Playing it out, full circle

Published 9:04 pm Saturday, December 7, 2013

At the gentle age of 95 the Rev. Dr. Robert Burrell Marr has gone home to be with the Lord he spent a lifetime proclaiming in word and deed. His funeral at Suffolk Christian Church, which he pastored for 23 years, was a celebration of that congregation’s genuine love and esteem for him.

But it also celebrated something else.

His daughter Diane describes a father who liked to wake them up in the morning while playfully tickling the feet of his five children and singing “You are my sunshine.” Sixty-nine years didn’t dim the love he had for their mother and his “magnificent girl” Barbara Putnam Marr, the woman he met and then married after carrying her piggyback down a mountain following a hiking injury.

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He talked comfortably with janitors and elevator operators, as well as governors and senators. Everybody was welcome in Dr. Marr’s tent.

But some folks may not know or remember the substance of his ministry, how he was an agent of social change during one of Suffolk’s most racially sensitive moments.

He came to town on temporary assignment and then answered Suffolk Christian’s plea to stay. “We know you’re different,” they said, “but we need to change, and we don’t know how.” Dr. Marr couldn’t resist that kind of invitation.

Along with men like Moses Riddick, Dr. Marr became a mover and shaker in the city’s civil rights movement. He took a leading role in school integration, cross-cultural dialogue and bridge-building. When other cities in the south were exploding, Dr. Marr and his counterparts in the black community helped keep Suffolk in a cocoon of relative calm.

“Justice can know no color” was his personal mantra. He put it into practice in a visionary way through the Department of Parks and Recreation. An athlete and tennis player, with a strong competitive streak, he challenged Suffolk athletes to play out their racial differences, to compete and form strong friendships through teamwork.

Folks who went to Suffolk High School can testify to how right he was. Decades later, we are the beneficiaries of cherished friendships forged in classrooms, on football and baseball fields around town and on basketball courts at Birdsong Recreation Center.

My sense is playgrounds like “The Field” (in the 200 block of St. James) wouldn’t have existed, and the lessons we learned there wouldn’t have happened, had it not been for people like Bob Marr.

True love is a hard thing to shake. Even after parting ways, Bob Marr and Suffolk Christian never stopped loving each other. The circle of love brought them back together on Wednesday.

So in the distant future, on that “great gettin’-up morning,” when the saints go marching in, don’t be surprised if you hear a familiar voice singing “You are my sunshine.”