Letting his beauty shine from within

Voluntarism: Bel Air resident honored for decades of selfless service in Harford.

October 12, 2003|By Hanah Cho | Hanah Cho,SUN STAFF

It wasn't until Robert Melville was nominated for Harford County's Most Beautiful People award that many of his friends and even his closest relatives knew the full scope of his volunteer activities.

From advocating the importance of health and fitness to cleaning up debris along the Appalachian Trail and the Ma and Pa Heritage Corridor in Bel Air, the list is extensive and speaks to Melville's decades of volunteer work in his community.

Now, the retired physical education teacher, coach and administrator for the Harford County Public Schools will represent the county at Maryland's Most Beautiful People reception next month. On Oct. 2, Melville was selected as Harford County's "Most Beautiful" volunteer among 29 nominees at a ceremony at Bel Air Church of the Nazarene.

Yet, friends and family members say the 79-year-old Bel Air resident is humble and even embarrassed to talk about his accomplishments and volunteer work.

"We were talking on the phone and he said, `The bad news is that they've nominated me for an award,'" recalled Helen King, 77, Melville's late wife's sister-in-law. "I said, `What's bad about that?'"

Melville responded, "It's embarrassing," according to King.

"It's his personality," King said. "In fact, I didn't know about the other things that he had done. ... I didn't know about the Appalachian Trail and all the other things."

Described as a silent but strong individual with a passion for physical fitness education, Melville tried to talk his longtime neighbor Dale Neeper out of nominating him for the honor.

"Over the years, he has volunteered to do a lot of things and helped a lot of people," said Neeper, who along with Melville has lived in a cul-de-sac in southwest Bel Air for several decades. "It made me feel like this is a program that is a good way to tell someone that Bob has done a good job."

At the ceremony attended by Melville's nieces, nephews, King and Neeper, Melville was "flabbergasted" and "shocked" when his name was announced as the county representative to the statewide voluntarism honor, Neeper said.

"He stood up and turned around and looked at me," Neeper said. "and shook his head, like this can't be happening."

As Melville describes it, the honor bestowed on him is an opportunity for him to be a "very good representative and do justice to the other volunteers in Harford County."

"It's not about who's the winner," Melville said. "I hope I can represent them well. That frightens me a little because there are an awful lot of good people."

Sitting at his dining table at his home last week, Melville was reserved and even reluctant to talk about his volunteer work.

He was a member of the Harford County Committee for the President's Council on Fitness and Sports and the State Association of Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance.

He also helped St. Margaret School in Bel Air develop a physical education program for elementary and middle school pupils. Moreover, he created a health and physical fitness program for senior citizens in Bel Air.

He's also actively involved in the Harford Glen Foundation and the Liriodendron Foundation.

Recently, Melville has been volunteering at the countywide Partner in Reading program, which places volunteer readers in public elementary schools. He will begin his second year of reading to pupils in Deerfield Elementary School in Edgewood next month.

"Volunteer work can be very gratifying and satisfying," Melville said. "If I could sum it up, one of my dear friends gave me a slogan to keep in mind: `Those who feed the birds are never friendless.' I sort of adopted that to say: `Those who do volunteer work will never be friendless.'"

Most of his life has been dedicated to pushing for physical fitness and health education.

After a stint in the Air Force in the mid-1940s, Melville went to Slippery Rock University, then a teacher's college in Pennsylvania, on the G.I. Bill and earned his bachelor's degree in health and physical education in 1949. "I was a runner," Melville said. "That's why I got interested in lifetime physical fitness. You find a habit you could do and enjoy."

A year later, Melville earned a master's degree in health and physical education from Columbia University while teaching at a boys school in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y.

At Columbia, Melville met the school superintendent of Harford County schools and took a job at Aberdeen High School without ever visiting the site. It was a start of a teaching, coaching and administrative career that spanned 32 years before retiring in 1982.

Melville taught physical and health education and coached a variety of sports, including soccer and basketball, at Aberdeen High School for many years.

For nearly 10 years, Melville taught health and physical education at Towson University. He also coached the men's lacrosse team at the college.

Then, he returned to the Harford County schools system as the supervisor of physical education for elementary schools.

Harford County Councilman Richard Slutzky, whom Melville hired in 1972 as physical education teacher at Aberdeen High School, said his former supervisor "was a gentle, thoughtful and insightful administrator who contributed silently to the development of many of our children and many of us professionals, also."

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