Saying 'Goodbye' to My Best Friend of 40 Years
Goodbye, my friend
It wasn't merely that he had a Southerner's gift for story telling, Walter had the novelist's eye and memory for describing encounters with people and events, and by focusing on the tell tale detail of an off-hand comment, or gesture, or the omission of something appropriate to an occasion, would uncover another chapter of the human comedy.
When I got the call this morning I was with my son Chip shopping for a suit at JoS. A. Banks; the suit he will now wear to the funeral in Stevenson, AL, where Walter was born and raised, to a family already distinguished in the world of harness racing. His father, Sanders Russell, who I met before he died, was inducted into the Harness Race Hall of Fame as a trainer and a driver, as Walter himself would be a few years ago as a nationally-respected racing judge.
At 86, Walter had lived a rich and full life, a pianist trained at Peabody and Juilliard, we had spent countless evenings at his grand piano with me singing show tunes in my strained baritone while he improvised beautifully at my side. Walter was also a true "man of letters" with graduate degrees from Vanderbilt and Emory, which led him to teach several years at Georgia College in Milledgeville, GA, where he became close friends with Flannery O'Connor and her mother Regina.
His stories of conversations on the front porch of "Andalusia" served as my introduction to the world of O'Connor. As a graduate student at Emory, I was still a decade away from my conversion to Catholicism. Walter also introduced me to Evelyn Waugh who had been the subject of his master's thesis at Vanderbilt. But it was his dissertation topic, T.S. Elliot and Igor Stravinsky, that he told me about the first day we met that started a conversation about music, literature, film, culture, religion, and politics that would stretch across the decades. Perhaps "conversation" is too strong a word, because Walter was a story teller without equal in my experience -- when he told a long story I would marvel at the perfection of the sentences, the moments of emphasis using his voice, his eyes, his mischievous smile, or his deep, and always youthful, laughter.
It wasn't merely that he had a Southerner's gift for story telling, Walter had the novelist's eye and memory for describing encounters with people and events, and by focusing on the tell tale detail of an off-hand comment, or gesture, or the omission of something appropriate to an occasion, would uncover another chapter of the human comedy. Walter could be unsparing in his narrative estimation of his friends and acquaintances, but he was unfailingly gracious and forgiving to all of us. His grasp of fallen human nature far exceeded my own in the first decade of our friendship, and it took me many years to realize how prescient Walter had been about many things, including me.
Flannery O'Connor, Evelyn Waugh, and T.S. Elliot, yet my friend Walter never professed any specific belief in a religious creed. At the same time, he always supported, even encouraged my journey toward the Catholic Church. Yes, there were many times of good-humored banter about our differences, but Walter always found good things to say about the people and causes I embraced, from John Paul II to George W. Bush.
There were years when, employed far away from Atlanta that I didn't see or hear much of Walter, yet his face was never far from my mind. Whenever we met, usually in Atlanta when I visited on business, it was as if our last conversation had been the night before. He loved my family, and he became very close to several of my friends to whom I introduced him. Walter was that person described by C.S. Lewis in his chapter on friendship from The Four Loves whose presence intensified the friendship of everyone around him. Perhaps that is why it felt like such a body blow when the news came this morning.
Walter had a contagious zest for savoring each day, making every meeting with him, whether for breakfast, lunch, a dinner party, coffee, or ice cream (he had a child's appetite for sweets!), memorable. The same zest was manifest when I visited him at the harness race track and sat next to him as he watched through his binoculars as the horses and drivers flew towards the finish line. The respect that I had for him, and his other friends from academia, was evident among his colleagues in the world of harness racing. His judgment and integrity, a sense of common decency and fairness, were integral to the respect that he earned over his lifetime in the sport.
As a friend, Walter never let me down: He was always interested in the "latest news," always robustly congratulated my achievements, and during times of trial and disappointment, always lightened my burden with his understanding and the forgiveness of his laughter. No matter where I was in life, to Walter I had the same value as a person, a friend, worthy of his welcome and attention, of being a part of his day, of his life. I know when the ache is gone it will be replaced by the pure gratitude of God having put such a man as Walter Russell in my path and for allowing me to know and love him all these years.
Goodbye, my friend.
Deal W. Hudson is president of the Pennsylvania Catholics Network and former publisher and editor of Crisis Magazine.
Pope Francis Prayer Intentions for December 2013
General Intention: Victimized Children. That children who are victims of abandonment or violence may find the love and protection they need.
Missionary Intention: Prepare the Savior's Coming. That Christians, enlightened by the Word incarnate, may prepare humanity for the Savior's coming.
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