I remember the day clearly. It’s the first day of school, 1959, fifth-grade classroom, St. Augustine Catholic School, Spokane, Wash., Sister Grace Marie in charge.
There’s a new kid seated next to me. We don’t get many new kids moving to our school, so I’m curious about him. At recess he tells me his family recently moved from New Jersey, and that his father, a retired chemist with DuPont, will be volunteering to teach chemistry at Gonzaga University.
He invites me to his home after school, and I accept. I can always use a new friend, and this kid seems pretty cool. His name is Jim, and, like me, he’s a full-blooded Irishman. He tells me he thinks he might be a priest when he grows up, but we were all coached to say that back then. It earned brownie points with the nuns.
We decide to throw a football in the park across from his house. I tell him to go long, and when he does my throw is way behind him. That’s because he floats like a gazelle, faster than any kid I’ve ever seen. When he asks me to go long, I run about 40 yards, way past his reach I assume, and he waves at me to go deeper. Then the ball flies over my head. He’s a 10-year-old who can throw a football nearly 50 yards. Wow.
Who is this kid?
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We were best of friends from that very day. And this despite the fact that he was better than me at everything we did. Fortunately, he didn’t lord it over me. He just quietly pushed me to get better at everything I did.
Jim was a straight-A student, while I was a B-plus. We took an exam to get into Gonzaga Prep. His score topped all 350 applicants, and he was given a scholarship, the only one awarded. He was all-city in basketball and baseball. He entered one track meet and won four events, but track conflicted with baseball. He was the best junior golfer in Spokane, once shooting 29 for nine holes on a tough course.
I went to the University of Oregon to play golf; he went to Cal to play baseball. We kept up with each other through newspaper accounts.
After his junior year, Jim was named first-team All-American and was drafted in the first round by the Los Angeles Dodgers. His initial stop as a professional was AA ball on a team with Steve Garvey, Bill Russell, Ron Cey and Davey Lopes. He was the center fielder of the future for the Dodgers.
Then one day in spring ball he tore up his knee chasing a routine fly ball. Three subsequent surgeries were ineffective, and his knee would swell up after just nine holes of golf. He had to rent an electric cart to make it around.
Despite the end of his baseball dreams, Jim charged forward, finished his degree at Cal and got married. I was honored to be best man at his wedding. He then earned a law degree at Boston University and joined a prestigious Spokane law firm. He and his wife Kathy had two little boys.
Stories like this are supposed to end happily. This one doesn’t.
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Thirty-two years ago yesterday, May 18, 1981, I got the phone call in Las Vegas that I will never fully understand. Jim was dead. The cause: suicide.
I didn’t move from my desk for five or 10 minutes after hearing the news. I was frozen by the shock our bodies experience when an unimaginable event becomes reality. Think of the Kennedy assassination, or 9/11, how you felt when you first heard. This was even tougher for me. This was my best friend for my entire life and the person I looked up to more than any other. And he was gone by his own hand.
I flew home to Spokane that very day and spent a week with friends and family trying to make sense of it all. I was asked to speak at the funeral, which so overflowed St. Augustine Church that late arrivals had to stand outside in the parking lot.
Any fear I had about public speaking left after that day. I would never have a tougher time looking out at a sea of faces than to see all Jim’s and my closest friends standing in a row as pallbearers, and his wife and parents beside them, huddled in grief. They all had the same look on their faces: Why?
In 2006, Las Vegas had the nation’s highest suicide rate. It wasn’t our first time. Year after year we rank in the top five in that gloomy category. Experts offer all sorts of hypothetical reasons: gambling addiction, alcoholism, the transient population, the idea that Las Vegas is a second-chance city, and when that chance fails, all is lost.
The budget for suicide prevention isn’t nearly high enough in Nevada. Ask anyone who’s lost a loved one that way. The pain of the loss is equaled only by the guilt that it wasn’t avoided.
Some call it a selfish act, without consideration of the anguish caused for those left behind who loved them and will forever miss them. I lean toward the notion that the individual’s depression or misery is so overwhelming that their thoughts are light-years away from those left behind. Maybe the flickering candle of hope simply snuffs out, and they fall through a trap door of blackness.
Like all who have been touched by suicide, I asked myself many times in the years following Jim’s death whether I listened carefully enough, or whether I could have been in closer touch with his feelings so I could have had warning of the demons he was wrestling.
His suicide note, which was read to me some time after his death, suggested that it wouldn’t have mattered.
This was what was left on the dashboard of the car he was found in:
“I don’t expect anyone to understand this action, and I apologize to those who are saddened by my death.” It was direct, pragmatic, explaining nothing.
I just wish we could have grown old together and had a few more laughs. Damnit. What I would give for that.
Longtime Las Vegas resident and author Jack Sheehan’s column appears monthly. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.