Praising the dead can take its toll

I spend an unhealthy amount of time looking at obituaries.

It’s been an every-day retirement morning ritual for me. Pick up the paper, check to see if anyone I know has died, and then get a pencil for the Sudoku puzzle.

But lately, I’ve been spending hours looking at obituaries 30 and 40 years old on That is my contribution to the Class of 1972 at LaSalle High School as we prepare for our 50-year reunion next summer.

Ours was a big class at LaSalle with more than 500 graduates. It should come as no surprise that we have a long list of those who died. The latest count is 85, and odds are we will add a few more in the next six months.

My goal is to have something significant to say about each of the deceased classmates. In some cases, that’s easy for me. Several of the names on the list reminded me of funerals I had been to and of sadnesses that still hang with me.

An example of that is my old friend Mark Bland. He was my locker mate, the guy that allowed me to hang a photo of my favorite baseball player on the inside of the door. Every morning, when Mark put away his jacket and grabbed his textbooks, he said hello to my hero, Rick Reichardt.

One Monday during our junior year, Mark stayed home from school with a chest cold. Two days later, a couple of his friends met me at the locker to tell me Mark had died. A virus had attacked his heart muscle. That Friday, I saw his face in a casket. It was the first funeral I ever attended.

Jim Waszak is another name on my list. We barely knew each other until senior year and rarely saw each other during our college years. After that, we became as close as brothers, maybe even more so. I can be sour by nature, but knowing Jim helped me understand how much easier life is when you choose to enjoy each moment. His death in 1999 hit me really hard.

There are other names. Mike St. Clair was the guy whose brain was so completely mis-wired that I couldn’t wait to hear whatever he would say next. In 1986, he went on a diet and lost 260 pounds in a single year. He told me he still would order the same amount at the McDonald’s drive-thru – bags and bags of burgers, fries and shakes. But instead of going to the pay window, he would just drive off. He had discovered the thrill all along had been in ordering the food, not eating it.

I saw Carolyn Wilson’s name. There was no wider smile or sweeter voice in the LaSalle Glee Club. There also was no one as precise in language as when she was putting me in my place for acting a fool during a rehearsal. 

Carolyn ended up as a murder victim in Los Angeles in 1976. As best I can tell, it was an unsolved crime. Forty-five years later, the circumstances of her death seem forgotten in a file folder somewhere.

At least, two other classmates also ended up as victims in unsolved murders. Anthony Ebbole, a classmate I never met, was found dead in the street on North Shore Drive near U.S. 31 after 3 a.m., Feb. 8, 2000. He didn’t have a car and he wasn’t wearing a coat during that cold winter night. How did he end up dead there?

The case of Nancy Remble is even more baffling because police never found a body. In December 1990, friends at an event at Corpus Christi Hall noticed that Nancy seemed upset. Afterwards, she supposedly went home, packed a bag and drove her car to the airport. She was never seen again. Police had enough information to suspect foul play but never had enough evidence to solve the case.

We had at least three suicides. Another died in prison. Maybe a half-dozen of us died in vehicle crashes. Among those was Bryan Biscar, one of our Central transfers who always struck me as too brash. I can’t remember saying mean things about him, but I certainly thought them. Bryan died in a crash on Portage Avenue in 1980, just a few days before he was to start a teaching job at St. Adalbert’s School. In preparing his four-paragraph tribute for the reunion, I read some of his writings. I feel shame in not knowing him before judging him.

Sandy Perkey. I saw the name and felt a pang for the coolest girl in my time at Coquillard Junior High. Henry Nye. I remember him preparing the Polish sausage for Dyngus Day at MR Falcons. Henry’s wife, I knew her as Roseanne Vargo, also is on the list. Gail Manning. She met her husband-to-be at the Edison Light, a teen club. For all I know, Strawberry Alarm Clock may have been performing that night.

Tom Jones. He sang solos for our Glee Club concerts with a confidence I wished I had. Doug Miller, a two-sport star in football and baseball, literally a Big Man on Campus. Spider Owens, a two-year starter on the basketball team and father of Andre Owens Jr., who played for Oklahoma State in the NCAA tournament.

These and other classmates with shortened lives served in Vietnam, started their own businesses, traveled the world for multinational conglomerates. They fought, they loved, they won, they lost. I wish I had known more than four paragraphs apiece about that.

I’m not one to bathe in high school memories. It was a so-so period of my life. Those high school keggers you see in movies? I wouldn’t have been invited. If I were, I would have had a 10 p.m. curfew.

I’m not sorry I missed some parties. I found others when I was older. What I missed out on was later, a chance to hear about these people’s lives, in their own words.

The lesson, I think, is I need to find people and listen to them now. Enjoy their stories while they’re alive. The way I’m doing it now, looking backwards with a sense of regret, isn’t healthy.