I first met Gene three years ago at Judy’s Junction in Upper Lake over a cup of coffee to discuss publishing his Lake County History serially. By the time I got there, he was already sitting in a booth, coffee in hand, waiting for me. Even in his 90’s, Gene had a large presence. Sure, he walked with a hunch and held a cane, but the years he spent playing football and bodybuilding had left their mark. As I talked with him, he stretched his arms wide to make a point, and they reached out past the edges of the booth, able to encompass not just the table but me as well.
“Well,” he said after a few minutes of conversation, a smile resting in his eyes, “I’ll do whatever I can to help you succeed. I can give you history, columns, anything I can do to help.”
“I can’t pay you yet, Gene, but that’s my goal,” I replied.
“Don’t worry about it,” he continued. “I’ll email you the first fifteen chapters.”
We finalized our agreement with a handshake, and that’s the moment we became friends. It’s an unlikely friendship, one with a person old enough to be my grandfather. But we had a connection—almost like we knew each other from some other time and were just now reconnecting.
Plus, Gene was the first believer in The Bloom, and the first one to see its possibilities. He also saw my potential; he looked at me, knew who I was, and encouraged me to keep going. “You’re doing such an amazing job,” he repeatedly told me whenever I hung out with him.
And he modeled graceful aging. After the death of the love of his life, Gene allowed himself to grieve, then picked up the pieces and chose to live a life of service. Over and over he told me, “The only thing that people will remember you or me for is what we have done for other people.” Even though he slowed down physically, he never stopped growing and challenging himself. Each time we talked, he told me of a new idea for a story he was working on. He showed me that aging doesn’t have to be a slow slide towards death. He ran full sprint in life until the end.
I last saw him a few weeks ago when I swung by his house to give him the final payment for the serial rights to Lake County History. His head had a scab from an earlier fall, and his arms were swollen. He couldn’t get up, so I sat on his bed while he greeted me from his computer chair.
“Howya’ doin’, Gene?” I asked.
“Well,” he said, his voice weaker but still strong, “Things haven’t been so good for my body, but,” and he tapped his forehead, “My mind is still clear.”
And he looked at me with his bright eyes, eyes that could have belonged to a twenty-year-old, or a fifty-year-old, but not someone near death. They were luminous.
We chatted for ten or fifteen minutes until I could tell his energy was flagging.
“Gene,” I told him. “Thank you. Thank you for believing in The Bloom and believing in me. Thank you for everything.” I stood up to say goodbye. “I can’t tell you how much you mean to me.”
He reached over from his chair, took my hand, and covered it with one grip.
I laughed, even though my eyes filled with tears. “Gene, your hands are so huge.”
He smiled and looked me deeply in the eyes.
“Thank you,” I said again, at a loss for words. “Thank you.”
“It’s been an honor knowing you,” he said, not breaking eye contact. We held hands for a long time, but not long enough to avoid having to say goodbye. Even so, I knew it was time and reluctantly let go of his still strong grip.
“Goodbye, Gene. I’ll see you soon,’ I lied.
He never broke eye contact as I walked to the door, slid it open, and closed it behind me. I cried all the way home.
Thank you, Gene, for being my friend.