There are many aspects of growing older that aren’t bad. You have the knowledge and wisdom accumulated over a lifetime of experiences, along with discounted movie theater admission and lower car insurance rates. But the thing I dislike the most about being my age is saying goodbye to cherished friends and never getting an opportunity to speak with them again.
The all-too-familiar refrain of “Very sadly we’ve lost a dear classmate” reached me by Facebook over the Labor Day Weekend. My friend and the devoted organizer of our Rush-Henrietta Class of 1971 reunions, Janet Howland, had the sad task of sending out that message about Mike Wilson, a beloved teammate and pal, who died suddenly on Sept. 3.
Mike now joins a list of star athletes and classmates I have been fortunate to know, but who have left us far too early. My friends and classmates Mike Thone, Todd Clemens, Rick Calver, Steve Graves, Rod Middelsteadt, Alan Howden, Bruce Harrison, David Miller and John Rosati are gone now, among many other members of our graduating class.
I first met Mike Wilson our sophomore year in Physical Education class and found him to be quiet and reserved but once he got to know me, I discovered that he had a great sense of humor and was somewhat of a prankster at heart with a twinkle in his eyes. He was tall and had long brown wavy hair and was strong and fast, talents that served him well on the football field.
He was also very smart in school and helped me study and pass Algebra and Chemistry as we both had the same classes and teachers as juniors. Mike had a big heart and once you were his friend, he never let you forget that. He went out of his way to help anyone who asked for his assistance, and I even saw him pushing the car of the school security guard after school our junior year to help him start the vehicle without jumper cables when the car battery lost power.
As a senior on our undefeated championship football team, Mike was honored as an All-County selection at halfback, scoring 92 points and scoring 14 touchdowns. But after high school, life happened to intervene, and the Class of 1971 all went in different directions.
I went to college in New Mexico and then spent eight years in the U.S. Air Force. Mike stayed in Rochester and started his own produce business where he was still working when he died.
A father of four children and a grandfather of eight, he told me in a Facebook message that he was looking forward to seeing everyone from our graduating class at our upcoming reunion in Rochester, New York on Oct. 29.
For me that was going to be a special time, as I had not sat down and chatted with Mike since school. I was serving in the Air Force during the 10th annual reunion in 1981 and working for a daily newspaper in New Mexico as my classmates gathered for our 20th reunion in 1991 and I missed both of those get-togethers.
One day in February 2001, another classmate, Bob Fay, tracked me down and called me to mention that I had been listed as “among the missing” by the reunion committee and he gave me a phone number to be included “among the found.” I called and attended the 30th class reunion later that summer in 2001, and the 40th reunion in 2011.
I was glad I attended those reunions and was grateful to see my friends from school once more, but I always wondered why some classmates didn’t make it for those events.
For some reason, Mike Wilson couldn’t attend those reunions, but since the 50th reunion will be the last organized gathering for our classmates, he told everyone he would be there and had purchased his ticket for the dinner already.
From looking at his photos on Facebook since we reconnected in 2019 after the death of our classmate and friend Todd Clemens, Mike still looked as he did in high school, with the exception that his wavy brown hair was now grey. It’s evident in those photos what mattered the most to him was his family, his wife, his children, and his grandchildren. In almost every photo he posted he’s hugging them and letting them know how much he loved them.
Mike Wilson was proud of his family and lived his life to the fullest. He loved rock n’ roll music and sports and was as honest and genuine as they come.
So next month’s reunion will have yet another empty chair and many of us who gather will speak of him and share our grief at his unexpected departure. Losing dear friends is never easy, but what great memories we have of lives so well spent. <