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Topping off a volunteer career

Suffolk lost one of its greatest characters on May 1, a man I was privileged to get to know briefly more than a decade ago and have enjoyed seeing again periodically throughout the years.

The News-Herald started a volunteer of the week feature back in 2007, and it ran for a number of years. (We recently brought it back but had to temporarily cease during the current pandemic.)

When we started that feature the first time around, I was an impossibly young reporter who had been working here at the paper for less than a year. I was 23 years old, at an age and point in my career that now seems a lifetime ago.

One of the first people I interviewed for that weekly feature was a gentleman named Otha Rountree.

Otha volunteered at the front desk of Sentara Obici Hospital, and had done so for quite some time already when I interviewed him. He answered the hospital’s main line and transferred calls, and gave information and directions to people who walked in the hospital’s front door.

He wasn’t the only volunteer who did this job, but his collection of funny hats certainly made him stand out.

A search of our online archives has failed to turn up my original story, but I do believe Otha was wearing a hat that looked like a burger when I interviewed him. I distinctly recall leaning against the front desk of Obici Hospital doing the interview and being amused by his hat and his sense of humor. I recollect that I felt honored to be in his presence. And I remember he and his coworkers describing to me the way the hats oftentimes put people at ease when they visited the hospital.

It was something I understood only in theory then, but I’m now at a point in my life where I’ve had a number of occasions to walk into hospitals feeling apprehensive, stressed, or devastated about my own health or that of a family member or friend. Most of them weren’t Obici, and I feel certain a genuinely caring person wearing a funny hat would have lightened my load on most of those occasions.

I likewise feel certain that Otha’s sense of humor, compassion and, yes, his hats did that for so many people who passed through Obici’s doors throughout the years. A News-Herald story I found from 2013 said Rountree had, at that point, contributed 11,500 volunteer hours, and that wasn’t even the end of his volunteerism. He continued for several years beyond that until his health began to fail him. Even a conservative estimate of the number of people he served over that period of time runs well into the hundreds of thousands.

The front desk at Obici will never be the same, and Otha has now exchanged all his funny hats for a crown.