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Tribute to an old friend

Part One

The Good Old Days were not always so good. For one thing, you were supposed to be sad and solemn at any ceremony marking the demise of a loved one, even if he or she had lived a fine, long and sometimes glorious life. These days, however, we are allowed to celebrate a person’s fruitful time on earth, and to speak of the dead in the most personal, affectionate and even joyful terms.

So if you ask me what I have been doing since Bob died four weeks ago, I would have to confess that he has been like a face in every window, a name on every page, an apparition appearing with astonishing frequency even when I am trying my best to think of something else.

Maybe this is the way it is supposed to be when you lose a good friend and an admired colleague whom you have known for most of your adult life. To give one example of Bob’s ghostly presence:

I once spent a week in Ireland with David Lean, the genius behind such films as “Great Expectations” and “Lawrence of Arabia.” But reporting the mad frenzy of filmmaking on a windy island gave me little time to dig into Lean’s personal life. So the other day when I began reading a massive biography about him, I was astonished by his childhood full of unhappiness, his six marriages, his failure at being a father, and his perpetual sense of being always alone—as if incapable of lasting relationships. I immediately thought of Bob and his contrasting happy, striving boyhood, his epic marriage to Mary Lou, the children he adored, and the legions of friends he made in his global peregrinations and northwest corner perambulations.

You have to wonder how such differences come about. Was David Lean simply fated to be a sad loner, for all of his achievements, while Bob was born to be lucky? Not knowing the answers, I choose to see Bob as the embodiment of Branch Rickey’s observation that “Luck is the residue of design”­— that you can choose your course in life, follow your passions, and so expose yourself to good fortune.

Another example of Bob’s spectral appearances: Watching television, I would hear presidential candidates distorting history and inventing their own facts, and I would hear the English language mangled by people saying “between you and I” or littering their pronouncements with “you knows.”  My hand would automatically reach for the phone to call Bob to share the pain. Except he is gone from us, cannot answer, and so I miss him terribly. There is a hole in my heart.

The same goes for my finding appalling or amusing typographical errors in any of my three daily newspapers. “United Nations,” for instance, sometimes appears as “Untied Nations,” a mistake that, strangely enough, gets closer to the truth about the organization we both reported on in our previous lives. Indeed, today’s Republican-American says that the jurors in the latest Petit-case trial were, quote, “polled by the court of the clerk.”

Bob and I would often feed each other such gems, by phone or email, while sharing our thoughts on the great issues of the day. A distillation of our musings might appear in his Lakeville Journal column within days. I would accuse him of channeling my mind, then admit that he had expressed himself with an elegance far beyond my own abilities.

Or take this week’s Journal story on Tom Schactman’s biography of Eric Hoffer. The article’s reference to Eric Sevareid’s famous interview with the longshoreman philosopher reminded me instantly of Bob Estabrook. Sevareid was one of the heroes in my boyhood imaginings about being a foreign correspondent. He was a great broadcaster but an even better writer. Like Bob, Sevareid was a large and purposeful Midwesterner who, again like Bob, came into the world as an adult — a child with a broad sense of responsibility. Both men became exemplary figures in a calling without which no democracy can survive.

Part Two next week.

Donald Connery is an independent journalist and author who lives in Kent.

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