New grad renews ties of friendship

Friday, May 16, 2003

Dear Jesse,

Your father sent an announcement of your graduation this weekend from the state university in North Carolina. It does not seem possible. But when I do the math, I see that you, indeed, have been on this planet long enough to earn a sheepskin.

It's very likely you don't remember me at all. You may even be wondering why your father sent an announcement to me and my wife.

First, let me say he did it out of pride, the good kind. We've had two sons graduate from college, so we know the little jig mothers and fathers do when their children succeed. Every such achievement is a vicarious moment of joy for parents.

Second, your father and I have been friends for 40 years as of last fall when we both showed up at the same college at the same time and on the same floor of the same dormitory. It was Ely Hall. Has he told you any Ely Hall stories?

I noticed your photo on the front of the graduation announcement. You're a handsome young man, Jesse. You get some of that from your father. The cap you're wearing says "Bob Dylan," which surprises me a little. Dylan probably has more fans in my generation than yours. I liked him when I could still understand some of the words he was singing. I'll leave it to you to decide if my inability to comprehend a single thing he sings these days is his problem or mine.

If your father has told you any Ely Hall stories, he has no doubt mentioned the fellow with the stereo and, it seems, one LP album, a collection of Johnny Mathis hits. Every time I hear "Misty" I can still smell the cabbage cooking in the nearby apartment of the Ely Hall dorm mother. Yes, we had dorm mothers in the early latter half of the previous century.

By virtue of your father's job, you were born in Nevada, Mo., where, it so happens and for the same reason, our younger son also was born. Your father and I both worked for the local newspaper. We were half of the entire news staff.

I urged your father to move to Missouri after his varied career as a molder of fake marble in Dallas, seasick oil-rig laborer in the Gulf of Mexico, town maintenance helper responsible for painting parking meters at a small town in the South, gravedigger in a Chicago suburb and carpenter in Salt Lake City. With those credentials, it seemed to me he would make a fine reporter. And he did. Like most of his journalistic colleagues, he was stained by the ink of newspapering, and it's a known fact you can't quit until the stain rubs off. It never does.

I see you've prominently displayed your middle name as well as your first name on your graduation announcement. Alonzo. It's an incredibly fine name whose luster has been brightened by some of the men fortunate to have it, not the least of which was your grandfather. I only met your grandfather a couple of times. Anyone who had only a short time to spend with your grandfather would be impressed, because he exuded virtue -- something that rubbed off on your father -- and, I hope, on you.

On Saturday you will hear enough platitudes to last a lifetime. That's what graduation speakers are expected to do, and most of them succeed. Let me just say this: Whatever you choose to do with your life, you will be chiseling another bit of your family's sculpture whose fragments are scattered through vast wheat fields, the halls of Congress and the Fourth Estate, otherwise known as history's first draft.

Whatever you start, finish it with the same pride that prompted your father to send us your graduation announcement. And remember: Even molders of fake marble have their moments.

R. Joe Sullivan is the editor of the Southeast Missourian.

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