Russ and I met during our freshman year in college. He was Irish Catholic from Chicago—tall, with black hair which was even then turning salt-and-pepper—he would have made a wonderful priest. Despite our different backgrounds we somehow became friends as college students do, and we remained so until a few years before his death, when he inexplicably simply moved away and I lost track of him.
But that’s not the story I want to tell here. I want to tell you of my friend, Russ, and his marvelous intelligence and wit and how much his friendship meant...and means...to me.
Though we both entered college at the same time, I left after my sophomore to join the Naval Aviation Cadet program so that I would be able to take advantage of the G.I. Bill for my last two years of school. And when I returned two years later, Russ had graduated, served a stint in the army, and begun his teaching career. We lost track of one another for quite some time. And then one evening, probably two years after I'd graduated and moved to Chicago, my partner Norm and I were in a bar when someone tapped me on the shoulder. I turned to see Russ, face impassive. “Now, as I was saying…” he began.
Russ's military service was, he claimed, singularly uneventful. They assigned him to be a truck driver. Russ did not want to be a truck driver. He told his sergeant he could not drive a truck. He told his lieutenant he could not drive a truck. He told everyone within hearing distance that he could not drive a truck. They put him in a truck, and he immediately drove it into a wall. Getting out of the crumpled vehicle, he merely raised one eyebrow and said: “See?”
We always made one another laugh, and he suffered me with patience and grace. “Roger,” he would say whenever I would do something particularly stupid—which was often—giving me that priest-to-sinner look, “you’re custodial.” When he chose, he could take on an imperious manner, which stood him in good stead when he began his career as a teacher, and he used it brilliantly.
At one time after Russ had been teaching for several years, he helped the drama department put on a play, the name of which I can’t recall now, in which the dialogue included some mild profanity...shocking at the time since high school productions were generally scrubbed shiny clean. But Russ insisted it stay in because it was important to the integrity of the play. I was spending the weekend with him and the day after the play we went out somewhere when Russ was approached by a dowager-type woman who said: “Mr. Hogan, I want you know that the use of profanity in the play last evening was deeply offensive. I am, after all, a lady, and we do not appreciate such crudeness.” Russ looked at her calmly and listened until she had finished. Then he said: “Madam, my mother was in the audience last night. She was not offended. And she is ten times the lady that you will ever be.” And with that, we walked away.
I loved going to the movies with Russ, though I’m sure my pleasure was not always shared by other members of the audience. Comedy or drama, slapstick or Shakespeare, he would have me laughing hysterically throughout the film. I remember one movie we saw which had a very dramatic scene in which one of the male characters, emoting to the rafters, had just reached the end of a particularly heavy speech, yelling at the lead: “What are you going to do about it?” Russ leaned to me and imperiously commanded me: “Shoot that man.”
Perhaps my favorite movie experience with Russ was seeing the much touted Cleopatra—a lavish spectacle with a cast of tens of thousands. One of the major—and longest—scenes revolves around Cleopatra (Elizabeth Taylor) arriving in Rome to be received by Julius Caesar. There were trumpets and huge gongs and drums and elephants and Nubian slaves and legions of battle-clad Roman soldiers and chariots and cheering crowds and the parade went on endlessly. Finally, her slaves lower her ornate sedan chair to the ground and Cleo steps off to approach Caesar. At this point, Russ again leaned to me and whispered: “If he says, ‘How was the trip?” I’m leaving.”
Russ was, as I’ve indicated, an absolutely wonderful teacher…English, of course…and his students adored him. After teaching in the Chicago area for several years, he moved to St. Louis, where he bought a beautiful brick colonial-style home and taught for more than 20 years before retiring. He helped write a textbook on English literature used in the majority of high schools throughout the United States.
In addition to being the quintessential English teacher, Russ was also the quintessential friend, and I never understood why he cut me—and, I understand, everyone else—off toward the end of his life. Perhaps he knew his health was failing. The last time I heard from him was when he called to tell me he had bought a condo in Florida and was moving. He said he did not have the address, but would mail it to me. He never did and I had no way to get in touch with him, though I tried. I'm not quite sure I remember how I heard of his death, but learning of it created a vacuum in my heart which can never be filled.
Russ was my friend. Russ is my friend, and I would give anything to go to one more movie with him.