A Tribute to Robert Havrilak

This has been among the hardest weeks of my life. I’m facing my first injury of the season, but that’s not my source of stress. A week ago I learned that Bob Havrilak passed away. He had been fighting an aggressive form of myeloma and died from complications. Bob and I became very close friends after his son, Adam, passed away in a motorcycle accident two years ago. I wrote the following as a tribute to Bob and what he meant to me. I’m not sure I could have done all of this without him.

There’s never an easy way to describe our most meaningful relationships. Bob Havrilak was introduced to me as the father of a great friend. Bob was never a quiet acquaintance, however, and he came into my life the way he did with every endeavor in his life, with a stampede of presence. I remember the first day I spent with Bob. He and Adam were in Waikaloa for the Lavaman Triathlon. Adam came up to me beaming, Bob in tow, and introduced me to his father in a voice that boomed with pride. Later my family would join the two of them for dinner and I quickly learned where Adam had inherited so much of his character. The two of them shared a lustrous laugh that echoed through the resort. In just two nights the hotel staff had come to know both men by name, and their jovial demeanor seemed to spread to everyone lucky enough to be nearby.

Over the next two years Bob was persistent in his communications with me. The three of us spent Christmas together that year, during a time when I was struggling to find my own path. Bob and Adam helped push me to believe in myself and I left Hawaii feeling invigorated. That year Adam returned to China and I began racing professionally. I planned a return trip to Hawaii for the following year and planned to stay with Bob, hoping that Adam would be able to join us. But that previous Christmas was the last time the three of us would be together. When I returned to Hawaii Kai it was just a few weeks after Adam’s accident. I was uncertain where I fit into the post-Adam life of Bob, and I remember worrying to myself about being a burden on him – a sentiment that shows how little I knew about Bob at the time. I nearly cancelled my trip, but something pushed me to be there. Bob picked me up from the airport, and with tears in our eyes he swung a pair of heavy arms around me and hugged me for what seemed like an hour, but was neither too long nor too short. Then, in just a few words, as if he had read my mind, he squandered my worries, “Ben, up until now we’ve had a relationship that was centered around Adam. In the next eight weeks we’re going to get to know each other differently. We’re going to develop our own relationship without Adam. We both miss him, and we can mourn together, but you and I can’t make that the center of our relationship with each other.” And over the next eight weeks that’s exactly what happened.

Bob took an immediate interest in my training. He would ride his bike next to me while I ran; he would drive me to the track and take videos of me running. He would tell people, “Ben runs his ten ‘K’ while I run my tenth ‘K’”. Bob brought me to a Honolulu Rotary Club meeting for an inspirational speech and bragged to the room about accomplishments I still had not achieved. Bob was quick to show his pride in the people around him, yet forever modest about his own qualities.

Bob treated me like family even though he was going through one of the hardest periods of his life. Many times I would return home and find Bob curled up on the couch, a bear of a man with the body language of a helpless child, torn apart with grief for Adam. The pain I saw Bob dealing with was so powerful it can’t be put into words. I know with certainty now that such grief as losing your child can only be understood by going through it. It was clear that Bob’s participation in my life did not come easy, but when I asked if he needed time to himself he insisted that I was keeping him from drowning in his grief. And that’s the way he was. Even in the darkest time of his life, he coped by opening his heart.

Bob gave unconditionally to the people around him. He was selfless to a flaw – unwilling to ask for help but forceful in his giving. A couple years ago I incurred an injury that put me on crutches and kept me from racing for almost six months. I was depressed and feeling lost, but within days of hearing about it Bob showed up at my door in Seattle with a plan. We road tripped to Canada. He talked a local pilot into giving me a ride in a tiny airplane through the mountains of British Columbia; we hit up the Vancouver nightlife, and feasted on bowls of mussels at my favorite seafood restaurant. I was on crutches, but everywhere we went he introduced me as a World Champion. We took a ferry to Vancouver Island and drove down the coast to visit Scott Mihalchan – a partial quadriplegic triathlete who Adam had introduced us to in Hawaii. Bob’s intentions were blatant and effective. I couldn’t help but be lifted out of my depression, and as the ferry whisked us back toward Washington we found ourselves uninhibitedly laughing, feeling ready for whatever unexpected adventures lay ahead.

Bob showed me that one person’s love is infinite. His love for Emily, Barbara and Adam was overwhelming. He spoke of his daughters with a sparkle in his big blue eyes and a smile across his broad cheeks. He would stop everything for a phone call from his kids, and do whatever he could to help them. And even with all that love for his own children he always found more love for the people around him, as if his heart grew in size with every person he met. Bob embraced the idea of ‘Ohana’ and never hesitated to adopt another member with the same love he had for the rest of us.

Adam, Ben and Bob - January 2007

After all the time we shared together I still cannot find a name for our relationship. I called him “Uncle Bob”, he called me “Benny.” At times he acted like a father, and at times like a friend. He was a teacher, a companion, a supporter and source of inspiration. If we all strive to be half as giving as Bob the world will be flooded with good deeds, no mouth will be unfed, and “stranger” will be a word without meaning. If Bob could live another day for every person he helped, he would be immortal because there was never a day in his life when he didn’t give his heart to someone. Bob is no longer with us, but we can embrace his life by making our love infinite, sharing unquestionably with those around us, and always remembering what a difference we can make in each other’s lives. I feel blessed to have shared part of life with Bob Havrilak. I will always have a clear memory of Bob’s smiling face, his hearty belly-laugh, and those extraordinary blue eyes that welcomed us all into his life.

10 thoughts on “A Tribute to Robert Havrilak

  1. You were as much an inspiration to him as he was to you! Altho I met Bob only a few months before his passing.. Like all things Bear did, it was with a 110% that he put into our friendship.. I was there with him the day the Doctor told him the bad news.. We hugged and cried together.. but than Bob said.. ok Lisa.. we need a plan! and off he was.. planning how to fight this with everything he had..
    He made those doctors keep him in the hospital that night.. and I backed him the whole way.. not letting them discharge him.. the next day, the doctors came in and told him it was a good thing he made “us” keep him.. for he was pretty bad off.. and What did he do? He smiled that wonderful “bear” smile of his.. and demanded to know what the plan was… lol..
    Bob snuck me into his room one night.. (not really sneaking.. the nurses and doctors all ok’d it).. and we talked long into the night about you.. Adam.. barb.. Emily… and a whole host of others he has known in his life… He told me stories of places he lived.. and things he had done in his life.. and when the sun came up.. he said ” Lisa, family and the people you love , and your health are the most precious things a person has! I’v had money, and stuff.. but none of that is more important than your health, family, and people you love”
    He did indeed fill a room with his love.. and impacted each and everyone he had ever met..

    Watch over us Bob (Bear), we shall miss and love you forever

  2. Hello Ben.
    5 minutes ago I had never heard of you, and it’s only because I am a TP Therapy sponsored age group triathlete in the UK and you tweeted about the Grid that I followed the breadcrumbs to your blog.
    But I was so moved by this piece about your friend(s) – I can immediately tell that you are a chap of integrity and dignity and I’ll be following you on line from now on and wishing you the good results that your karma deserves.
    Good luck for your season, and I’m sure your wins will be as much for Adam and Bob as for you.
    Cheers
    Paul
    London, England.

  3. This is a great story. It is only the right way to close out your week with Bob watching over you as you took 1st in NYC. I am sure he was proud when he saw you as number 1 today! God bless! I raced today to the best of my ability for my uncle who passed this week as well. Good luck and stay strong.

    Anthony B.
    Staten island, NY.

  4. Hey Ben,

    I’ve been following your blog for quite a while ever since Bear mentioned you and your pursuit of your Olympic dream! I live in MN and got to know Bear through a mutual friend and was the team lead of a weight loss club that he was a dial in member of. He heard about my Ironman training etc and always bragged about you and what a good “kid” you are! Nice write up, he will be missed! Good luck with the points!!

    Thanks,

    Mitch Talbot

  5. Ben, this brought tears to my eyes. I knew Bob while growing up – he was a friend and schoolmate of my older brother. My best memories of him – Bob driving up to our house in his parent’s big, red cadilac convertible booming a hello to all and sundry. He was, as you described, bigger than life. Good luck in your endeavors and hopefully I will see you compete for the US team in London in 2012 (I live here now).

  6. Ben, thank you for this. Bobby took me golfing a few times, and I had a great time with him. He had a lot of patience with me, and gave me some great coaching on my swing, and also in my attitude. Whenever I’d get down on myself (and my shots), he say “that’s golf.” As though his golf and my golf were anywhere in the same league!

    We also ate together a lot–Bear always paying, never letting me pay for anything.

    I’m surprised how much I miss him. I came back to this website and to re-read your fabulous description of him. Thank you.

    Lolly

  7. Ben, thank you for the heartfelt tributes to both Adam and Bob. I met Adam at the Waikiki 24 Hour Fitness while recovering from a knee injury and we both hit it off joking and laughing as we cycled side by side people watching in the gym. While I wish I had the chance to spend more time with him as a friend, I have fond memories of our times together. I also had the honor of meeting Bob over dinner and wine one night and was taken at how warm and inviting he was.
    I was so saddened to hear the news from Bob about Adam’s passing months later as he was notifying his friends on his email account. I truly appreciated Bob letting me know what had happened to my friend and immediately regretted not meeting up with Adam when he had returned from China for a visit. Bob was also kind enough to invite me to a performance at Diamond Head Theater and we stayed in touch a bit.
    I think of Adam often as I pass his old condo in Waikiki quite a bit on the way home. He was in my thoughts tonight, so I decided to look up an old picture of him which led me to your blog. I’m so sad to hear of Bob’s passing, but take comfort in knowing that he and Adam are once again together.
    Just a month ago I almost lost my husband in a serious cycling accident while he was training for the Honu. Funny how life takes its sudden turns. It was an instant reminder to cherish the time spent with family and friends, and made me think of Adam.
    Best of luck to you in your triathlon career!

  8. I have just learned of Bob’s passing through Ben’s compassionate tribute (June, 2013).
    What a character, what a heart. There was nothing subtle about Bob Havrilak. You were either in his camp or missing the ship that sailed. To be left out of his world can only be described as not knowing what you missed. A brilliant man, one who sought solutions for the world’s ills but too often came away frustrated by a seeming
    indifference and lack of ‘goodness’ displayed by too many. But those setbacks never discouraged him or slowed him down for very long. The causes were worth the effort to him. The death of his beloved, gifted son and soul mate Adam may have finally been a blow that even a relentlessly optimistic spirit could not handle. Well, maybe that was part of the plan. They are surely reunited now, sharing their remarkable selves in a better place.

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