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Cook column: Living the McDuffie way, full-throttle

The first time I met Mike McDuffie, he strolled into a Christian Education Committee meeting, took a seat between two people and proceeded to start picking on them.
I can’t remember what he said ó something outrageous. Pretty soon he had everyone chuckling.
I followed the conversation from across the table and wondered, “Who is this guy?”
When you’ve been attending the same church more than 20 years, new faces stand out. Mike’s was one I hadn’t seen before. And, as it turns out, one that thousands of people in different parts of North Carolina may never forget.
Some people drift in and out of our lives. Some come in and make a permanent impression, even if they’re not with us long.
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When I heard in early 2006 that Mike had cancer, I had a hard time believing it. Illness and Mike McDuffie did not go together.
Just a couple months before that, my husband and I traveled to Pascagoula, Miss., with a group of Presbyterians Mike organized to put insulation and drywall in homes that had been soaked by Hurricane Katrina’s floodwaters. Mike went back and forth between the houses each day, delivering supplies and checking our progress ó when he wasn’t working himself. Even with a novice spackler like me along, this was a serious, experienced crew. There was so much work to do and less than a week to do it in. Some people barely stopped for lunch.
So when the British couple who owned one of the houses offered to serve tea the first afternoon, the response was thanks but no thanks, and the crew kept working.
Mike, however, saw the disappointment in the elderly couple’s faces when he passed the word along. And he made a decision. He told the workers they should let the couple give something back to the volunteers who were helping them so much. Tea was their way of doing that.
So work gloves came off, nail guns were put down and ó amid the chaos left by Katrina ó the workers at that house had a proper English tea every afternoon.
As Mike said, what happens in Pascagoula doesn’t have to stay in Pascagoula.
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Mike McDuffie sick? The man who cajoled us through that work trip? The joker who put on a poodle skirt and wig to portray Strawberry Fields in the Miss United Way Pageant? (“My mother was a Smucker,” he said.) The guy who once told a Post reporter he took his iced tea decaffeinated when he could because “I’m kind of hyper” ó that Mike McDuffie?
Hard to believe, but it happened. Cancer took hold and refused to let go.
Mike just as stubbornly refused to give in. And he smiled during worship each Sunday when, during the time for prayer concerns, some child’s voice piped up ó “Mike McDuffie!”
I saw him wince once. He had been seated on a step for a short presentation at a session meeting, and he moved with painful slowness when it was time to stand up. Our pastor, Jim Dunkin, asked if he was OK. Mike replied that he had good days, better days and best days ó and this was a good day.
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If life is an ocean, my part in Mike’s was less than a raindrop. He made friends everywhere he went ó from his days on Richmond County High School’s 1976 championship baseball team, to a rich family life with wife Kathy and their two children, a successful career in the electrical business that led him to Desco in Salisbury and countless hours volunteering with youth, the Kiwanis Club and other groups. Each friend along the way has stories to tell.
Many people have said Mike taught us how to die, wearing a smile on those so-called good days, radiating faith and staying active much longer than seemed humanly possible.
But as more than 500 people crowded into Lewis Hall for Mike’s memorial service on Jan. 19, I thought more about how he lived in his 49 years ó full throttle, always reaching out in friendship and mirth, willing to help where help was needed.
The most memorable story from the service ó told by his brother-in-law ó concerned the way Mike introduced himself to the groom at a large wedding party. Mike knew the bride, but he had not met the groom. So he stepped forward during introductions and slapped the young man. You’ll meet lots of people today, Mike said, but you’ll remember me.
That sounds brazen even for Mike, but if anyone could pull it off and leave people smiling, he could.
Mike became my friend for life one day when he overheard a fellow church member complain to me about not receiving a Salisbury Post that morning. “Hey, man,” Mike said, “she doesn’t deliver it.”
During one session meeting, silence descended after Jim asked if someone would read that evening’s scripture. Mike looked at me and raised his eyebrows. His message was clear. Step up. Volunteer to read. So I did. It was a small thing.
I thought about that moment last week when, out of the blue, a copy of Mike’s obituary surfaced on my desk. I don’t know where it came from or who put it there. But it was like Mike raising his eyebrows at me again. Step up.At the service for Mike, Jim read from 2 Corinthians. We are always facing death, he said, and in doing so we know more and more about life. Mike sure did. He knew how to live it ó with boldness and good humor. Life is not fair, but it can still be fun.
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Elizabeth Cook is editor of the Salisbury Post.

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