Have you got that person or persons in your life who love you even though they don’t have to? I hope you have those folks who are not family who you love just as dearly in your life. They make the world a special place as they accepted you into their life willingly, without having to.
His name was Joe. Joe decided to be my mentor when he managed me whether I wanted him to be that or not. We struggled the first couple of months as Joe was considerably older than I. I was all of 25, so thought I had all the answers. Boy was I in for a shock. Joe’s knowledge, patience, impatience and temper soon won me over and I began to listen instead of ignoring his talks with me. After a couple of years, we evolved into a relationship that went far beyond just a mentorship. We were not just on the same page in our world, we were in the same paragraph. Joe would teach and I would absorb it all.
Joe was sick, but you never knew he was feeling bad. One day he decided it was time to retire and naturally I moved into his position. I would spend hours at his home walking him through scenarios and he would slice apples and thoughtfully ask me how I was handling them. I knew when he smiled, I was OK, however when the eyes went dark, I also knew I was in for it.
Joe loved the Yankees so my older son and I bought him a ticket to join us as Tampa was playing them. On this occasion Joe said he was tired and wanted to watch his beloved Steelers play a pre-season game on TV. I hung up the phone after the call and felt it was strange, but also knew he was more tired than before.
We all have been going to baseball games at the Trop for a few years and never got a foul ball. We hoped this would be the one. We sat in the stands with Joe’s seat in between us and around the 6th inning we heard the foul tip but never saw it come off the bat. Suddenly in Joe’s seat there was a loud bang and sure enough, the foul ball hit where Joe would have been sitting. My son got the ball.
The next day I called Joe to tell him the news. When his wife answered she was crying and told me Joe had passed away sitting in his chair watching the Steelers the night before. I was dumbfounded and asked why she had not called. Her reply, “You were with your son. Joe would not have wanted me to interfere.” I asked her a hundred questions and was numb when she told me the time that she discovered he was gone. It was right about the time that foul ball hit his seat at the stadium. I believe that Joe told me goodbye that night.
A few years later, Tony, who was like a brother to me and was also a recipient of Joe’s knowledge tragically passed away in a boating accident in the waters off of St. Pete in Pinellas County. After his wake I went by a friend’s house to sit and talk and we went out on the dock to have a beer and try to make sense of this tragedy. There was a fishing pole out there with some old lure on it and was sitting on the edge of the dock, talking and casting and reelin’.
The talk got emotional and we began talking about how Tony just adored fishing. Suddenly, the lure was hit as I was reeling and the reel was howling as a fish was taking the lure straight out away from me. Without thinking I slowly tightened the drag and yanked as hard as I could setting the hook. A few minutes later we were measuring what turned out to be 34-inch redfish. We released it and to this day it is the biggest redfish I have ever caught. I believe Tony told me goodbye that night.
This past weekend the man who I considered to be as more of a father to me than anyone on this planet was found deceased. I left Virginia with his oldest son one day in March a long time ago and arrived at his dad’s house and he took me in as I f I was his own son. Barry had sons, never had a daughter and considered me one of his own. He took a kid from the mountains of Virginia and along with his boys began teaching us how to be men. He was never easy on us, but never unfair. We were all treated with respect and love equally.
Barry started us all in the newspaper business and taught me many things about being a part of the newspaper instead of just working for the newspaper. We laughed together, we worked together, and we fought many battles together to right what was wrong. He was always first to communicate in crisis, but never afraid to stand his ground no matter what. We cried when he had his first heart attack and open-heart surgery and when he woke, we put him back together again.
Barry taught me how to play chess the hard way. He would beat me so bad in the early years it was just plain embarrassing. As we got older, the games became more intense and every now and again, I would beat him; often wondering did he let me win so I would keep coming back.
I will never forget Barry telling people at work that he knew his other sons did not have the passion for the newspaper to make it a lifelong commitment and he pointed at me and said “this one is going to be a publisher one day. Write it down now.” I looked at him and said something like “yeah whatever,” but as I walked away from him, I thought to myself why not and smiled. He was so proud the day I called him and told him I would become a publisher and yes, he remembered and said “I told you so.”
My heart is heavy as his passing reminded me of Joe, who taught me to think everything through and to remember there are only three outcomes: Best case, worse case and what you are willing to compromise. Know all three before you answer.
Also Tony, who left us way too soon and allowed me to sharpen my skills as a teacher.
Now today, Barry. My heart is heavy as I don’t know how to cope without the comfort of knowing you are there. Who do I call when I need info to answer questions? Who do I play chess with until 2 a.m. for 50 cents? Who do I laugh with when it gets so bad you want to give up? Who do I call the “old man” now?
Barry taught me to not fear anything. He did not prepare me for this day.
I am lucky, Barry, that you loved me when you did not have to. It’s been five days, damn it … I am waiting on a goodbye.
Tim Smolarick is publisher of the Highlands News-Sun and Highlands Sun. Email him at email@example.com