December 7, 2016

Reunion & Loss

The Ironwood St. Ambrose High School Class of 1962. Mike Buda is at lower right.

This is a tough column to write. It was supposed to be easy. It was supposed to be about my high school reunion in early July, the first time our class has gotten together since graduation in 1962.

But the pleasure of that reunion was tempered by the death of a dear friend at the end of the month. It got me thinking about the rhythms of our lives—how we change and the world changes around us. How friendships endure over time even without much cultivation, and how death does not end them.

Ours was a small class—only 22 students—in the long-since-gone Catholic high school in Ironwood. Most of us had not seen the others in 50 years. We kept up through Christmas cards, gossip, visits to Ironwood, the Ironwood Daily Globe website, and Facebook, that boon to older folks with time to spare.

Seventeen class members made it to the reunion. Three couldn’t make it, and two died. Over three days we caught up on parents, children, grandchildren, education, jobs, travels, marriages and illnesses. We reminisced about Ironwood’s vibrancy in the ’50s (its population of 5,400 now is one-third its size then), the St. Ambrose High School building (a ramshackle three-story wood box that shook in the wind), and the nuns we tormented, who repaid us with a fine education.

We had pasties and beer the first night we gathered, a good ol’ U.P. fish fry the next, and then joined the all-class reunion as the featured class on Saturday night.

It was a good class. We were the children of doctors, miners and small business owners. (There was not a web designer, engineer or computer programmer among them.) Most made it through college on their own or learned a trade. Two had owned bakeries, several were educators, a few were in business, sales and health care, and an uncommon number became writers—probably because the toughest nun we had, Sister Maurice, made us writers.

Our successes were made possible by our education, because of our parents’ hard work (all the parents knew each other) and the community’s commitment to educate its young.

Our classes were small, and that’s a big deal. I think there are some basic truths that still apply in education: 1) more teacher-time per student enhances learning, and 2) technology doesn’t make you smarter or more educated, it just makes you more productive (there is a difference).

So that blissful weekend, when we became young-at-heart, it felt as though we had never lost touch. There was joy and comfort in being back with my class. I highly recommend it.

My dear friend Darryl Gates could have been part of that class. He was one of those friends you make later in life, when you’re a little more certain of who you are. But it felt like we’d known each other since grade school.

I met him in Las Vegas, at the 1984 National Rural Electric Cooperative Association annual meeting. Darryl was there as the new editor and communications director for the Alabama Rural Electric Association, the same job I had in Michigan.

Darryl and I became good friends. We had much in common: two sons, of roughly the same ages; a love for the outdoors; an appreciation for many of the same authors, music and movies. He had family in Michigan and I once bought a car in Mobile, AL.

We managed to get in a few hikes after meetings—outside of Vegas, above L.A., even in Washington, D.C., many good meals, a few drinks, and coffee and beignets in New Orleans. We met Minnesota Fats (so he said, as we paid him for the picture we had taken) in a pool hall bar in Nashville, TN. Martha, Darryl’s wife and constant companion, also became our good friend.

We really loved working on magazines, and we talked often about how to make them better. Darryl was dedicated to the co-op idea, and he set an example for all co-op editors across the country.

He was diagnosed with lung cancer last November, and after chemo treatments didn’t help he resigned himself to living as well as he could with the disease.

He died a week before his 62nd birthday. A few days before, I left a voicemail message telling him I was returning from a fly-fishing trip on the Manistee River. I read “Calico Joe,” a John Grisham book he recommended, on the river bank while my dog slept nearby. He would have liked that image.

And, I like that I can still call Darryl and every one of my old classmates “friend.”

Mike Buda is editor emeritus of Country Lines. Email Mike at mike.f.buda@gmail.com or comment on his columns at countrylines.com/column/ramblings.

Comments

  1. John Boyer says:

    Great piece, Mike.

    John