Sunday, July 20, 2014

One Man's Eulogy for His Longtime Friend

[In July, the following edited remarks were made by a high school classmate of mine at the memorial service for his best friend, another one of my high school classmates, at the famous Cosmos Club in Washington, D.C. One was president of the student council, the other president of our senior class. One became a Top Gun pilot, and later, a rear admiral and an airline captain; the other became a renowned neurosurgeon. Both are proof that good guys don't always finish last.]

. . .We are here to celebrate the amazing life of my best friend of fifty-seven years. I’m M*** S****, retired Navy Rear Admiral and fighter pilot. My call sign used to be “Red”, but these days they call me “Pink” or “Whitey” or worse.

As a fighter pilot and a Top Gun graduate, I AM familiar with strong personalities with egos bigger than the Goodyear blimp – in fact, on the all time list of overinflated prima donnas and divas, I think it’s a dead heat between fighter pilots and surgeons.

How many of you have read “The Great Santini” or saw the movie with Robert Duvall? I think Pat Conroy summed it up most politely about his father, when he said he possessed “unassailable self-esteem.” Correct? Yet, despite all of J**'s achievements as a surgeon, all of his patience in teaching and mentoring young neurosurgeons over his career, he was never boastful, he did not create scenes, he was never so full of himself that others winced or recoiled, and he continued to perform at the top of his game, steadily, modestly, AND without uttering many unnecessary words, right?

He didn’t have time for the petty arguments and turf battles among his fellow surgeons that he endured and adjudicated as head of the department. Once when forced to settle some recreational bickering between two surgeons in his department, he listened carefully to each of them, poker-faced, showing no emotion of any kind as he listened, “Uh-huh. . .uh-huh. . .uh-huh. . .um-hmmm, etc.” Then he announced his judgment, and I quote rather liberally, “Dr. Jones, Dr. Smith – no dessert for either of you for a week!”

I am here to testify that J** H*** has always been a humble, modest, soft-spoken [most of the time] consummate pro. . .one of those stealth overachievers who does his homework, and follows through on the decisions he makes. And he nearly always made good ones.

I met J** in the 1956-57 eighth grade year, when his family moved to Wilmette from Kansas City – it was Ike’s first term, the start of rock and roll, Dick Clark, Elvis, Sputnik, and tailfins on cars.

I tried to be a friend to the new guy. We hit if off for a lot of reasons. His dad was a WWII bomber pilot and my dad was a Marine who was on Guadalcanal when I was born. Both our dads exhorted us to NEVER GIVE UP – the quotation made famous by Winston Churchill.

Our dads never talked much about their wartime experiences. They didn’t express much emotion and they certainly didn’t consider themselves heroes. But they were heroes – to us.

As their sons, we wanted to measure ourselves against their incalculable record of winning the war and making the world a safer place. But J** and I also wanted to be different kinds of dads – expressing our emotions and letting our families know how very much we loved them and would protect them at all costs. I know how much he loved and enjoyed being with his family. How proud he was of his daughters and sons-in-law and his grandkids. He and his wife, R********, shared a deep mutual love and respect throughout their years together.

J** and I were both active in scouting – in fact, we nicknamed each other “Scout”. Every phone conversation, letter, or email would start with “Hi Scout” for 57 years. We went to scout camp Ma-ka-ja-wan in Wisconsin for several summers as both campers and counselors. That experience probably started Jim’s lifetime fascination with water, boats, diving, kayaks, and all.

We strengthened our friendship at New Trier High School. We both played second or third string football. I played baseball. J** was a leader on the gymnastics team. For a YouTube moment, can you imagine J** in white stretch pants?

We were probably the straightest arrows in the school, partly because of our upbringing and partly because of our experience in Explorer Scouts, trying to be good examples to younger scouts. We all know that kids ignore much of what their parents ask them to do, but let a high school or college kid make the same suggestion and they will  do it, instantly and enthusiastically, right? Jim and I tried to live up to the expectations of those leaders we admired.

At New Trier, I was elected president of the Student Council. And J** was elected president of the senior class. 
At this point in our formative years, the game plan went something like this: I wanted to go to the Naval Academy in Annapolis, and J** wanted to go to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. After graduation, I would become an Admiral and he would become a General. Then we’d become co-Chairmen of the Joint Chiefs. If that didn’t work out, we planned to go to law school.

Unfortunately, during the spring sports season, J** broke his collarbone and couldn’t pass the Army physical. So, he chose Dartmouth instead. And decided on medicine over law. That decision meant spending long, brutal summers taking science courses to get into med school. But his NEVER GIVE UP attitude and effort paid off when he got into Tufts Medical school.

There is a picture in the yearbook of J** with his busted collarbone sling on, working at carving the head of a giant totem pole – our high school class gift to New Trier. Doesn’t that look of intense determination provide a sneak preview of the ace brain surgeon J** would become?

Meanwhile, I’d gone off the Pensacola to become a Naval aviator – the last hurdle was to make six successful carrier landings and six successful catapult launches to get my gold wings. The night after qualifying, I phoned him in Boston, very excited about my experience aboard the aircraft carrier. J** was just as excited. As an intern at Mass General hospital, he had removed his first bullet from a gunshot wound victim!!

In 1974, when I had resigned my commission, joined the Naval Reserves and become an airline pilot, Jim picked me up at Detroit Metro airport and took me to his home in Ann Arbor. He had almost completed his residency and expressed disappointment at my career choice.  Now I understand that flying airplanes is not brain surgery [to coin a phrase], but flying is what I loved as much as he loved being a doctor. He dropped me back at my hotel and I couldn’t help but feel that I had disappointed him, something I never wanted to do.

A few years later, we got together again, when I was in D.C. for Navy duty. J** took me aside and said, “Hey you know that conversation we had and what I said about your flying career? I was all wet and outta line about that – stick with what you love.”

J** was always a very smart guy, but he had the rare ability to change his mind when facts and circumstances changed, the mark of a true thinker and a generous spirit.

We both fought hard to achieve success in our careers and in our lives. We were both tested by adversity on several occasions. Either because of events not totally within our control or caused by our own buffoonery. We had to start over a couple of times, but Churchill’s famous words came tumbling back, “Never give up!”  

J**’s wicked sense of humor often lightened the mood in facing those setbacks. Do you remember his laugh? I loved it! He laughed, even as he tried to project a formal, almost stern, professional self. And when he did, his face relaxed and creased with a great smile. He would sort of snort to begin with, then start out with a quiet laugh, then beam with enjoyment as he savored the joke, the irony, the moment.

J** had eclectic and catholic tastes in music. He loved it all. We sang Kingston Trio and Brothers Four songs in high school, camp songs, and dreamed of second careers as doo wop singers early in our journey together. He could sing harmony to “Cathy’s Clown” and “Runaround Sue” as well as burst into an operatic aria with no forewarning. Me? I like both kinds of music – country and western.

I was taken by John Denver’s poetic "Country Roads" and "Rocky Mountain High", among others. When he emailed me with his diagnosis [stage 4 pancreatic cancer] in June, I was in Aspen, Colorado on vacation.

There is an amazing memorial to John Denver there with lyrics from his songs carved into the rocks along the Roaring Fork River. As my wife and I walked away from the memorial I passed a huge stone engraved with this quote from John Denver:

“Death is not an ending, but a symbol of movement along the path we are all traveling. As it may be painful to lose contact with the physical aspect of one we love, his spirit can never be lost. We have been and will always be a part of each other.”

Scout, it’s time to say goodbye. You were always my lifetime best friend and my best example to live up to. You will always be part of our hearts.

1 comment:

linda said...

So moving. Beautiful.