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Resident Grandpa: At 78, Providence fixture a timeless character

Photo by Nate McCullough

Photo by Nate McCullough

LILBURN -- Lamar Lussi's spacious office at Providence Christian Academy is ringed with costume hats -- the jester, the leprechaun, the mariachi, the Christmas tree, the birthday cake -- that serve as portals to various degrees of wackiness. His cushy chairs are a respite for students looking to air their teenage woes. The office is thus a fitting equilibrium for him, a blend of serious and decidedly not, a nest for his legendary occupation.

Two years shy of 80, Lussi wears pastel, plaid pants like a quilting experiment gone awry, golf shoes and a giant, smiling Nemo -- as in the wayward Pixar fish -- on his burr of white hair. Nearing dismissal on a recent, hot Wednesday, he gets into character, readies his schtick. His deviant laugh, if several octaves higher, would suit the kind of troublemaking youngster who spooks girls with frogs.

"I found Nemo!"

He bellows this down hallways, en route to the parking lot, his drawl thicker than banana-bread pudding. A wave of chirping grade-schoolers slap him high-fives as they pass. An electronic bell dings, like a muffled microwave. "Excuse me," he prods a loafing teen. "I found Nemo, and you're not even happy."

Formally speaking, Lussi (pronounced "luss EE") is Providence's director of encouragement and transportation, a title custom-built for him about a decade ago when maintenance duties got to be too much. On board since the private school's 1991 opening, Lussi has helped shepherd each and every Providence kid toward graduation, his modus operandi so impacting there's likely not a soul among the 1,140 alumni who's forgotten him.

For his services, Lussi was honored (and thrust to the verge of tears) earlier this month, when Lawrenceville Mayor Rex Millsaps proclaimed April 5 his day. The tears wouldn't stop there.

"... Mr. Lussi has provided an example of the practice of justice, the practice of faithful love and walking humbly with God ..." the proclamation reads, in part.

"He was always there for us," recalls Lawrenceville City Council member P.K. Martin, Providence class of '95. "He really shines when there's a kid in a moment of tragedy or pain. He doesn't miss."

Current students are equally praiseful:

"He's always just happy, brings joy and fun to basically any situation he's in," says senior Ted Rhodes, 19. "I've never seen him upset or down."

Birthday tradition

Lussi is perhaps most famous for his tireless birthday well-wishing.

Tradition holds that, around 7 a.m., each Providence student gets a special call (he sings "Happy Birthday," drops a quick prayer, says goodbye) on the day they're numerically older. He extends the favor to alumni until they're 25 or married. He's adjusted his schedule to call ex-pats as far as China. He will make 29 such calls this week alone.

Mookie DeMoss, 18, a senior who wrangled all the school's individual golfing records en route to Mercer University next year, shudders to think of the birthday calls ending.

"I've never met anybody like him," says DeMoss, a Lussi admirer since kindergarten. "He's just the most encouraging man in the world."

There's that word. Encouragement. The crux of Lussi's late-life career.

In the parking lot, directing traffic and donning Nemo, Lussi is asked to define that word.

"Encouragement is to let them know that I care about them," he says. "To say something that will encourage them to be better, or do what they need to do." In the next breath, he morphs to traffic-cop mode: "Don't jump out in front of that thing," he says, pointing to a black SUV. "That thing'll hurt you."

And then he whoops like some loony maestro of the Providence asphalt:

"Whooaaahooo!" Several drivers whoop back.

Heartfelt travels

Lussi estimates he logs up to 1,000 miles per month in sojourns to hospitals and funerals, for both students and their parents. He's shown up unannounced in Charlotte when a second-grader was treated for a month in a hyperbaric chamber. He's popped in at funerals across the Southeast. He comes bearing roses. Sometimes he doesn't come home. His wife understands.

His gasoline is refunded by a mileage stipend, a pittance considering the gravitas of Lussi's visits, says Providence Headmaster Jim Vaught.

"The job is him," Vaught says.

A blend of Scottish and Italian ancestry, Lussi was born in namesake Lamar County in Middle Georgia, spared by the county line the embarrassment of being named after the neighboring county, Butts. At least that's the running joke.

He met his wife of 56 years, Shirley, on a blind date. With her, he's lived in New Orleans, Asheville, N.C., and a few pockets of metro Atlanta, holding jobs as a plumber, a bank worker and maintenance man, using the handyman skills he'd sharpened as a U.S. Air Force radar mechanic during the Korean War.

His two sons -- one a teacher at Collins Hill, another in the U.S. Navy -- seem to have borrowed from their father's ambitions. He exerts much energy following his seven grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. To miss their activities brings pangs of guilt.

In addition to the Lawrenceville proclamation, some 196 Providence alumni pooled together their own birthday wishes for Lussi to honor his 78th birthday this month. The recorded well-wishes filled two CDs, which Lussi indulged en route to his grandson's baseball game at North Georgia College. He cried his eyes out.

"Those are the things that are touching to you," he admits.

But this reciprocation of Lussi's kindness is nothing new. To wit:

When Lussi wrecked his Honda Odyssey a few years back, someone bought him a new one. When his digs on Singleton Road "turned into a bad neighborhood" after a couple decades, someone bought the house from him, sight-unseen, to keep him above water. People have sent him and Shirley on travels to Israel, on an Alaskan cruise.

Despite a no-gift policy on his 50th wedding anniversary, he says the checks flooded in, among them a $5,000 whopper.

Sometimes the gifts are from parents who thank him in person. Sometimes the kindness is anonymous.

Pillar of Providence

The students sufficiently encouraged for one day, the last of them shuffled from the brick archways of the Providence campus, Lussi is asked what keeps him going.

"Most people say at my age, 'Why are you even working?' The reason I do it ... it's fun. It's a joy. There's nobody else that has a job like this."

Mascot. Caretaker. Resident grandpa.

Lussi's niche at Providence is all this, an irreplaceable personality and dash of color who reminds students that life's major pitfalls are best bridged by laughter. He lays his schtick -- a combination of parental doting and clownish enthusiasm -- on thick, but everyone knows that beneath the goofy veneer is a big beating heart.

Vaught, the headmaster, says the issue of Lussi's retirement is uncharted territory. Clearly, Vaught hasn't envisioned Providence without its most recognizable kid.

"He's been a pillar here," says Vaught, his tone reflective and sincere. "I don't know what we'd do without him."

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