Those are the names of three friends who have passed on. Their lives ended far too soon and all rather tragically. Dale died of cancer at 39, Ed drank himself to death at 56 and Bob ended his life as a paraplegic after falling from the roof of a house. He lingered for several nightmarish years and then died from complications at age 62. I’ve been meaning to write something about them for some time now–sort of a memorial. They were all memorable characters and they all reached out to me at a time in my life when I was hopelessly shy and badly in need of some real friends. I will try not to dwell overly on how their lives ended but will recall them in happier days. I met them at my first professional job in mental health in late 1967 and early ’68.
I had driven halfway across the country from Las Cruces, New Mexico, to Rockford, Illinois, to an internship with the Illinois Dept. of Mental Health. I arrived in Rockford on November 13, 1967, and started trying to learn how to be a psychologist three days later at the then new state facility, H. Douglas Singer Zone Center.
Even though I had grown up in the Midwest, after 7 years in sunny New Mexico, Rockford was a bit of a shock. During my first couple days there the skies were generally leaden with light snow flurries, and when they cleared it was followed by a biting wind that swept down over the rolling prairie from Wisconsin with a vengeance. And it was still Autumn.
Rockford is about 80 miles northwest of Chicago and though few outside of the midwest have ever heard of it, it is at 140,000 the second largest city in Illinois. At the time it was a community whose prosperity largely resulted from manufacturing machine tool parts for the aircraft and auto industries. In the late-1960s it was an extremely prosperous, clean and busy community. Today, it has a tired, worn-out look, with potholled streets and chronically high unemployment.
My discomfort with the weather, and the culture shock of the community, was heightened by the attitude of my clinical supervisor. The formidable Dr. Lathrop rightly surmised that at that point in my life I was far more qualified to be an inmate than a therapist. But just when you need Him the most (no, God didn’t appear) but in my case He sent grace in the guise of allies and co-conspirators. Dr. Bob Ryan and Marv Benson decided that if she, Dr. Lathrop, didn’t like me , then I must be OK.
Dr Lathrop, exasperated by my obvious lack of clinical skills, marched me over to the Birchwood Unit on the third day of my internship and as the doors locked behind me said tersely, “Fit in!”
The Birchwood program rehabilitated and released to the community, the chronically institutionalized mentally ill from three Illinois state hospitals. It was only the country’s second de-institutionalization program. The patients were largely deteriorated chronic schizophrenics and I’m sure Dr. Lathrop felt that my utter lack of clinical skills could in no way cause them further damage. Marv Benson was the director of the program and Dr. Bob was the head clinician. My friends to be: Dale Brown was a Nursing Assistant on the unit and Bob Howells an Assistant Program Worker. The role of Assistant Program Worker was that of a junior case manager–sort of a social worker without portfolio. Two years of college and a willing heart was all that was needed. Today, nursing assistants are called psych techs–a grander sounding designation than aide or nursing assistant. I met them both within the first couple of days. They were both well down the staff hierarchy and I saw in them kindred souls. Having an M.A. gave me a bit of status but in truth I felt even less qualified than a psych tech.
Thanksgiving was rapidly approaching and I wanted to take an extra day over the long weekend and drive to Ohio and see family and friends. I asked Marv Benson if I could have an extra day off and he agreed so long as I worked the Saturday before T-day. On weekends the unit was lightly staffed. On that first Saturday that I worked Dale was one of the two psych tech’s on duty; in effect, I functioned as the third tech. Since I knew pretty much nothing of a clinical nature this was a good place for me to start.
Vadis Dale Brown had just turned 21 and went to a community college off and on. Like myself, he was a person of many interests. He had studied Russian in college, loved science fiction, collected first edition Edgar Rice Burroughs novels and Tarzan comics. He was also an artist and a talented guitar player. He lived at home with his family about a mile from the Zone Center. On our lunch break we drove to his house and shared a joint. It was only my second experience with marijuana, and for me sharing the sacrament of an illicit drug was a true male bonding experience.
Dale reminded me of me in many ways. Physically: the same height, 6-0 and weight, about 195 and the same brown hair and medium build. One of the patients noted the resemblance and insisted we were brothers, and from that time on I did tend to think of Dale as a younger brother. Though upbeat, talkative and almost a bit manic at times, he carried around a load of anger that was easily provoked. His family’s roots were in Texas and Arkansas and I think he always felt a bit of an outsider in Rockford. He moved to Rockford when he was around 13 and he alluded to having been in many fights as a teenager. At that time in my life I was filled with frustration and was a very angry person as well. My anger was more covert but there was definitely something in Dale’s fiery spirit that resonated with me. After that first weekend we worked together my contact with Dale was sporadic depending on our work schedules, but over the following two years we gradually became close friends.
My next encounter with friendship occurred with Robert Rhys Howells–Bob, as he was known. We met a few weeks into my internship. He and I and another fellow drove over to East Moline State Hospital to screen potential residents for the program. I didn’t know nuthin’ about nuthin’ and so I was just along for the ride. The other guy drove and so Bob and I carried on an active conversation as we wound our way 90 miles thru the cornfields to the big state looney bin in East Moline. He reminded me a bit of a friend of mine from college. He was skinny, had longish thinning sandy hair and seemed shy and depressed. There was something familiar about his personality that made it easy for me to talk. He was 22 and had been a student at Rockford College. He gave the impression that he had dropped out to work and earn some money for more schooling. In truth, he took whopping doses of several psych meds for his considerable emotional torment. I think the depression he was experiencing at that time made being a student very daunting.
There are one or two remembrances of that trip over 40 years ago that still hang in my thoughts. We screened a middle-aged Greek fellow who I think was named Pappas. I asked if him if he’d ever worked in a restaurant and he said yes that he’d owned several. In my limited experience I had found that many of Greek descent had been in the restaurant business. Bob seemed very impressed with my worldly intuition. I was also struck with how resigned to his fate Bob seemed to be. There seemed to be no fight left in him; he was very depressed. In retrospect, some of that may have been due to side effects of the meds.
The first three or four months that I lived in Rockford were exceptionally lonely. I was so shy that I wouldn’t even go to the Zone Center’s cafeteria by myself and eat lunch. And nobody bothered to ask me if I wanted to eat with them. At noon I would buy a sack of chips from a vending machine and walk over to the activity building. There was room with a pool table there and guys from the business office would meet there and shoot 8-ball. I knew my way around a pool table pretty well and so I was pleased I’d found a place where I seemed to fit in–even if just a bit.
One Sunday evening around the end of January I was sitting in my apartment watching TV and I heard a knock on the door. I couldn’t imagine who it could be; surely a door-to-door solicitor would not be out on a freezing January evening looking for customers. When I opened the door I was dumbfounded to see Bob standing in there in the snowy twilight. I had never given him my address but I had told him enough about where I lived that he was able to track me down. I could not believe that someone had bothered to seek me out, but as it turned out Bob was a very lonely person too. That Sunday night he was looking for someone to have dinner with and so we went out for some burgers.
My first apartment in the Rockford area was too expensive for my income and also somewhat remote. In March of ’68 I moved into an older apartment in the heart of Rockford. It was in an apartment building that was likely quite chic in the 1920s when it was built. It was cheaper than the other place but still not quite where I felt comfortable. Bob rented a furnished efficiency in a gingerbread mansion that was built in 1860. In August another efficiency came available in the same place. It was one large room in the “tower” at the right front corner of the building. It had a separate kitchenette and bath–furnished, for only $60. a month. Even by 1968 standards that was an incredible deal. It was only two blocks off the main drag, State Street, in the very heart of downtown Rockford. Several lunch counters, a newstand and a pool room were all within easy walking distance. To this day, in some respects, 222 S. First St. remains my favorite all time residence. It was sooo very affordable and sooo very convenient. The owners, Van Giddings and his wife lived downstairs. Van was the head custodian at Rockford College and was a collector of antiques and art. He had remodeled the upstairs into three tiny efficiency apartments. I lived in the front apartment and Bob lived in the back. Being in such close proximity lead to many long evenings spent discussing music, psychology and the meaning of life. At that time I was an agnostic. Bob leaned in that direction too but still had a vestige of faith and he attended Quaker meetings on Sunday. He invited me but I thought the whole premise of sitting a circle waiting for the Spirit to move someone quite absurd. Today, over 40 years later, the focus of my spirituality is in an organic church whose meetings have aspects in common with the Quakers.
In the spring of ’68, Bob bought a one-ro0m country schoolhouse about 15 miles outside of Rockford in Boone County. Remodeling that building and gradually making it livable was the therapy Bob needed at the time. He stopped taking psych meds and his outlook on life took a remarkable turn for the better. His quiet, somewhat reclusive lifestyle also caused him to gain a bit of a reputation amongst the young and pseudo-hip that worked at Singer as the real thing–sort of a “real” hippie–one who lived out in nature, simply, and without material comforts.
In March of 1968, I had to adjust to another challenge. After four months, Dr. Lathrop decided that I’d gotten too comfortable with Birchwood and decided that I should go to the Winnebago-Boone Service Unit for another four month rotation. Winnebago-Boone was a crisis management program that handled patients from the two counties that bore its name. Ed Benson was an aide the unit. He was Marv Benson’s younger brother and I had met him briefly before.
I’m basically shy and do not usually initiate friendships–particularly so when I was in my 20s, but like Bob and Dale there was apparently something in me that caused Ed to reach out. He sought me out to converse with at work. I think he thought that I was bright or well-read or a little eccentric, and there was something about those qualities that appealed to him. It may have been that although he was basically bright and intuitive he never felt confident in his own intellect, and he may have thought that hanging around with “smart” people reflected well on him. His education consisted of the U.S. Army and an AA degree from a community college in the Chicago suburbs. However, we both enjoyed sports and shared the same sense of humor. We both loved the subtle bumbling machinations of Peter Sellers. He also had a sexy red-haired girlfriend named Sherry who was a nurse on the unit. They were very much a couple.
Much like Bob seeking me out six months earlier, one warm Sunday afternoon in June, Ed and Sherry appeared at my door. Once again I was thrilled that someone had tracked me down. We hung out at my place drinking beer and gossiping about work and then went out later for some dinner. After that, having drinks and sharing meals with Ed and Sherry became a frequent occurrence. Rd and Sherry eventually married but it only lasted a year. Both were far too immature for the forever commitment of matrimony.
Dale worked as a nursing assistant and at other low-level jobs but his real passion was the guitar. He read music and could play in several different styles–classical, folk, jazz or rock. He practiced 4 or 5 hours a day at times. Like most young guys he started out wanting to be a rock god like Eric Clapton or Alvin Lee, but he ended up an extremely talented finger picker ala Doc Watson or John Fahey. During the first few years of our friendship he was perpetually starting bands with equally unstable young men. They would jam together for several months and maybe even play a gig, but inevitably somebody would leave for another band or become so strung out on drugs that music became secondary. During that era Rockford had an unusual number of excellent guitar players and Dale jammed with them all, including one group that broke out of Rockford and made it big: Cheap Trick. I’m convinced that Dale had more than a touch of ADD and that his inability to focus made working toward a distant goal all but impossible.
In 1969, Dale was a prime candidate for the draft. He no longer had a student deferment and was 1A. However, in a characteristically impulsive move he decided that he would not wait for the inevitable; he would take matters into his own hands. He joined the Navy. His scores were high enough that he qualified for Navy Corpsman school in San Diego. What the recruiter neglected to tell him was that many corpsmen were assigned to Marine units in Viet Nam. The possibility of his life ending at 23 or 24 did not set well with him. After about a year in the Navy, Dale convinced them that he was cracking up and got a discharge. He knew enough from his psych experience to fake crazy, and even though the Navy Docs knew he was likely faking they gave him a medical discharge anyway.
Bob and I were both very happy to see Dale return. Safely back in Rockford he resumed his rather mercurial and dissipated life of sex, drugs and rockn’ roll. He and Bob and I hung out quite a bit together. We went to concerts in Beloit or Madison and sampled the night life in Chicago’s “Old Town.”
Finally, in the late-70s, long after I had moved to Florida, Dale started to get serious about life. While he continued to pursue music part-time, he married a hair dresser and went to nursing school in Chicago. After a year or two the marriage went on the rocks, but I think the whole experience caused Dale to mature a bit. Somewhere in the early 1980s he discovered a lump in his breast. It turned out to be malignant and he underwent a mastectomy. He had chemo and after a few years was declared cancer free. The problem was, according to Bob, that after a couple years he stopped going back for regular checkups and the cancer returned and by then it had spread to other organs.
Bob and Dale had made several trip to Florida by car over the years. They were so different that by the time they reached my place they were barely speaking to each other, and within an hour after arriving they each got me aside to say that the other was driving them “fucking crazy and they would never ever take a trip together again.” But of course they did. I last saw Dale in Sept of 1986 when I went north to settle my father’s estate. He was living upstairs in a dumpy two-flat in the old industrial southside of Rockford. There wasn’t much in the way of furniture. I remember he was rebuilding several guitars including my old Daniel Freidrich classical model. He was between bouts of chemo. He didn’t look sick. He was still a little on the chunky side and he still had a feisty edge to his personality. He spoke about maybe being the second guitar on an album with John Fahey. Fahey had asked hom to come to Minneapolis. But I could tell that he was worried; he mentioned having accepted Christ and that he was praying a lot. I told him that he would be in my prayers too. When I left I had the feeling that it would be the last time that I would see him and it was. He died seven months later in April of ’87. In retrospect I feel terrible that I didn’t come up for the funeral. I had only been divorced a couple months and was not coping so well myself. I wasn’t up for bearing the pain of a funeral of someone I cared about very much. It was also well before I began flying again. Selfish me. His mother and sister asked why I wasn’t there and Bob made up some excuse. At the funeral they played a tape of his latest compositions. I wanted a copy of that tape but Bob was never able to get me one. What I do have is some old reel-to-reel tapes of Dale that I made back in the 70s and someday I hope to have them put on a CD.
In 1973, not long after I moved to Florida, Ed moved to Syracuse. His brother Marv was hired by the state of New York to establish a program for the chronically mentally ill at Hutchings, a large state facility near Syracuse University. Ed tagged along a few months after his brother. Not long after taking the job in Syracuse Marv was diagnosed with cancer and died about a year later. Though he had considerably less education than Marv, some of Marv’s responsibilities fell to Ed. At the very least he knew how to run a clubhouse/drop-in center for chronics. He had done that at The Rosegarden in Rockford. Bob was on the Rosegarden staff as well and according to Bob he really ran the program while Ed drank beer, played softball and womanized. In Syracuse, one of Ed’s co-workers was a lovely young lady named Lee and before long they were living together.
Lee was from a small, affluent community in western Massachusetts. She had a degree from Syracuse in Theater, and was far brighter and more cultured than any of Ed’s ladies in Rockford–and for several years they made a great couple. They rented a little bungalow with hardwood floors and a fireplace in a suburb of Syracuse. I have fond memories of several visits there.
But Ed had a darkside. Beneath his affable, fair-minded persona and bumbling charm beat the heart of a serial womanizer and addict. We all drank far too much in our 20s and early-30s. It’s just what most young people did back in the 1970s. And young people bedded each other with appalling regularity. It was part of a swinging lifestyle amongst the young and hip in the era before AIDS. However, Ed steadfastly refused to try marijuana. He was also one of my few friends who did not smoke cigarettes. Pretty much everybody else we knew indulged in both marijuana and tobacco. This restraint seemed to be part of his identity as a straight-arrow jock. Fitness was important to Ed and he had an impressive physique. He had been a wrestler and baseball player in high school, and at age 30 he still lifted weights several times a week at the YMCA. He was considered one of the best power-hitting softball players in Rockford. In fact, he was recruited from the Zone Center’s team by one of the three best softball teams in northern Illinois.
It was this carefully crafted image of a clean-cut jock combined with the ambiance of that era that made it difficult to see Ed for the dissolute addict that he really was becoming. I had learned the hard lesson that sex trumped friendship. While visiting my uncle in Florida one year Ed seduced my girlfriend at the time. I didn’t learn of this until 4 yes later but after some hard feelings was able to forgive him.
Ed eventually finished a Batchelor’s degree to justify his supervisory position. In fact, Lee wrote most of his papers for him and it was from a program thru Empire State University that gave credit for life experiences and so it required Ed spending little time away from work, sports or partying. Eventually, Lee moved out and on to a career in NYC as a corporate trainer. At that point Ed began hanging with a hard-partying, extremely liberal crowd. His alcoholism intensified and he began smoking pot and popping pills when they were available. He visited me in Florida every year or two but because of our infrequent contact it was still it not clear to me the extent of his problem. I had remained friends with Lee and in our phone conversations she spoke about the level of his addiction. I found it hard to believe that he was as far gone as she painted him–but in retrospect she was all too right. Ed was very sneaky about how much he was drinking and he offered a million rationalizations. I got my first clue when on one of his visits he found an old bottle of prescription pain meds in my fridge. He took most of them and was emptying a quart of tequila or rum every other day, plus assorted beers in between. If course, he attributed it all to “relaxing” on vacation.
By the mid-90s Ed was beginning to wear out his welcome in Syracuse as the result of his drinking. He had gotten involved with a woman who was his supervisee and she accused him of stalking. He was very fortunate to be able to relocate back to Rockford. He got a position supervising a clubhouse program for the chronically mentally ill.
I visited Ed in Rockford in August of both 1996 and 1997. The first visit was a great one. He and Bob and another close friend, Ted Simmering, went in to Chicago for the day. It was a bright, blisteringly hot day and in the late morning we went to Navy Pier. That evening we took in a Cubs game at Wrigley Field. The tickets were compliments of Ed. I took a photo of Ed, Bob and Ted sitting at an outdoor table at Navy Pier with the background the Chicago skyline. Two days later Ted and Ed and I drove up to Platteville, Wisconsin to the Bear’s training camp. We met up for lunch with another old friend, Pat Obma. I hadn’t had any contact with Pat for about 12 or 13 years and it was great to see how well his life had turned out. He was an electrical contractor and had a wife and two sons. It was another good day. However, Ed was drinking so much that I was getting concerned. He started shortly after getting up in the morning and nipped at various bottles all day long till he dozed off in the early evening. He quickly brushed aside my attempts to talk about my concerns about his drinking. He also wasn’t interested in my witnessing to him about the Lord. He constantly mentioned being raised a Lutheran–as if that fact alone was enough. On other occasions both he and Bob mentioned to friends that I had turned into a “religious fanatic.” That kind of hurt my feelings. At that point in my life I had started to grow rather dramatically in my relationship with the Lord, but in trying to share my joy I was apparently not coming across very well.
By the following year it was painfully apparent that Ed was rapidly deteriorating. He was starting to have problems at work. Once again, he got involved with a woman who worked for him and when she had the good sense to try to distance herself he went ballistic. He was stalking her. We drove by her place several times while I was there. He seemed truly perplexed that she had rejected him and he couldn’t seem to understand that it likely had to do with how out of control he was with his drinking. His codependency and his alcoholism were so severe as to be apparent to even a casual observer. Though he still tried to hide the amount of his drinking, by 5 or 6:00 every afternoon he was passed out drunk.
I tried to talk with him but to no avail. He paid lip service to getting help, but he was so alcohol dependent that he was frightened to death of facing life without it. And sadly, he was too “strong,” too macho to admit he needed help.
I drove back to Florida that year with a heavy heart and the following August I didn’t go back up to Rockford. I didn’t go because I didn’t want to see Ed and be confronted with his deteriorated state. Once again he had lost his job but in spite of that was still in almost complete denial about the extent of his problem. We had quite a lot of phone contact and it was easy to read his condition and mental state. I talked with him about trying an inpatient detox but he refused. He had been forced into therapy by his employer before they canned him, but he had managed to find a therapist who was an old associate and I think this man essentially enabled him. And so he died on Aug 30, 1998, alone in his little house after falling down the stairs. I suspect he didn’t gave a single sober moment in the last few months of his life.
In the end, the Bob narrative isn’t one iota a happier one, but it started promisingly enough. Bob finally finished his degree at Rockford College and spent the Summer of 1972 in Europe. He went over with two other fellows. Steve and Joe were talented bluegrass and folk musicians. Bob was tone-deaf but he invested in a standup base and learned to accompany them playing two or three notes. But after a while they parted company over their insistence on smoking pot and hiding their stash in Bob’s stand-up base.
Bob returned in the Autumn of ’72, not long before I moved to Florida. The time in Europe had been good for him. He was much more settled and focused. He went back to school and completed an MSW thru the University of Illinois. For several years he worked for the state as a professional guardian. He eventually sold the schoolhouse and bought a small farm a few miles down the road. He remodeled the farmhouse and after several years sold it for a profit. His success in buying and selling country property led him to his eventual and last career. He quit the position with the Guardianship and Advocacy Commission and devoted himself full-time to buying and remodeling old farmhouses. He did quite well for a while but ultimately it was a reclusive, dysfunctional lifestyle. There was no stability or consistency to it. He had to move every year or two and he was forced to take remodeling and painting side-jobs to survive. After the death of Dale he had no one very close to hang out with. But most every winter he would visit me in Florida and as much as I looked forward to his coming, I was equally relieved when he left. He was as ingrown and as inflexible as I, and after a couple days I found him incredibly irritating. His behavior suggested that he felt the same way about me.
Bob was very well-informed and had well thought out positions on most topics, especially politics. He tended to be very liberal. He read several newspapers per day including the New York Times and the Chicago Tribune. Over the course of a 5 or 6 day visit we would manage to find several things to argue about–especially the two things, politics and religion, that those seeking harmony should never discuss. It was during a visit in January of 2000 that the final blow-up occurred. He asked me about seeing the movie Ali and I voiced my opinion that I didn’t care for Muhammad Ali and felt that he had ruined the sport of boxing. Bob blew up and called me plenty of uncomplimentary names including “racist.” It was an explosion that had been brewing for a long time and for several years after that we didn’t talk.
After a couple years I no longer had a valid address or phone number for Bob. I tried to contact him but to no avail. I wanted to apologize and mend fences. Then in March of 2005, I received a phone call from Mark Sjostrom, a mutual friend. Bob had fallen off the roof of a house and was in the hospital in a coma. At that point his survival was iffy at best.
He remained in the coma for several weeks. The docs encouraged the coma as it gives the brain trauma time to heal. When he came out of the coma his memory gradually returned but not the use of his legs. He was condemned to life as a paraplegic. I say condemned because Bob, the most independent man I knew, was now consigned to an existence of total dependency.
I flew up to Rockford to visit Bob in August. Five months after the accident he was in a rehab hospital in Chicago. He had made some progress recovering cognitively but it was apparent that he would remain a paraplegic. He talked hopefully about getting out and living independently again, and Ted and I did our best to offer him hope and encouragement. But in truth it was a grim prospect facing Bob. Over the next couple years I did the best I could to keep in touch via phone and letters. However, he was moved several times from one nursing home to another and had frequent hospitalizations for various medical crises. I last saw him in early March of 2008. I had flown up to Illinois to do a television interview on my book about coping with depression The Unwelcome Blessing on TLN, a Christian cable network. I stayed with my friend Ted and over the course of several days was able to visit Bob twice. I saw him the first time in ICU at St. Anthony’s Hospital in Rockford. His eyes were open and I spoke to him but he did not respond. I left with the sinking feeling that conversation was beyond him–he was too far gone, the eyes were open but nobody was at home. However, several days later he was moved back to the nursing home in Belvidere and I tried another visit. This time he recognized me and recalled enough of the past that we had a good hour-long conversation. We spoke about the canoe run on the Kishwaukee River that Bob helped established and the small park that was to be named “Bob’s Park” in his honor. We also discussed Obama’s bid for the presidency. It wasn’t the best conversation I ever had with him but in retrospect it may have been the most meaningful for me. He was still Bob and I gathered that he had forgiven me for our many heated disagreements
It’s easy to imagine different scenarios for all their lives. I can see Dale’s cancer being successfully treated and going into permanent remission. Then he finally becomes a rock star with me as the manager of his band–or better yet, he marries the dentist he was dating, settles down and has kids. Ed goes into a 28-day program and comes out a new man. He subsequently runs an alcohol rehab and becomes nationally famous for his work. He and Lee get married and live happily ever after. Bob gets a new experimental stem-cell treatment and regains the use of his limbs. His ordeal causes him to have a born-again experience in which he credits the Lord and our prayers for his cure. He gets into politics and becomes one of Obama’s most trusted advisors.
God brings people into our lives for a season and for His own purpose. His economy has a perfection that even the wisest can scarcely comprehend. He gave me these three men as friends for some good reason. Like I mentioned at the beginning of this piece, He brought me these three extraordinary friends. To me they were all memorable characters and my life has been richer for having known them. They all reached out to me when I badly needed people in my life–people to broaden me, teach me and care for me. I hope they gained something from having known me as well.