A best friend died on Christmas Day. We always found humor — and a bit of mischief — together.

Posted 1/7/21

I was fortunate to be a part of Darrell Spain’s orbit for the last 40 years. We were close enough friends that the gravitational slingshot of our relationship propelled me to some of the liveliest …

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A best friend died on Christmas Day. We always found humor — and a bit of mischief — together.

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I was fortunate to be a part of Darrell Spain’s orbit for the last 40 years. We were close enough friends that the gravitational slingshot of our relationship propelled me to some of the liveliest times, the most memorable moments — not to mention the biggest laughs — of my life.

He died on Christmas Day in Kansas. A massive heart attack came just as he and his mom, Marilyn, finished opening their gifts to each other.

Death came immediately. Our mutual good friend and high school classmate, Regina, who lives down the street, heard and saw the ambulance arrive at Marilyn’s house. When she texted me just after 2 p.m. — “Bill, please get a hold of me” — I somehow knew that Darrell was gone.

Laughter wasn’t the foundation of our friendship, but it sure bolstered it — as did our myriad of adventures together. They were drawn from 40 years of being schoolmates, DeMolay brothers, golf partners, witty correspondents, college buddies, young working men, settled adults, hockey road-trippers, concert-goers and — as he liked to put it — aging “old farts.” It seemed that when we got together there was always magic or mischief, or a combination of the two. (And, on occasion, enough witnesses to convince the skeptics that, no, we weren’t making up our outlandish re-tellings of said adventures.)

We were drawn to revelry. We brought out the little kid in each other. Neither of us had a biological brother; we were both stuck with sisters (sisters we loved and cherished, by the way), but in time the rhythm of our friendship, which began early in our high school days, fell into a continued love and appreciation for so many of the same interests as we entered middle age.

Darrell had a knack for finding the humor in every situation and, when no humor was to be found, somehow inventing it. But there was much more to him than his intellect and his boundless creativity. I think sometimes Darrell wanted his friends to think of him as a jaded and curmudgeonly cur. Those of us who knew him and loved him weren’t fooled.

In reality, he was a complex man who appreciated complexity. He was thoughtful and generous but didn’t seek recognition for it. He was a problem-solver who, as a small-town attorney, would begrudgingly admit that, yes, he enjoyed helping people. He was a voracious reader, a student of history, a connoisseur of micro-brewed beer, a loving son — and so much more.

But most of all, for me, he was a friend for a lifetime.

Our friendship took us to hockey arenas in Canada and three U.S. cities, to U.S. Women’s Open golf championships, and to concerts from our favorite ’70s and ’80s bands. We once ended up in Richard Petty’s driveway in Randleman, just stopping in to see if “The King” was home. We eluded hotel security at numerous DeMolay Conclaves; at one event, I provided one of his biggest laughs while getting ticketed for jaywalking in Wichita, Kansas. We were inveterate autograph collectors; “Would you mind signing another one for my friend Darrell?” was something I said to quite a few suspicious professional athletes I met over the last four decades. We greeted each other at airports with signs the way hired chauffeurs do, teasing that we were awaiting someone famous (“K. ABDUL-JABBAR” read one; “M. JAGGER” said another); when he flew to N.C., he never failed to hand me the “barf bag” (empty, thankfully) from his seat.

We wrote each other hilarious letters (most of which I still have) and email messages (all of which I’ve saved). In the days before smartphones and voicemail, we’d send each other cassette tapes, recorded during our workdays, narrating for each other “a day in the life.” Up until his death, we still wrote each other using our nicknames: “Elwood” for him, after the Blues Brothers character, and “Cheech” for me, after the golfer Chi Chi Rodriguez, whom I idolized.

When he died, we had two trips on our calendar for 2021: one for a concert, another for hockey.

My “Darrell stories” are unembellished memories, crystal recollections that bring a smile to my face and happiness to my heart. But to me, the stories transcend the experiences themselves. What they represent to me, and what I draw from them, is the sheer joy I felt whenever I was around Darrell, whenever we were together. There really was a magic that seemed to always happen, and that can only happen when there’s a special spirit present and when a unique friendship develops.

He shared that magic with all his friends.

Darrell was full, loaded with all of those things which endeared us to him: his smarts (he made his living as an attorney), his matchless sense of humor and his wry way of observing the world around him. I’ve never met anyone funnier. He was also very self-deprecating — a habit I unsuccessfully tried to break him of — but with that came a generosity and a thoughtfulness that was as surprising as it was dependable. I can’t adequately express my sadness and grief that he’s gone. It’s one of those odd and foreign things that, honestly, has had me reaching for my phone this week to call him to tell him about it. But our friendship has given me what seems to be an endless supply of happy and glorious memories. I’ll always have those.

I told quite a few stories when delivering his eulogy last Thursday, and could tell a thousand more, but here’s one that means the most: every time we spoke on the phone, we said, “I love you” before hanging up.

Thank you, Darrell, for loving me back.

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