard fall over, Robbie slowed down, saw the man stay down. He jumped out of his car, performed CPR on the man, and called 911. For years after, the man sent Robbie a Christmas card thanking him for saving his life.
His entire life he was protective of his friends like Harriet Keen. She said Robbie was her big brother that always had her back. He was intentional about his care for her, and had a protective corridor around her. Stephanie, Grey’s fiancée, said Robbie was her second dad. Rydell mentioned to me how if you asked Robbie about his work, he would just say, it was fine, then he shifted the focus back to you, asking you about your life or shifting the focus from him to you. That’s a lost art, conversational humility.
Robbie wasn’t perfect—being fully human means we aren’t perfect. He was always late, running on Robbie time. One time a dozen years ago he told me he didn’t have time to be sick so he wasn’t going to allow illness in his life; he had simply decided he was not going to be sick anymore. The very next week, he got so sick and vomiting he was out of work for over a week. To his credit he and I laughed about this for years later. But his thinking positive emphasis (and denial of illness) cost Sylvia crucial time in getting her cancer diagnosed, something he always regretted. And after her death, his involve-ment and leadership here was sorely missed; maybe a little less hockey would have allowed a little more spiritual balance. Our strengths are often also our weaknesses: Robbie’s drive for the boys to excel in hockey allowed them to dominate that sport, but it also took them away from other things. Perhaps the stress of being a single father to three energetic sporty boys put weekends at a premium.
Robbie had an innate sense of justice. One time when he was refereeing hockey with Bill, one of the goalies was crying. Bill skated over to the coach and said, Better call a time out and check on your goalie. The coach responded gruffly that he was not going to waste his last time out on a crying goalie, that the boy was just going to have to tough it out. Hearing all this, Robbie then accidentally hurt his knee and called an official’s time out to deal with his injury. Bill skated over to Robbie, who said casually, Oh, I’m fine, I just faked it to force the grumpy coach to deal with his goalie.
My favorite Robbie story was told to me by one of his sons, who had an out-of-town friend in drug rehab here in Greensboro. Robbie never told anyone except his brother Mike, but he visited that boy twice a week—and we only know it because the boy told Robbie’s son. That’s what a true follower of Christ does, doing the right thing on the sly.
Robbie was my friend, and so he was to all of you here. He was fully human by enjoying his life, by working hard, by surrounding the people he loved with love, and by following God’s ways. One of his friends said Robbie’s life was a good lesson in being a man, and that’s a fine way to sum up a complex and far reaching life. He lived out loud, passionately, in love with his life and with all the many people he loved and touched—and most especially with his sons, Grey, Marty, and Sam, of whom he was fiercely proud, and with good reason. His sons will live the rest of their lives without a father in the flesh, but Robbie’s great investment in them will be manifest in their lives and in the love that all of you will reflect back from Robbie. They have a great man as a father, and not many sons can make that claim.
Besides, and I mean no disrespect when I say that there are many, many worse ways to die than riding your cycle in the golden North Carolina sunshine on a lovely Saturday late afternoon with a beautiful woman you love on the back of your bike. He did not hold back his life or his love. We placed numerous quotes in the worship bulletin that showed Robbie’s sense of humor and life philosophy, particularly in regard to hockey and riding cycles. My favorite is the Wayne Gretsky quote in which he says, Some people skate to the puck. I skate to where the puck is going to be. I think that was always Robbie: ahead of the crowd, skating to where the puck will be. He’s doing that still.
From the Sons
The situation we are dealing with is a difficult one. It’s hard to know what to say and how to cope. With that said, my brothers and I have written a letter to our dad and would like to read it now.
This kind of sucks. You always said a child should never have to bury their parent. I know this is not what you wanted, but you prepared us better than anyone ever could. We have always known how special you were and as much as you showed us with words and hugs and everything we showed it back with jokes and fake resentment. I know we never wanted them before, but we each could use one of your sappy”I love you’s” and your perfect strong hugs. Even though your not here to give us those in person we each have perfect memories and can really feel you doing it now. Its pretty tough to think about these types of things, but now you finally get to see all of our hockey games, even when the three of us are playing in different parts of the country at the same time. We know you are with us now and always and as much guidance as you have given us to today, we know you will continue guiding us for the rest of our lives. You make us feel invincible. I feel like you were bragging to your friends about everything we did since the first time we picked our nose. We know how much you loved us and we love you just as much.
Everything you admired us for, we admired you for something as well. No one will ever have enough good things to say about you. We will miss you banging the glass so hard at hockey games that the fan falls off the boards and you get kicked out. We will miss you cursing in the car when you get cut off, and were running late and you immediately come back with, “we’ll get there when we get there” with a complete in control calm cool head. We will miss the way you made goofy faces at every baby you passed in a restaurant or grocery store, just trying to make them smile or laugh. We will miss the way you always flirted with our girlfriends just enough to embarrass us and make them laugh. We will miss the way you handled every single situation you were ever dealt the right way. I’ve never met another man that has done that as much and as well as you did.
There were plenty of things that made you angry and you could complain behind closed doors, but you were never out of line, ever because you leaded by example in doing the right thing no matter what. We will miss the way you asked every birthday if we wanted to go to “phoenix asia” not phoenix asian cuisine, or phoenix, always “phoenix asia.” We will miss the way you always wanted to know what we wanted for dinner and could never agree, but you never cared about where we would go. We will miss the way you told the same stories about us, about growing up, and about mom, over and over. We know you always supported us in every decision we made. You always made sure we could do whatever we wanted. You had a big problem with telling us no, and to some that may have made them spoiled, but you taught us to be grateful for everything we have and everything we have been given. You taught us to always find the positive in a situation and with something as crappy as this we will always be able to find the good and saturate it. You expected our best at whatever we tried, and whether or not we failed or succeeded it was always about effort and that’s what you were proud of. Well we promise to do our best. We can only try our best now to do the right things, like you always did with your lessons and love always with us. We know you gave us every opportunity.
We love you dad.
Gray, Marty, and Sam
Thank you friends and family for being here in support of our father. We are very grateful for all of your support and we really appreciate all of your kind words. The numbers of people here is a great testament to the quality of a man our father was. We understand that only you will know the quality of relationship you had with our dad and that is an even greater testament to how impactful he was. Our dad was the kind of guy who many people, but it was the way he knew people and the emotion he brought to each relationship from the first time he met someone, that made him so special. Again thank you all for being here. We are aware of the fact we have an amazing support group and we know we are not alone. We will be using you to help us heal after such a great loss and we hope that you will be using us for the same healing. It means a lot to us for you to be here and it means a lot for him. Thank you.
Gray, Marty, and Sam