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Rock Hill tornado victim was a man of faith

Last Wednesday, Sharon Courtney lost her husband of 35 years to the tornado that ripped through southern Rock Hill.

Still, she turned to the Rev. Jerry Devinney that fateful day and said, "Jerry, I want to worship," before singing "Amazing Grace."

It is this faith that sustained Oran Stephan Courtney, 60, throughout his life, and what people remembered about him Sunday.

Devinney, pastor of Oakdale Baptist Church in Rock Hill, told that story before a packed congregation Sunday afternoon at Northside Baptist Church, where Courtney served as a deacon, building and grounds committee member and adult choir member.

A native of Rock Hill, Courtney was president of Courtney Electric Co. and owner/operator of Mid-Carolina Electric Co.

Devinney didn't plan to preach the funeral of Courtney on Sunday, he declared to the hundreds of people in the seats, along the walls, in the foyer of the church and spilling out onto the steps on the somber, gray day.

"Steve already preached it, every day of his life," said Devinney, a friend of the family. "I come here to celebrate."

Devinney talked about how much Courtney loved his family - his wife, Sharon; two sons Nathan and Jeremy; daughter Rachel and her husband Greg; and his granddaughter Ashlyn, whom he "spoiled rotten" and called "little rascal."

Devinney also told the crowd how Courtney had first met Sharon when she was playing piano at a church. He picked her up for a date wearing white tennis shorts, and later made her his wife.

Devinney said he stood with Courtney in the church as Sharon entered in her wedding dress, and he remembered him beginning to cry and saying to Devinney: "God has revealed to me the only woman who can make me complete."

"Sharon, you were the love of his life," he said. "You made him what he is."

It was a family he loved so much that he died protecting them in Wednesday's storm. As the tornado came closer to their Williamson Road home, Courtney pushed Rachel and Ashlyn into a reinforced hallway.

Rachel Courtney heard her father call out, "God, please spare my family."

God listened, Devinney said.

Devinney and Courtney had known each other for years, and like everyone, Devinney said he's confused, perplexed and asking if his friend, Steve, is really gone.

But there is good news, he added.

"We didn't lose anybody," he said. "We know where Steve is today."

That's because Courtney put God first and lived in his faith every day, Devinney explained. He loved to laugh, he loved gospel music and he lived "a full and meaningful life."

"Some of us are afraid to live," he said. "Steve wasn't. Some of us are afraid to experience new things. Steve wasn't."

Devinney said Courtney understood that God only promises today.

Devinney also pointed out that "Rock Hill became Rock Hill again" because everyone came together after last week's tragedy, including disaster relief efforts, the American Red Cross and volunteers.

In fact, Sharon's wedding dress was found in the tornado's path and returned to her.

The community has been bruised, Devinney said, and what it's lost it can't get back.

"But this man that you loved brought the community back together," he said.

In the upcoming weeks, the Rev. Dr. Jerry Sosebee, pastor at Northside, said he wants people to share stories of Courtney, a "great man of God."

"You've always said that," he said, smiling at Sharon. "You all understood the greatness of Steve Courtney."

"[The tornado] took about two seconds," Sosebee said. "You can't make any decision in two seconds."

Follow Courtney's example, he urged the crowd, and make sure you know Jesus Christ, because we are not guaranteed tomorrow.

Want to help?

Tri-Drive: Between 3 and 7 p.m. today, the Upper Palmetto Chapter of the American Red Cross will hold a holiday "tri-drive" for the organization's disaster relief fund. It will also include the monthly blood drive and Holiday Mail for Heroes drive.

The tri-drive will take place at 200 Piedmont Boulevard, Rock Hill, S.C., 29732. Call 803-417-4233 for more information.

Donations: Drinks, non-perishable food, hygiene items, clothing and more can be taken to Oakdale Baptist Church, 1249 Oakdale Road, Rock Hill. For more information call 803-327-7972.

To donate to the American Red Cross, which is assisting the families affected, call 803-329-6575 or go to redcross.org.

Found items: The tornado was so powerful that personal items from destroyed homes have been found throughout York County and as far away as Mecklenburg County. To return items to families, go to Bethesda Volunteer Fire Department, 1705 S.C. 324, or call 803-328-0779.

Donations can be made in Oran Stephan Courtney's name to Shriners Hospital at 950 West Faris Street, Greenville, S.C., 29605 or to Northside Baptist Church Building Fund, 1140 Curtis Street, Rock Hill, S.C., 29730.

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