Coach Bob Sumwalt: Gentleman and Friend 1924-2014

May 9, 2014

Coach is gone. Useppa’s longtime Membership Director and Croquet Coach Bob Sumwalt died peacefully Tuesday morning. Our 89-year-old friend is at rest.

The Sumwalts were two of the Useppa Island Club’s earliest members and property owners. Barbara fell in love with the island at first sight. Bob, the more cautious of the two, had to be convinced. It was a wild, unmanicured place with overgrown landscape and forlorn, century-old dilapidated buildings, but Barbara saw what developer Gar Beckstead promised. "Bob Sumwalt," she said, "I have never asked you for anything before. You will buy Useppa for me, or I will buy it myself." They bought the first lot and built the first new home in the late 70s.

Eventually, when Bob retired from the Singer Corporation, they retired here and Bob became Useppa’s Membership Director in 1986.

Coach, Bob, The Bobster, Dad, Old Guy, Honey…. Bob Sumwalt answered to a lot of names on Useppa and usually with a smile. He was a man of absolute integrity, an old-fashioned gentleman who believed in holding doors open for a lady, looking you in the eye during a conversation, and that a promise made was kept. During the week he was either behind his desk or dressed in whites on the croquet court. On Saturday nights he and Barbara went to the Collier Inn. They sat around the piano singing the old standards with neighbors and friends. Bob drank Scotch, Barbara ice tea in a stem crystal martini glass. They dressed in elegant formality on New Year’s Eve gliding across the dance floor.

Joining them for dinner, there might be a long conversation about Barbara’s passion, the island Museum. It was one Bob had heard before, but you would never have known by the rapt and attentive way he listened. And then there might be an equally long repetitive one about croquet, with Barbara listening as though for the first time.

When asked about the secret of their good marriage, Bob responded with one word. "Kindness. We’ve both been married before and we know how important that is."

Bob was the father of Useppa Croquet teaching most of us on the island how to play. The first Nine Wicket Tournament was in 1978 and among the players were the Becksteads, John Coyle, and the Sumwalts. In 1989 the first Six Wicket Tournament was held and again the Sumwalts and Becksteads played along with Billy Mills and others. White hats, white clothes, dignified reserve on the lawn.

In 2003 Coach became "The Bobster," red hats were worn, and Golf Croquet was added at the urging of the O’Connells, the Burns and Cody Davis.  Depending on your point of view, the solemn grace of six wicket and the good-hearted sportsmanship of nine wicket were either enhanced by or tarnished by this raucous addition. Now all three versions of the sport are played on the G. Robert Sumwalt Lawn with equal pleasure, the raucousness toned down a bit, the laughter audible, and good sportsmanship in all.

Coach was meticulous in his tournament pairings. It was never about winning, but for the better player to make the day fun for a less experienced partner. It says something about Bob that on Useppa he never won a singles trophy, but he won doubles, partnered with young players just beginning, or older people new to the game.

Bob was a man we could trust with our hearts, the vulnerable sides of ourselves. He never let a friend down. He cared for Barbara as her Alzheimer’s made staying on Useppa impossible. He never complained, and as a child reared by strong women in the Depression, he never gave up. He looked at each day as an opportunity.

When Dan O’Connell and I visited him last week, we started singing what the choir sang at the funeral for Dan’s mother. "Amen, Amen, Amen," and Bob in his hospital bed sang with us. His voice was weak but not his spirit.

Amen to a life well lived.

Hats off to you Coach.

 Photos taken and Bio written by UseppaGin