People say it’s hard to make new friends as you get older. I’ve not had that sensation, and I don’t think my friend Randy did either. All it takes is curiosity, shared time, effort, planning, accommodation, attention and traditions. Randy literally made friends. Friends don’t just happen.
When I first met Randy I was 35, entering an already diverse group, assembled for Randy’s small annual golf tournament, the T____ Invitational Tournament, or “T.I.T”. Yeah… all guys. The motto, “Entertaining Immature Males since 1994” The breadth was surprising. Blue collar to lawyers; politics far-left to far-right. Golf skills ranged from near scratch to near impossible to quantify. How the hell did this motley crew come to be? How do you keep it together?
Randy did it in part by developing a format that had competition for the competitive, a stake in the game for the indifferent player of every level, opportunity for every team to win, and rewards for the most inept achievements.
Who wants to come back each year to watch the same guys run away with the tournament? No one. Everyone returned knowing that someday they, too, could have their name engraved on the Plaque of Champions. But really, the guys didn’t come back for 23 years in a row to play in a golf tournament. They came to spend time with Randy and a group of friends… former strangers … bonded by Randy’s alchemy, forming memories and traditions of their own.
When Randy found out we shared a Groundhog Day birthday some small bond took root, and I was invited to participate in the annual March Madness Pool Draft. Another group of friends.
Then he asked me to be on a trivia team for a benefit at his Church. Another group of friends, another organized tradition, another benefit for others. I found out at that event that Randy not only coordinated our table, but he ran the event and was the congregation President.
Randy had 4 season tickets to the Wisconsin Badger Basketball games, and I was lucky to be asked to attend a game or two per year, with Randy and two other friends. Sometimes I knew them, other times they were new to me. But Randy was mixing friends while the Badgers mixed it up in the Kohl Center.
As five years became ten, ten became 15, the number of days I spent with Randy, his wife and friends grew. The importance of engaging in repeating traditions just happened. American Player’s Theater. Dinners. Travel. I wondered how he had so much time for me and my wife. And I started appreciating the power of unforced tradition. I started planning for a long run of Groundhog Day celebrations.
When Randy was afflicted by pancreatic cancer at age 47, I met more of his friends and family, and we compared notes. Brett, Josh and I triangulated stories of our common friend, over beer. It seems Randy had the same thing going with multiple people: A series of traditional get-togethers that must have filled nearly every slot in his calendar, and which made every person feel like Randy carved out time to make them feel worth the time. The events were about the repetition, the traditional time spent with people he loved. Josh nailed it, “He’s given me so much I just don’t know if I can give enough back.”
How could anyone keep track of that much detail? How did he fit all these people in? Special Powers? Perhaps he was “bi-locating?”
Randy was an organizer; an accountant with a spreadsheet for everything. He was data driven, but there was more than facts. Every competitive event Randy organized, like the Fantasy leagues, NCAA Tournament Pool, or the T.I.T., betrayed Randy’s devotion to prioritizing fun, fairness and inclusion. There was something in a T____ event for everyone. Randy did “post-mortem” reviews after the big events, finding out what worked, and what didn’t. He not only asked everyone what they liked or disliked, he took input and made changes. We all called him “The Commissioner.”
Personally, we talked a lot of politics and philosophy from almost polar opposite starting points. We survived with a mutual knack for stipulating when the other person had a good point. We’d hang our disagreements on a phrase Randy loved, “You Believe What You Want To Believe” or “YBWYWTB”. We’d look at the same data and arrive at completely different interpretations. But instead of shutting down conversation, the disagreement seemed to inspire Randy to dig deeper. These conversations were challenging and enjoyable for both of us. Stronger disagreements could be put on the “YBWYWTB” coat-rack, while we continued to learn from each other: friends with different perspectives who didn’t let that get in the way of what was truly important… we were friends. Randy was comfortable in his Republican skin and Lutheran faith, curious about my beliefs, and never attempted to convert or shame me for not sharing his views. And so we walked along, enjoying each other’s company, to mutual benefit.
And I learned.
Randy never “told” me anything… he just did things, living by example. He demonstrated how all of the things described above make life fun and meaningful while making the lives of others better.
Yes, some say making new friends as you get older is hard. I’ve never had that problem, nor did Randy.
What is hard is losing friends as you get older. Randy died today. His cancer followed the script to a “T,” taking him five months after the initial diagnosis. Knowing all along that this was a death sentence doesn’t make the actual day any easier.
YBWYWTB. I believe Randy made me a better person, and that he’s made the lives of thousands of people better. And somewhere he’s working a spreadsheet, arranging a fun, fair and inclusive event to make the heaven he believed in a lot more interesting.