I have had many friendships in my life. Some over 50 years.
In one’s lifetime your circle of friends change. Some as a result of life circumstances, some as a result of shifting world views, some simply as a result of family dynamics. Some friends leave your life and come back later, like nothing ever changed. Some leave forever, as if you were never friends to begin with. Some stay connected for the long haul.
These 2 have helped shape my life in more ways than I can possibly say:
When I first met Rudy, we were about 13 years old. He was a skinny kid with an easy laugh and sarcastic sense of humour. We hit it off immediately. Kind of gangly and awkward, he was always an invaluable part of our sports teams. As we grew into our bodies, he remained skinny as a rake, but grew to be a 5’10 beanpole, with brown eyes and wavy brown hair. He couldn’t grow facial hair to save his life when he was younger. The two of us ran cross country for the high school team, and trained together at home. I am pretty sure he only trained because he thought girls liked skinny guys that could run.
I am proud and humbled to say that Rudy and I were friends for over 50 years. We went to high school together, played fastball together, shared dreams and anxieties, navigated the turbulence of first loves and of course, the agony and ecstasy of teenage hormonal imbalances. We lived together in Hamilton for a few months out of high school, while trying to figure out how to conquer the world.
Harvest is a dirty job on a tobacco farm. It required early mornings (6am) and earlier mornings (4am), long hours of hard physical labour and in my case, a hard driving and cost-conscious boss – my father. I was an early riser, happy the moment my eyes opened. Rudy not so much – he worked on our farm as part of our harvest team, and HATED EVERY MINUTE of it. He hated early mornings, he hated getting dirty and sometimes he hated my dad.
One time he had had a few late nights in a row, working on a summer romance. The early mornings were getting to him and he fell asleep on the priming machine. Dad proceeded to embarrass him in front of the other workers. As a result, Rudy’s temper got the best of him and he spun his tires while leaving the kiln yard. That in turn prompted dad to have another more personal chat with him. Merlyn never had to raise his voice. He could make you feel lower than a snakes belly with a few well placed indignities. He never fell asleep again.
How Not to Impress Merlyn
On another occasion, my cousin Neil was working with us. It was early September and the Canada-Russia Summit hockey series was underway. Neil was 4 years older. Rudy and I were 17 and not “of drinking age” but Neil convinced us to go to Riley’s Tavern in Tillsonburg to watch the game. It was game 3, on Sept 6 1972. We managed to convince the waiter that we were old enough to drink. The draft beer was flowing, the game was intense, ending in a 4-4 tie – and we lost track of the alcohol we were consuming – or perhaps didn’t care at that point.
Neil was a prankster and was egging us on. Being the good Belgian kid he was, Rudy could handle his beer better than I – though beer was never really my friend. Still riding the adrenaline of the game, Neil proceeded to drive us back to the farm.
We hadn’t made it far, when Rudy had to pee. Neil stopped on the side of the road to let him out and the 2 of us started laughing, while Rudy started to run into the corn field. In my infinite wisdom, I gave chase and caught him from behind, knocking him down. As it turned out he was also fragile. 2 broken ribs later, he was unable to work the next several days, much to Merlyn’s dismay.
We got home around 2 am, and headed for the bunkhouse. Coincidentally, dad came out to check the kilns at about the same time and was not impressed with his drunken crew. His son throwing up near the bunkhouse likely didn’t help.
Furious, he fired his nephew Neil on the spot and would have fired me too if I didn’t live there. Instead he got me up at 4am to re-pile tobacco to teach me a lesson. I was in rough shape and Rudy was out of commission. Not a good formula when work needed to be done.
Movin’ to The Big City
Both of us got a little sidetracked in our senior year of high school and were less attentive to our studies than we should have been. As a result we missed graduating by a couple of courses. My mother was not pleased. She never said much, but she was a calculating sort – a walk softly and carry a big stick kind of gal. As a former teacher, no son of hers was going to miss graduating high school.
Unbeknownst to Rudy and me, she arranged for us (through a friend in Hamilton), to get jobs working in a factory welding train boxcars. The kicker was that we had to go to night school to secure our diplomas. Moving to an apartment in downtown Hamilton was a big step for 2 young men from Vienna.
It was dirty, robotic and thankless work. It seemed like we were surrounded by men that were going through the motions of life, simply trying to feed their families. They would trudge, unsmiling, carrying their hardhat and lunch buckets from the parking lot, to the factory floor in the early morning and reverse that same path at night. Drudgery. Factory work was a real test of character and in many ways life changing for both of us.
We rented a 14th floor apartment on Barton St and set about making our mark in the big city. It was soon very apparent that neither of us were cut out to work in a factory, nor for that matter to live in the city.
I recall one of my first days on the job, still trying to orient myself. The factory alone was bigger than Vienna. I had never had to interact with people of different ethnicities and cultures. Keep in mind this was just a few short years after the Detroit race riots. My dad’s cousin from Detroit visited us from time to time and it was not uncommon for him to spout racist tropes, so it tainted my worldview at the time.
Know your Surroundings
My first day on the job, I was looking for the men’s room and walked into this cavernous space. There was only one other person there – a rather imposing looking black man leaning on a broom – apparently a maintenance guy. I was nervous already and walked to the centre of the room, where this large circular, grey enamel urinal was situated. There was a foot petal running the circumference at the bottom of the urinal to flush.
I thought it odd that it was in the middle of the room, but what did I know about industrial toilets?? I felt this guy’s eyes on me as I moved to the edge of the urinal and purposely positioned myself so my back was to him. I did my business and pressed my foot on the foot petal, spraying water to flush. As I did up my fly and began to walk away, the big guy behind me said with a booming voice “boy, if you ever come in here again and piss in the sink, I will kick your ass!!”
Lesson learned. Always know your surroundings. I soon found another bathroom in a different building.
Movin’ On Up
Rudy learned quickly that factory work was not for him. He enrolled in University of Guelph and soon after decided on a career in law enforcement. His biggest concern was getting accepted given he was about 145 pounds soaking wet. He and I would go to Tillsonburg on Friday nights and order 2 large pizzas from Bill’s Pizza, gobbling them both down like starving children, hoping he could gain some weight. I ate a lot of pizza in support of his career goals.
All roads led back home and soon he met and married Charlene Maloney. I had never seen him so happy. She was the love of his life and before long they had 2 amazing daughters, Lynnsey and Alissa, to complete their family. He was successful, respected, admired, cool under pressure, a strategic thinker and a great dad. His life and career was unfolding perfectly in front of his eyes – and I was envious. To me, he was the epitome of success.
This blog exists as a result of Rudy’s talented daughter Lynnsey Gheysen-Murray (firstname.lastname@example.org), Check her out for your business needs.
Rudy began his career as a constable on the London Police Force and then went to the Ontario Police College in Aylmer for training. Clearly he had found his niche. He transferred to the Aylmer Police Force as a constable and in a few short years, was named Chief – the youngest chief in Ontario, if not Canada. I believe he was 34 years old. Remarkable.
His political career was just getting started. A few years later, he was named Director of the Ontario Police College – a huge accomplishment – with hundreds of staff and recruits under his watch and with a budget in the millions to manage. Rudy was the consummate politician, working every angle and every connection to maximize results. The transformation from the meek and mild small town boy that I knew, to confident, self assured police officer and administrator was both rapid and breathtaking.
Soon life took us in different directions and we gradually grew apart. I started a manual labour job at the local telephone company, climbing poles, changing hardware, installing and repairing phones etc. But I was always looking for something better – always willing to take a risk to improve my career opportunities . Rudy had set a high bar.
A variety of circumstances took me to Lindsay, London, Nova Scotia, Aylmer and back to London again. While with Bell Canada, new career paths saw me rise from technician, to Manager of Operations and then to Information Technology (IT). Soon I was travelling constantly. Expanding my wings further, I left Bell and went to Nortel, first as a consultant and then employee – and more travel and more pressure and more stress. The pace was difficult to manage. It was hard on me and harder on my family.
In 2002, I was working on a project in New Jersey and away from home almost constantly. The pressure was intense. Then 9/11 happened. We were trapped in Eatontown New Jersey for a week, while the company and the world figured out how to move forward safely. Nortel was simultaneously laying people off, as the market collapsed around them and their shoddy business model failed.
As people were getting laid off, I starting connecting them with others I knew in the industry, trying to help friends and colleagues get back in the workforce. It seemed that I had a talent for connecting people.
Before long, the writing was on the wall that my own job was in jeopardy. So after a tumultuous stint with Nortel and quite out of happenstance, I started my own IT Staffing business, leveraging the network I had built over the past 15 years. I was able to scale back the travel somewhat and work from home more.
All this time, apparently Rudy and I had secretly admired each other from afar. I admired Rudy’s corporate success and unknown to me, he admired my spontaneity and risk taking. A couple of small town boys making our way in the big world.
Then fate intervened. My sister Kim, became gravely ill with lung cancer and sadly succumbed within a year of her diagnosis at the age of 58. Rudy came to the funeral to pay respects and while it was good to see him again, he looked haggard. His daughter Lynnsey took me aside and asked if I could meet with him and offer an ear, as he was going though some professional challenges and needed someone to talk to.
It was like we had never been apart. We started to meet on a regular basis. We shared stories, laughs, unmet dreams, family dramas and of course career bumps and bruises. I offered what I could in terms of career advice and even tried to get him to join my company. While grateful, Rudy had a lot of pride, so he struck out on a new career path, beginning his own consulting company and offering business advice to small companies.
He was just starting to get traction in his venture when out of nowhere, he developed an eating disorder. After multiple doctor visits and specialist appointments, no one could pinpoint the problem. Eventually it was determined he had developed stomach cancer. It was a devastating blow.
I drove him to a couple of chemo appointments to offer support. I will never forget how he cried when we arrived in the parking lot, dreading having to go in and generating a flood of tears from us both. It was heartbreaking to see him failing physically and struggling emotionally.
Charlene, Lynnsey and Alissa were his biggest supporters, urging him to try a variety of experimental treatments, but nothing seemed to work. Though he vowed this would not beat him, it proved too big an obstacle. Rudy and I shared many intimate conversations about life and death, unmet dreams, fatherhood, and missed opportunities. For me they were life altering conversations. For him, they were cathartic, giving advice to a life long friend and hoping I would heed the wisdom.
A couple of years later, I was honoured and blessed to be in the room with his family when Rudy took his last breath on July 5, 2017. Only 61 years old, he was too young and had so much left to accomplish. Indeed, we had lots of unfinished business between us. I have tried to live by some of his last words to me….”Kent, I have put things off all my life, waiting for the right time. There is no right time. Live your life and follow your dreams. Tomorrow is not guaranteed”
I have used those words as a guiding light many times since. Live life, create memories. We often learn too late that this is all we have to give at the end of our existence.
Rest in peace my friend and brother! Your spirit lives within me.