Bahai News - Motivating others to think differently
Motivating others to think differently
N.C. landscaper expands folks' concept of 'normal'
Chris Burritt - Staff
Sunday, July 2, 2000
Chapel Hill, N.C.
Even among people who have never met him, Marty Ravellette is
Past the initial shock, it is amazing to watch the 60-year-old
landscaper as he earns a living, without arms.
Ravellette, the owner of Hands on Landscaping, once tore down
houses in Oregon with a hammer and crowbar. In another job, he drove a
truck across the Rocky Mountains.
In the 11 years since he arrived in this university town, he's
become well-known. A year and a half ago he and his wife, Maree, rescued
an elderly woman from a burning minivan, earning a guest appearance on
"The Rosie O'Donnell Show" and collecting several prizes for heroism.
"There are not too many I know of in this day and time who have
managed life the way he has managed life," says Chapel Hill jeweler Ken
Ravellette already has a title --- but no publisher --- for his
life story: "With These Hands." He met recently with a Las Vegas
promoter in hopes of becoming a motivational speaker. He believes he has
something special to say, blending bluntness and humility in recounting
how he's managed a relatively normal life. He can cast a fishing line,
light a cigarette or crank a chain saw, all with his feet.
Seated at the counter of Sutton's Drug Store, where he's a
breakfast regular, Ravellette hooks the big toe of his left foot in the
looped handle of the creamy white coffee mug.
"I have learned to accept myself," he says simply. "You should be
able to accept me."
One morning, after Ravellette had left Sutton's, people sitting at
a table complained that his foot had been on the counter.
"I am going to clean it just like I'll clean after you," grill
manager Don Pinney told them.
Maree Ravellette, 58, says she used to get angry at people's
insensitivity to her husband's disability.
"I understand now that other people don't understand," she says. "I
am just proud to be with him."
Marty and Maree have been married for 10 years. In the morning, he
drives her to Durham, where she's a waitress at Shoney's. He picks her
up in the afternoon. During the day, he works.
He drives a GMC van, steering with his left foot and operating the
accelerator and brake with his right foot. He has a North Carolina
driver's license and no special equipment on his vehicle.
For him, driving is just another mundane task. Before mowing
grass, he picks up stubborn sticks and leaves with his toes. When he
starts a lawn mower, he clutches the handle of the crank rope with his
toes. Balancing on his right foot, he hurls his left leg straight back,
as quick and powerful as a horse's kick. He pushes the mower with his
"He finds an alternative way to do almost everything," says Chuck
Stone, a journalism professor at the University of North Carolina at
Chapel Hill who has known Ravellette for nine years. He invites
Ravellette to speak to his students every semester, hoping they'll learn
something about diversity.
"Students need to see somebody who does not fit in the normal
pattern of their lives," Stone says.
One of Ravellette's closest friends, Ray Estes of Chapel Hill,
sees him as a role model for people with all sorts of disabilities, or
who suffer from stereotyping by society, or lack self-esteem.
"Marty has always looked at beating the system set up for people
with two arms," says Estes, 60, who met Ravellette in 1959 when they
lived in the same San Diego boardinghouse. "He sees it as an adventure
to show that there is more than one way to accomplish something."
When Estes first saw Ravellette, he was performing stunts ---
handling a razor blade and combing his hair --- for boardinghouse
residents sitting around and getting drunk. Later, Estes told him he was
getting laughs but no respect.
"Marty was trying to prove his manhood," says Estes, a believer in
Bahai, a worldwide religion that originated in Persia and essentially
teaches that all people are equal. "I told him . . . he had nothing to
Ravellette embraced the faith and began to focus not on what he
doesn't have, but on what he has.
"God gave me a wonderful gift," he says. "He said, go out and
serve mankind with your gift, not yourself."
Ravellette attends Bahai worship services in Chapel Hill, part of a
routine that keeps him in touch with a small circle of friends.
He's been married before, to a woman who also was born without
arms. They married in 1963, after a cross-country introduction. She read
in the newspaper about police stopping an armless motorist driving 85
mph on the San Diego Freeway. She wrote to Ravellette, and they married
three months later.
They divorced in 1974, after their 4-year-old son, Marcus, died
after falling from the back of a pickup Ravellette was driving in
Eugene, Ore. He says his wife couldn't forgive him for the accident, and
they split up.
Ravellette met Maree in the late 1980s when he was working in
Paramus, N.J. He did landscaping work at a Dairy Queen where her two
daughters worked. After Ravellette moved to Chapel Hill in 1989, Maree
visited him, and they married a year later.
Her two daughters now live in North Carolina, and Maree's three
grandchildren often visit the couple's apartment in Carrboro. Ravellette
also has befriended William Lawrence, a 12-year-old boy in Durham who
was born without arms. Ravellette is teaching him to fish, to ride a
bike and to think of himself as "normal."
"He has shown William that despite your disabilities, you can be
as independent as you want to be," says the boy's mother, Lillie Cozart,
Ravellette's disability affects an estimated 2,000 people in the
United States, according to the National Center of Health Statistics.
When he was born in Goodland, Ind., in 1939, his parents quickly decided
they couldn't raise him properly. They sent him at 3 weeks of age to the
Good Shepherd orphanage in Allentown, Pa. Nurses taught him to hold a
bottle with his tiny feet.
Ravellette learned to read and write on his own, entitling him to
attend public schools in Allentown. He lived in the orphanage for 16
years, afterward returning to his parents' farm, where many viewed him
In high school, he didn't sign up for a class ring. "Where are you
going to wear it, your big toe?" somebody asked.
Such taunts drove him to excel. He learned to throw a baseball and
swim. At 14, he won a bronze medal in a diving competition. He tagged
along with other kids. He slicked back his hair and dressed in black
leather, like Elvis.
"I was a tough kid," he says. "I lost most of the fights, but that
wasn't the issue. Standing up was the issue."
He attended college for two years in Bay City, Mich., and moved
around, working in California, Oregon, Idaho and New Jersey before
moving to Chapel Hill. His jobs ranged from driving a delivery truck to
doing custodial work at a community college.
As a driver for Estes' company, which designs shoe stores,
Ravellette drove from Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, across the Rockies to
Missoula, Mont. He made the treacherous trip in a blizzard one night in
1972, peering through a quarter-size clearing in the windshield and
keeping an eye on the roadside reflectors.
"If there is one extraordinary thing about Marty," Estes says, "he
is probably more courageous than smart. I can't remember a time when he
said, 'I just can't get it done.'
"He has the ability to inspire people, particularly ones who have
never seen themselves as normal."
Though he hopes to make it as a motivational speaker, Ravellette
says he doesn't crave notoriety. He learned from his 1998 appearance on
"The Rosie O'Donnell Show" that fame isn't all it's cracked up to be.
The show gave Ravellette a new riding lawn mower and a GMC Sierra
pickup. He preferred a van for hauling his mowers and other equipment,
so he traded the truck for the van. The mower rode so high that he
almost broke his collar bone driving it through the rear doors of the
van. So he sold the mower and bought a smaller one.
The show's gifts also caused Ravellette financial woes. He didn't
have enough money to pay the federal gift taxes on them.
Ravellette brushes aside the problems, saying, "The show showed
some goodness in the world."
Finding goodness in the face of adversity is Ravellette's message
when he speaks to college and high school students in Chapel Hill.
"When I looked at (myself) as an 11-year-old boy . . . I didn't
see a boy with no arms," Ravellette told a UNC journalism class last
fall. "I saw somebody that was normal. . . . I thought I could do
anything. . . . My fearlessness pushed me."
One student, Colleen Kenny, was so moved that she wrote to
"You are the very best kind of teacher --- the kind who teaches
through living example."
Ravellette keeps that letter as a reminder that some people can
look past his disability. "If I can be that kind of example," he says,
"then I have been blessed."
©Copyright 2000, Atlanta Journal and Constitution
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