JIM DODSON: Mourning Lost Friends
Last Saturday afternoon was perfect for golf. But I was sitting in a crowded pew at The Village Chapel with my mind pleasantly adrift at Louie Brown's memorial service, remembering how he once kidnapped me on a golden October day.
Four years ago, I'd just finished giving a talk about my recently deceased friend Harvie Ward at the Art of Golf Festival when Louie appeared out of the crowd, seized my elbow, and declared, "There's something Harvie would want you to see. Got 10 minutes?"
I didn't know Louie from Donald Ross' house cat. I also had a plane to catch in Raleigh. But Louie had a rogue twinkle in his eye. Before I could say no, he put me into his SUV and drove me out to see Forest Creek Golf Club, regaling me with delightful stories about his grandfather's farm and the golf club he and brother Terry had long dreamed of building.
"This land has always meant so much to my family," Louie evangelized as he turned down a sandy lane to first show me the Meyer family home place. "Our grandfather once hired Donald Ross to draw up plans for a golf course on this land -- but it never got built. So Terry and I are simply following in the family tradition. We want this place to give pleasure to people for generations to come. "
I was touched by his family devotion, amused by his golf-loving zeal. Forest Creek Golf Club turned out to be everything he said it was -- beautiful, low-key, unpretentious. Months later, I wasn't terribly surprised to learn that Louie's family, through foundation work and other quiet means, had done much more to advance the quality of life in these ancient Sandhills than just build a world-class golf facility.
"I know you've got to get to the airport," Louie declared, sounding like a kid who desperately wanted to show me his fantastic new toy on Christmas morning, "but let me take you on a quick tour of the golf course. It'll only take 10 minutes -- I swear."
Louie lit a cigarette. He fetched a set of golf clubs and snagged a cart. Before I knew it, we were out on the golf course hitting shots in the gorgeous afternoon light, swapping tales about our sons and daughters, our mutual acquaintances, our favorite places to chase the game.
I missed my flight. But I wouldn't have missed that afternoon with Louie Brown for anything.
As I sat in the pew last Saturday afternoon, listening to Louie Jr. tell a charming story about his final golf trip to Scotland with his funny, golf-mad dad, I couldn't help but think how lucky I was to have missed my flight four years ago.
Remembering a departed friend's time on this earth, I suppose, is the point of a good memorial service. Like George Bailey in "It's a Wonderful Life," we sometimes need to be reminded by an inner Clarence the angel of how one life lived well can unexpectedly touch and influence so many others.
On an equally beautiful summer morning a few months back, I sat in the crowded pews at Emmanuel Church, pleasantly thinking about a wonderful afternoon I'd recently spent with my neighbor, Jack Webster.
Jack was in his 80s, a decidedly Old World and private man, a former J. Walter Thompson advertising executive whose work took him all over South America at a time when violent regimes and rebel insurgencies made travel perilous to most foreign executives.
Jack's major passion was orchids. He was not only an outstanding grower and one of this country's leading experts on the subject, but he helped organize no fewer than five orchid societies in North Carolina, organizations that helped spread orchid fever among untold thousands of budding enthusiasts.
During a tour of his greenhouses, he told me great stories about collecting trips to the jungles of Colombia and Ecuador. Then we sat in his living room talking quietly about his colorful boyhood in Buenos Aires -- where the priests of his neighborhood parish ran the local brothels -- and how, as a husband and father of four small children, he traveled through rebel territories relying on little more than his sense of humor and his passion for orchids as a passport for safe passage.
I told him his life sounded like a Graham Greene novel.
"What would life be without a little adventure? That made it all the more fun," Jack allowed with a wry twinkle , reaching out to scratch the head of Morgan, his 11-year-old black Lab, who was never far from her master's side.
'Doing Something Well'
Somehow the subject of wood carving came up. Perhaps because Jack and Jean Webster's living room was full of gorgeous carved figures of Catholic saints. On a facing wall sat an ornately carved traveling desk that once belonged to a 16th-century bishop. The coffee table at our feet was exquisite, too.
"What a wonderful table," I casually remarked to Jack, touching the ruggedly handsome surface, explaining how my grandfather had been a devoted woodworker, a quiet, rural man not unlike the worldly Jack Webster I wondered if the table perhaps had come from the jungles of Ecuador or Colombia too -- picked up on one of his back-country adventures or orchid expeditions.
"Oh, actually," Jack answered off-handedly, "I made that." He modestly explained how he loved working with wood, maybe even a little more than hunting and growing exotic orchids.
"A table might last for hundreds of years," he said with that same quiet twinkle. "Possibly even longer than the fellow who makes it."
At his memorial service, I heard a gentle collective gasp of surprise when the presiding priest explained that Jack Webster had, in fact, carved a pair of stunning wooden crosses that hang in the sanctuary.
During a fine eulogy for his dad, Jack's son, Colin, described how his father had patiently taught each of his four sons to work with wood -- and a great deal more in the process. "He taught us the value of doing something well," Colin explained to me after his dad's service, as we stood talking in the foyer of Jack's orchid greenhouse. Morgan the dog was standing there too, looking a little lost without her best friend.
"Dad also had one of the greatest senses of humor of anyone I knew, " Colin added, "though I'm not sure how many people knew that about him."
Luckily, thanks to a lovely summer afternoon Jack Webster and I had together just before he died, I did.
'What You Leave Behind'
Three weeks ago, my good friend Suzi Hess phoned to let me know she was going into the hospital for " a little back surgery." She asked to postpone our planned lunch and advised me not to worry. "I'll be up and dancing in the chorus line before you can say Busby Berkeley," Dame Suzi said with a chuckle.
I loved talking to Suzi. Like Louie Brown and Jack Webster, she was that rare spirit who blended her life's passion with a load of good humor.
Suzi phoned me every so often to give me ideas for columns -- or just to make me laugh. You may have read about her in the July issue of PineStraw magazine. She was "Thalia," our Muse of Comedy, a retired elementary school teacher and veteran Equity stage performer with a great take on life. Not long ago, she donated more than 1,000 books on humor to East Carolina University. What a lovely gift.
Suzi once said something to me I wrote down -- a nugget I was planning to save for a column on the power of good belly laugh.
"At the end of the day, dear, it's not what you have or who you know or what you achieve that really matters. It's what you leave behind -- how you're remembered by those who knew you best. In my case," she added with perfect stage timing, "I plan to leave 'em with a smile."
A few days ago, we learned there were complications with Suzi's surgery. At last report from her sons, Hunter and Mark, the Muse of Comedy isn't doing particularly well, though she may just make one hell of a stage comeback.
"Some things are worse than dying," she reportedly quipped to her boys.
For the record, I'm not quite ready to cancel my postponed lunch with Suzi Hess. I don't think Louie Brown or Jack Webster would, either.
These days, we could all use the belly laugh.
Jim Dodson, writer-in-residence at The Pilot, can be reached by e-mal at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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