I might be one of the few people who ever had the last word with Robert Hope.
Several years ago, I was chairing a political forum when time was about to expire, so I called for a final question. Hope was among many who raised a hand, but I decided to call on someone who had not previously asked a question.
As I tried to wrap up, Hope shouted: "May I say one thing?"
"No," I shot back.
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Hope, a man unaccustomed to being silenced, was dumbfounded. Years later, he would remind me of my heavy gavel.
If Robert Hope has ever failed at anything, it's retirement. He tried it once -- for three days.
He had headed the local YMCA for so long that his name was synonymous with that institution. Much to his friends' amazement, he not only managed to shed that persona but also soon transposed his energy and talent to a new career as director of the Shepherd's Center, the interfaith ministry for seniors hosted by Oakland Baptist Church.
For the past 16 years, Hope has led that nonprofit in much the same way he did the Y -- through determination and unabashed proselytizing. Friends know that when Hope walks through the door, they had better reach for their wallets, prepare to be drafted for his latest project, or both. During his 27 years at the Y, Hope kept half the orange growers in Florida busy filling bags for his annual fruit sale. Restaurant coupon books have been the Shepherd's Center's big fund-raiser.
He would call me and say, "I've penciled you in for Oct. 8," but I knew Hope didn't own a pencil; my name had been inked in on the Shepherd's Center calendar.
Another big event of the latter organization is its annual banquet, which took place last week at Chandler Place. This year, it doubled as a send-off for Hope and his right-hand administrator, Genie Poag.
Typical of the guest of honor, Hope insisted on the last say. After a round of congratulatory remarks about him, he commandeered the microphone and proceeded to give a detailed rundown on what everyone else had done for the Shepherd's Center, from playing the piano at the weekly sessions to setting up tables and chairs. His wife and soul mate, Margaret, handed each one a gift.
Hope has never been shy in seizing the bully pulpit for favorite causes, but he squirms when he's the subject of adulation. Well, this is another time when he's just going to have to shut up and listen.
Robert Hope, like the rest of us, has his foibles, but they pale into insignificance in comparison to the extraordinary record of leadership he has racked up.
The two most vulnerable segments of any community are its youth and its elderly. Adults, generally, are expected to fend for themselves -- to work hard, feed and clothe a family, pay taxes and give homage to a higher power. Kids and their gray-headed grandparents, we know, often require more attention and patience.
I don't know how many Camp Cherokee alums are old enough to apply for Social Security, but when they do, they will be able to say their lives have been twice blessed by this man. By the force of personality and his patented pep talks, Robert Hope built two community institutions to minister to our youngest and our oldest citizens. He has been like a pair of bookends for Rock Hill, shoring up fellow citizens at the beginning and at the end of their lives.
Nor should anyone think Hope's contributions will cease just because this highly decorated, twice-wounded Korean War veteran with the bum back has retired again.
Last Sunday, at an event at Glencairn Garden, I watched a stream of people come up to shake his hand. Several were former Camp Cherokee counselors who now hold leadership positions in York County. Robert Hope's legacy will outlast everyone reading this column.
For the last half-century, he has cajoled, inspired and led us to a higher plateau. He would never say that about himself.
That's why he's not getting the last word today.