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Our 65th reunion

Maggi Pack and John Elstad
Ralph Gardner Jr.
Maggi Pack and John Elstad

As you age you become something of a connoisseur of friendship. Perhaps it’s because the arc of your life becomes more distinct; you can stand back and examine the people that have come and gone, and those who remain. The exercise provides something of the satisfaction of viewing a rainbow after a downpour and taking in the whole dazzling thing, from one end to the other; though I’d like to think that the contours of my own journey remain incomplete.

Friendship is a dynamic thing. Some relationships fade, a victim of simple logistics. People move, bonds fray, and it becomes a challenge to stay in touch, though less so in the age of social media. Being old school, I find an occasional Facebook exchange or Zoom meeting insufficient.

People also have a disrespectful habit of dying as you and they get older. The philanthropist Brooke Astor, who led a robust social life, suggested that the key to happiness, I suppose in addition to lots of money, was to make at least one new friend a year who’s younger than you are. I used to think that’s because younger people allegedly have more zing. But I realize now that it’s also practical advice: if you make friends with old people they and their precious company won’t be around that long.

But there are also friendships that defy the obstacles of time and space. There are people you socialize with frequently, though may never amount to more than acquaintances. Then there are good friends you hardly ever see but when you do it’s as if no time has passed, as clichéd as that sounds. You start up where you left off. Maybe it comes down to an affinity that need never be articulated because it’s understood.

This is all a longwinded way of saying that I don’t know where my friendship with John Elstad falls in that taxonomy. But I’m reminded of what’s so special about the man whenever I see him, probably about once every half decade. It’s the same qualities that I admired in him since kindergarten. Yes, we’ve known each other that long. We had drinks Wednesday night in New York City, then met a mutual friend for dinner.

When I had children of my own, John served as a model for how I hoped they’d be treated and treat others in school and in life. I don’t think I told him so until this week. He was popular and kind, brilliant and self-effacing.

And he stayed that way through grade school, middle school and high school. Even though every classmate and his mother wanted him at their birthday parties – we attended an all boys school -- he was radically democratic, floating above cliques, benevolent to all. Even at five he seemed wise.

His life wasn’t easy. His father died when he was a child and his mother descended into mental illness in John’s teens. The chaos at home affected his academic performance in high school; come to think of it to the benefit of lesser lights such as me.

I graduated with the second highest grade point average in the class; a distinction less impressive than it may sound since our graduating class was comprised of all of eighteen people. In other words, competition wasn’t especially stiff. If Elstad had applied himself I have no doubt he’d have been crowned valedictorian.

There’s been a lot of discussion lately about colleges and universities bringing back the SAT after scrapping it during the pandemic. I’m a steadfast opponent of standardized exams – because I suck at them – but I’m forced to admit they measure something meaningful. I base my expertise solely on John’s test scores in 12th grade. After surviving all that tumult at home, and I suspect hardly ever cracking those practice books that the rest of us lugged around like Sisyphean boulders, he achieved perhaps the highest scores in our grade. On Wednesday night he denied they were anything special – only in the 700’s on the verbal portion, the 600’s in math. Whatever. Somehow, his effortless performance came as no surprise.

Nor did it when he entered law school at the University of Mississippi in his mid-forties, the oldest student in his grade, and graduated first in his class. He’d moved to Canada after high school, attended McGill University and worked in a senior position at the Ontario Ministry of the Environment; before following his wife Ann, a family medicine physician, back to the United States when she accepted a job offer in Tupelo, MS.

When we got together Wednesday night it had been a year since Ann’s death. You could see the sadness etched on John’s face when he discussed her. Nonetheless, he remained little changed from the five-year-old I’d met eons ago. He was quick to laugh, as amused by the universe and its absurdities, and as capable of friendship as ever.

We were joined at dinner by our friend Maggi. She’d had a crush on him in high school even though she was my girlfriend. I never took it personally. I saw it as a sign of her intelligence and good taste.

Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found be found on Substack.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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