Motivating others to think differentlyN.C. landscaper expands folks' concept of 'normal'
Sunday, July 2, 2000
Chapel Hill, N.C.
Even among people who have never met him, Marty Ravellette is unforgettable.
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 Jackson, 54.
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 chest.
"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 prove."
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, 33.
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 as retarded.
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 Ravellette.
"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