Full Podcast Transcript
This is the story of two photographs, five friends and half a century of memories, life, and loss.
In one photo, taken in 1967, five college seniors look into the camera, ready to take on the world. In the other photo, taken 17 years later, the five are settled into their adult lives, but still together. For the last 32 years, these two photos have been taken over and over again in various forms, at various times, in various places. But as bodies and minds wear down to the effects of time, the memories in those photos remain, cemented in time as bright and vibrant as the day they were taken.
It all starts with the five of us, Tom Lorentzsen from Spokane, Doug Leeland from Seattle, Al Hedman from Everson, Washington, Mark Andersen from Palo Alto, and myself, Tim Sherry from Tacoma.
Like many boys in the 1950s, all of us had dreams of playing center field for the Yankees, or winning a gold medal in the Olympics, or playing with Bill Russell and Bob Cousy on the Boston Celtics.
Those dreams came true at Pacific Lutheran University — on basketball teams that produced championships, filled gyms, and allowed us to sometimes think we were Bill Russell and Bob Cousy.
We certainly weren’t. But someone at the newspaper must have thought we were big enough fish in the small pond of Tacoma athletics that a photographer from The News Tribune came to get a photo of the five of us before our last game in 1967.
The photo shows all five of us at mid-court huddled around Coach Gene Lundgaard. It was the end of our basketball careers, but there was no sadness or nostalgia in our expressions. In fact, most of us are unable to hide our smiles as the photographer had us pose around coach, like he was giving us some pearl of basketball wisdom. All of us decked out in our Knights uniforms wearing our white Chuck Taylor sneakers, buzz cuts and late 60s basketball short shorts.
Looking at that picture, which appeared in the paper the next day, you might suspect that after four years of playing at PLU it was the end of our time together. But not only were we five as teammates, we had become five as friends. And it is that photo that really starts the story I want to tell — a story that may be similar to a PLU story that you have.
One might have assumed that after we graduated, we would put the photograph in a drawer, go our separate ways, and the importance of playing basketball together for four years would start to fade. And that did happen.
Oh, we stayed in touch now and then. But as the years passed, Al had a counseling practice in L.A., Tom an optometry practice in North Dakota, Mark a physical therapy practice in Vallejo, Doug was a doctor at the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, and I was teaching in Tacoma.
We had all married, started families, established our careers, and we all assumed our story as five basketball players was over.
Marcia Wake and I had married in 1967, and we too were our own story. Then in 1983 she and I saw the movie The Big Chill, which is about eight University of Michigan alums 15 years after graduation who gather for the funeral of a friend from college — and after the funeral they spend a weekend together reminiscing about how much they all meant to each other at Michigan.
The movie stuck with Marcia and me for the next couple of years, and when we were both turning 40, we decided to give ourselves a birthday party a la The Big Chill — and invite several PLU classmates including Tom, Mark, Doug and Al.
The five of us all had a PLU letter sweater or jacket to wear for the party, and we took a group photo — with us posing reminiscent of the picture of us with Coach Lundgard in 1967. Little did we all know it, but that photo would mark the next phase of our lives and friendships. You see, at that time, things were getting more and more complicated — with the responsibilities of growing children, the pressures of stressful careers, aging parents, middle age doubts, hair loss — all the trappings of adulthood. And at the birthday party, we recalled the good old days at PLU and where our lives had taken us since.
We all had such a great time that we decided to get together the next year in 1986 to play golf. And we agreed to do it again in 1987. And in 1988. And we have continued through the years into the early 1990s, the 2000s, and most recently in 2014.
We almost always have gotten together in the spring with one of us taking the lead to organize where to stay, and where to play — in Monterey, in Phoenix, in Palm Springs, in North Dakota, Minnesota, Bellingham, in Yakima, Tucson, Tacoma — always for three or four days of golf.
But it wasn’t really so much about the golf after a few years. It was about making memories, joking together and visiting interesting places. It was also about what was happening in our lives, being together and helping each other. Dealing with things like cancer and divorce and mental illness, finances, questions of faith and, for us, the pain in our knees and back and shoulders from all that basketball.
For three decades, the five of us have been able to relive the past, help each other with the present, and return home with something for the future. We were five men sharing — yes, actually sharing — what we had first learned about life and about each other playing basketball at PLU. The stereotype is that men don’t ask directions, don’t reveal their true feelings, don’t seek help when they need it. But we have. And when we have told people about it, they are often surprised.
Maybe it isn’t so surprising given what we learned at PLU — the values of a liberal arts education: going to small classes, and knowing our professors. We also learned a lot playing basketball on a team that traveled long hours on buses, playing in a cracker box gym, receiving five dollars for meal money each day, warming up before games to gospel music played on an old pipe organ. These experiences teach you something no class really can: teamwork, perseverance, brotherhood.
Each spring that we five came together, so much of what we learned prepared us for what life had thrown at us year by year. And then we learned the kind of thing that PLU or basketball or anything really can’t prepare you for. In 2011, in Palm Springs, Doug told us that he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. The next several years we all still got together, but it became harder and harder to come together as the five of us.
If we know anything about Alzheimer’s, we know that it acts differently in each case — and with Doug for a few years, he was still enough of himself to make it seem like old times. But we could all see we were losing him. In sports, when a player goes down, can’t suit up, is lost to the team, too often it’s the next man up — and the lost player can be forgotten. But, how can we forget Doug, an Academic All American at PLU, the most tenacious on the court, and to us the most inspirational.
The great irony is that those with Alzheimer’s Disease are not forgotten. They forget us.
The photograph that was taken the last time the five of us were all together in 2015 is like that. It was not planned. It just happened the day we were going home from Scottsdale after attending church with Doug. The four of us were prepped for traveling, with loose-fitting, white shirts while Doug was dressed by his caregivers in his Sunday best — an all black suit with black tie. The four of us in white and Doug in black can not be but metaphor of what has happened in our story.
But it isn’t the end of our story. I tried to capture how it continues in a poem written about the only time the five of us were on campus at PLU as part of our yearly get-togethers. It tries to capture how it was when we first came together on campus in 1963, and how it has been each time we all have been together since.
The title of the poem is “Five As One.”
That afternoon, Memorial Gym was waiting
for us all to show up at the same time —
to be wearing our shorts and All Stars,
to lay our towels and keys against the wall
and step out for the first pick-up games
of many we played those first worried weeks.
We had heard. Spokane. North Seattle.
Some small town near the Canadian border.
Tacoma. We guessed Palo Alto
was San Francisco. The five of us on campus
in the heat of fall, finished with moving in,
there until dinner to find out who was who.
That first afternoon for three on three
with a guy from the dorms to fill in.
We five as one for the next four years —
and all the years since to write, to call,
to email, to stay in touch. Golf together
every year when it is still September, 1963,
and we are still a team dreaming our dream.
The sweet jump shots still in our aching knees.
Exaggeration working better than memory.
Laughter until coughing catches up.
Five from all over. One ever since. These days,
what matters more than that about those days?
That is the story of the five of us. It could be any story about college friends from the University of Michigan or UCLA or anywhere in the world. But it is our story — a PLU story.
Maybe someone in your circle has such a story. Ask them. And if they do, ask them to tell it.
Stories such as ours, and hopefully such as yours, are important — memories are sometimes all we have left of each other. One of my favorite memories is of the last time the four of us visited Doug in his room at a memory care facility.
Hanging on the wall were pictures of his children, his medical degree, and a photograph of the five of us, the year it was taken didn’t matter. And as we talked with him, wondering if he really knew who we were, he turned to the photo, pointed at the five of us, nodded his head, and smiled that Doug Leeland smile we’ve known so well.
He didn’t say a word.
But he didn’t need to for us to understand what he was telling us.
There’s a lot of people I want to thank . But I especially want to thank Marge Lorentzsen, Kathleen Bartle, Bonnie Andersen, and Marcia — our wives who’ve allowed the five of us to have our story — a story that can be summed up in a rhymed couplet:
It’s the story of the five of us as we’ve grown old,
a PLU story — like many that can be told.
Full Poem Transcript
After Your Fiftieth College Class Reunion
When now any big evening ends, the night driving
is harder and harder, and you need someone beside you
to help with the left turns. And, tonight, after
what might be you last reunion, it may be
even harder — as it may seem to be misty outside.
But no. As Johnny Mathis might have told us
if he were here, it can get misty when we are in love —
in love with yesterday as if it weren’t fifty years ago.
So, be careful as you leave tonight.
The passing street lights might have halos around them
the way the stories at your tables glowed on and on
about coffee dates in the Cub, choir trips,
candle passings, seeing a president and then
remembering where you were when you heard he was shot,
a chapel speech about a bucket dipper, Mayfest,
those daffodil suits you women had to wear in P.E.,
the day we moved a hundred thousand books
to the new library, intramurals, dorm competitions,
Louis Armstrong in concert, a Hubert Humphrey speech,
the first dances on campus, girls wearing pants
only on weekends, upper campus for women,
lower campus for men, Old and New Testament
taught as half sermon, half lecture, half history,
crew cuts and Jackie hair, The Mooring Mast,
a new swimming pool, were we the Knights
or were we Lutes when the saints came marching in?
When you get home or back to your hotel, the dashboard
will be soft lit the way memories were at each table
you visited. After hanging up your coat, you may pause
as your name tag reversed in the mirror makes you smile
at the thought of those faces you had to peek at to go with
the names. Getting ready for bed, you may shake your head
at how long ago it was, but be glad to have gone back
to your fiftieth college reunion — when your years at PLU
were some of the best years you are glad you can still remember.