My old friend and business partner Bob Friedman died January 7, and yesterday his family held a memorial service for him at the auditorium of the Association for Research and Enlightenment (A.R.E.) in Virginia Beach. Nancy Ford and I were among those who attended.
I can’t say just how many people were there. I learned as a young news reporter to count the seats beforehand, then estimate the percentage of seats filled after people arrived, but I didn’t think to use that trick. I’d guess there were maybe 60 people in the hall, but it might easily have been more. This I know: If all his friends who live far away could have been there, the place would have been too small. If all his friends living and dead had been able to attend, we would have needed a much larger auditorium. Bob was a man who made many friends, and kept them.
If, in addition, we had had all the people whose lives he vitally affected, via the authors he published, a large football stadium would have been too small. (Hyperbole? Well, consider the effect on society of just three authors out of the hundreds he put into print: Mary Summer Rain, Neale Donald Walsch, and Lynn Grabhorn.) His was a momentous life.
Yesterday at 5 in the morning, it occurred to me that I ought to be ready to speak in case I was asked. After all, we were friends and adversaries and friends again over a period of 32 years. For 20 years we built Hampton Roads Publishing Co. Inc. together, and after that, when he started another publishing house (his third), he published eight of my books. It was a long many-faceted relationship, much of it invisible to others, like our periodic lunches over the years. (Bob would come to town to play tennis, usually twice a week, and every so often he’d call and ask if I wanted to meet him for brunch at The Tavern, or The Cavalier, or The Villa. Our talk might range into history or literature or metaphysics, because Bob was an educated man, not a narrow-focus specialist. And of course there was always the world of publishing to discuss, or deplore. But none of this would be obvious to others, and perhaps it was nobody’s business.)
So I wrote down a few headers and put them on a 3 x 5 file card, which would have been more helpful later if I hadn’t left the card on my desk!
In the event, there were so many people I had known, and so many I had heard of but not met, including Bob’s first wife, Donna Reese. After an invocation and a buffet meal, we all sat and heard a succession of 20 people talk about various aspects of Bob’s life as they had experienced it. Twenty speakers: It sounds deadly, but in fact it was fascinating, as it always is when people speak from the heart.
Again and again and again, we heard of Bob’s receptivity, and his kindness, and how his helpfulness to others changed their life. Again and again and again we heard first-hand testimony to – well, there’s no better word for it – his goodness.
Goodness is undervalued in this world, as you can see by looking around you, but it is certainly properly valued when encountered. And that was Bob. I knew him perhaps as well as anyone beyond his family members, and I can say that in 32 years I never saw him do a malicious thing, never even heard him express a malicious thought. This isn’t just conventional “of the dead say nothing but good” rhetoric. It’s true. Not once. Bob as a business partner could be aggravating beyond all precedent (and I’m sure he would say the same of me) but I never worried about him acting out of malice. He just didn’t.
After we heard from the speakers who were listed on the program, Matthew, Bob’s second son, who was acting as M.C., asked John Nelson and me to say something. John was Bob’s first novelist, and the two had been friends since the mid-70s. John flew in from Hawaii to be at the service, and like all of us, could have told some tales, if there had been time enough. (Everybody has at least one Bob story.) He had to content himself with just a couple of anecdotes from their early years together.
While other talked, I borrowed a pen and wrote down a few talking points (a total of nine words) hoping to say something about Bob that hadn’t already been said, and more than once. At home, on that forgotten note card, I had intended to mention his courage and audacity in business, but I forgot that in the event. I was going to mention the reach and number and duration of his friendships, but that had been said many times. But I did touch on the other points and a couple more.
In no particular order:
- Bob’s accepting “Conversations with God” after I turned it down, and his son Jon’s part in making it the success it became.
- Bob’s consistent lack of communication. I told of how one day Ginna Colburn, our other partner, said, “Bob, you’ve got to communicate!” and he had grumbled, in response, “People have been telling me that my whole life,” and we had said, “Well?” It got a laugh, because everybody recognized that trait in him.
- I often said, Bob was the only person I knew whose metaphysics was not dependent upon the state of his bank account. I told of a time in our early days when I went into his office and said I was tired of us just scraping by. (I was handling the money in those days.) He said it was strange, because he always was programing for us to have enough. Then the light bulb went on and I said, maybe we should program for us to have more than enough. and shortly thereafter came Conversations with God. But the point is, Bob didn’t just give lip service to our beliefs, he relied upon their being real. Not everybody does!
- Something I think interesting, he and I, even when we couldn’t communicate orally, could always come to an understanding by exchanging emails. It was curious how much more articulate he was (we were?) in writing than in speech, especially about feelings.
- Others had mentioned it, but I said how touching it always was to see the open affection between him and his boys. I don’t know that I had ever seen a father kissing his grown son, or vice versa.
- And, because others had talked mostly about his influence on their personal lives, I said a few words about his influence on the world at large, via the endless chain of consequences that follow as one person is inspired by a book and in turn goes on to inspire others.
- Finally, I said that even we who knew him well could not really see this full stature yet. It takes time. But, he was a great man.
And that’s a good note on which to end this over-long piece. Bob was a great man, and transformed many lives, my own not least, and will be fondly remembered.