March 20, 2012

A tribute to my brother, Stewart Couch


It was the summer of ’73, and Stewart Couch was planning his own “Endless Summer.” He and surfing buddies Doug Meekins and Gary Bowers split the $300 three ways on a used Ford van and, burning the midnight oil at the Lighthouse Service Center, they readied it for the long haul from Hatteras to Baja Mexico.

Stewart craved high adventure, and did this trip ever deliver. An attempted van-jacking in the Mexican desert, numerous blown tires, a near cliff drive-off and a blown motor outside New Orleans on the way home provided him with a vision for what he wanted out of life and the plan to fulfill it.

The “plan” became Hatteras Realty.

When he died Feb. 21 at the age of 61 at San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua, my brother Stewart was still living his dream, thanks to the plan.  Hatteras Realty was screaming into the future with the right people to see it through, managing 568 premier homes and a $300 million portfolio. He labeled Hatteras Realty’s business model “five-star service,” and, as one of the last of a generation of Outer Banks entrepreneurs, he knew an amenities-driven market would help separate us from other resorts.

Stewart’s travels over 39 years to places like South Africa, Bali, Fiji, Tahiti, Singapore, Hong Kong, Brazil, Hawaii, almost all of Europe, Indonesia, Puerto Rico, numerous Caribbean islands, the Mediterranean, and a host of obscure locales provided him the insight and confidence that shaped Hatteras Realty.

Along the way, the high adventure was always there. While hitchhiking the length of Africa in 1978, he was detained in Uganda at the height of the Idi “Big Daddy” Amin regime and witnessed two political dissidents in the cell with him beaten and fed to the crocs. 

Stew’s traveling partner suffered a nervous breakdown when the guards returned, threatening that they were next.

In Morocco, a Portuguese man-of-war dropped out of a wave onto him, and he spent 48 hours in the hospital.   

He made lifelong friendships traveling the world, and two of the best were there at his memorial service. Brad Nack, a striking, dark-haired Californian who traveled around Europe with him, gave a poignant, touching eulogy. It was so quiet at the reception  when 
Frank Carpani, an Australian, played Bono’s “A Dying Sailor to His Shipmates” that those crowded into Hatteras Realty’s conference room could hear the swoosh of air from the vents overhead.

Traveling with Stewie left a legacy -- family came first. He took his daughter, Nikki, to Paris, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Australia, and New Zealand over a four-year span. How many teen-age daughters have traveled the world? He didn’t miss a family reunion in Kansas in 17 years. He wanted to bring his niece, Jenny Couch Clark, and her family out to Hatteras when they moved from Dallas to Cary. He brought my kids -- Rae, Gideon and Griffin -- gifts from everywhere he went. He took me to real estate conventions in San Francisco, New Orleans, Las Vegas, and Chicago. 

My favorite thing about going places with Stewart was renting a car. The experience was, in a word, hysterical. He was to the rental car industry what a rock star is to a hotel room. It took 48 hours or less for him to bald the tires, whack the front end out of alignment, and dent the door. Hertz might be “Number 1,” but when Stew got done with it, that car wasn’t worth even the Number 2 spot.

Airports were a blast with Stewart, too. On our way to cousin Jenny Stewart’s wedding in Kansas City, we ran like running backs through O’Hare Airport to catch our flight. We bolted past a stammering ticket agent down the jet way, and, as the door was shutting, Stew shoved a magazine through the slightest of cracks. The door opened, we walked in, and Stewart, with his Robin Williams-like sense of humor, remarked, “Please hold your applause until after we’re airborne.” 

Nobody made me laugh harder than Stewart. He was absolutely fearless in front of strangers.

Stewart loved kids and animals. Hatteras Realty has tons of pictures of Stew grabbing up a guest’s or owner’s child for a photo op. He quit duck hunting in high school because ducks were so cute. Dad got mad at him when we went jerk jigging for trout in Cape Channel because Stew would toss the fish overboard once Dad turned his back.

He was very giving, as charitable as anyone I knew. He sponsored a Balian orphan faithfully every month. He threw a McDonald’s bag full of crumpled  $20 and $50 bills to Rev. Cory Oliver for the pastor’s mission trip to South Africa, joking on his way out the church door that it was for a “one way ticket.” Tim Waterfield deliberately under-bid a job just to get the work, and Stew - a contractor - told him, “You better learn how to price a job” and then threw in a kayak and some fishing poles with the deal. The pool at the Hatteras Realty office in Avon was always open to locals.

Deep down, despite his persona, Stewart was insecure. Ten years younger than Stew, I was barely a teen-ager when I overheard him telling our mother that “All the girls look past me…” Beyond those who knew him well, it would surprise some to know that Stewart Couch would have been embarrassed by the tremendous outpouring on his passing. His memorial service at the Buxton United Methodist Church was attended by more than 400 people who squeezed in shoulder-to-shoulder, and more than 600 folks attended the reception at Hatteras Realty in Avon after the service.

A long-time friend of our family told me Stewart’s service offered the most overwhelming message of love that she personally had ever witnessed. The array of musical talent performing at the service --  Jack Quidley, April Trueblood, Michael Hooper, Sherry Couch, Lou Castro, Taryn Doty, Chuck Conlogue, and our brother, John Couch -- was on an impassioned, spontaneous level that these islands, known for their musicians, has probably never seen.

His last day in this world couldn’t have been scripted more perfectly. He and Steve Magliano paddled out to head-high surf in Nicaragua, clean and blue with the wind offshore.  Despite having trouble the last year getting up on his board, he managed a bottom turn on a nice right and popped up 30 yards down the beach with “his face just beaming,” Steve said. 

By the end of the day, he was not feeling well.  Steve and Jody Stowe took him to the medical clinic, and he gave the doctor $50 for the “bebes.” 

Sometime around 7 a.m., he collapsed in the bathroom. Judging by the way he was found, it appeared he was looking at himself in the mirror when his knees buckled. He fell gracefully to the floor, and his head was resting on his arm as if he was sleeping. His eyes were closed.

It is symbolic irony that, without a gurney, Nicaraguan first responders carried Stewart out of his villa on his surfboard. 

He’d taken a liking to a Nicaraguan street kid named Juan Manuel, who called Stew, “Padre PePe.” When the youngster placed third in the Hermosa contest at San Juan del Sur on Stew’s borrowed board, Stewart pledged the board to the boy.

And his board was left behind in Nicaragua with Juan Manuel.

“He wanted him to have it,” Jody Stowe said.

Surf in peace, Stewart. We’ll see you soon, at a surfbreak somewhere in Heaven.

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