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Tierra Verde man who had devoted life to Haiti died in quake

In Haiti, kids called him, "Ball, Bob!" It wasn't a nickname; more of a plea.

They would see his pickup lumbering up the muddy mountain road and shout to him so he would toss out tennis balls.

Along the six-hour drive from the Port-au-Prince airport to the tiny town of Hinche, the white-haired man would throw hundreds of balls through the windows of his truck.

Robert Olin Feister, 80, lived with his wife, Martha, in a big house on Tierra Verde. But for the past 34 years, the former Coast Guardsman and gas station owner spent more time in his concrete-block home in Haiti.

He would fly to Haiti for six weeks, come back to Florida for three. Play some rummy with Martha, buy supplies at Walmart, then head back to Haiti for another six weeks. He traveled alone, a one-man mission to help however he could: a tin roof, peanut butter and instant coffee, Matchbox cars.

Feister died in last week's earthquake, buried in the rubble of a Port-au-Prince hotel. He had taken a canvas bag with 50 pounds of new pajamas, baby dolls and donated clothes. And another filled with chocolate Santas for the kids.

"He wanted to live in Haiti full time. But I really didn't think I could make it down there," Martha Feister, 74, said Monday. "No heat or air-conditioning, no refrigeration, that outhouse, all those flies — and everyone cooking on charcoal, it made my throat burn."

But Bob never minded, she said. "He fell in love with that place the first time he saw it — the island and all the people."

• • •

Next month, the Feisters would have been married 57 years. They never had children; only dachshunds, at least two at a time. After the Coast Guard, after spending six years shivering on cutters traveling from Ireland to Iceland, Feister bought an Amoco station, a tire shop, an oil business. In the early 1960s, he bought an old theater on Solomons Island, Md., which he and Martha turned into a seafood restaurant.

He added pool tables. A fountain. A dock, so diners could come by boat. Then he started building modular houses, one a week for several years.

Maybe he was restless. Maybe he was tired of being cold. Maybe he just needed another adventure, a way to make a difference.

Martha Feister doesn't know why her husband decided to go to Haiti that first time, in 1966. He had read an article about the island in the Washington Post, she said, and told her he had to see it. He came back determined to buy a house there and immediately booked another trip. He learned to speak Creole. He made friends with people in Port-au-Prince, then found a house in the mountains.

When she refused to move there, he moved her to Florida, to be closer to his second home.

"The building he bought had a store in front at first. He brought supplies and food from the capital into the mountains. And soon, children were showing up at his door, begging for something to eat," Martha said. Feister fed them, of course, giant bags of rice and beans. On Saturdays he would cook a chicken and give the village a feast.

• • •

Jamie Frederick, 35, is Feister's godson. His grandmother was Feister's sister. He lives in Tampa, and spent every Christmas with his great-uncle.

"The only thing Uncle Bob ever wanted was gift cards to Walmart to buy food and toys for his kids in Haiti," Frederick said. "He raised five girls whose parents couldn't take care of them. And over the years, he fed who knows how many families."

Manett, the oldest girl, was 5 when her mother begged Feister to look after her. Her mother had TB, and Feister tried to help her get medical care. After she died, he took in her daughter.

Manett, now 22, lives in Feister's Haiti house and looks after the other girls: 15-year-old twins, an 11-year-old, and the youngest, 4, whose name is Roberta. After Feister.

None of them are his biological children. All their relatives asked him to provide for them. He put the girls through school, Martha said, bought their clothes and books, dug the only well in town and installed a solar panel on their home, to power a generator.

While he was in Florida, Martha said, he called his "kids" in Haiti every morning on a cell phone he bought them. Martha never met the girls. But they smile from framed photos in her bedroom and living room.

Last week, when a neighbor in Haiti called to say Robert was dead, Martha Feister heard the girls wailing in the background, "Papa! Oooh! Papa!"

• • •

His flight touched down in Port-au-Prince just after noon last Tuesday. He checked into the Walls Guesthouse. The next morning, he planned to head to the mountains.

He loved taking naps, said his nephew. Hopefully, he was asleep that afternoon when the earth shook, when he was buried in the capital city of the island he loved.

"At first, we heard his body had been taken to the American Embassy," said Frederick, who spent four days trying to track down his godfather.

Then he heard from an American doctor who knew the owner of the guesthouse where Feister was staying. He had helped dig out Feister. Frederick found out that his godfather had been buried in a mass grave.

"Bob always said he wanted to be cremated," his wife said Monday, while trying to plan a memorial to her husband. "He wanted me to have half his ashes, and spread the rest over Haiti."

It's awful not getting to say good-bye, she said.

"But at least he ended up where he wanted to be, doing what he wanted to do."

Tierra Verde man who had devoted life to Haiti died in quake 01/18/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, January 19, 2010 5:46pm]
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