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My classmate’s tragic life

Capitol Comments | Monday, October 28, 2013

While attending my Notre Dame class reunion this summer, I learned of a classmate’s passing last January. He and I had lived across the hall from each other in a third-floor wing of Lyons Hall. Together we had volunteered during the summer following our junior year to work in a congressional campaign in one of New York’s boroughs. Last weekend, after visiting with his first wife, who still lives in the Big Apple, I learned of how truly tragic his life had turned and how wrong my student-year impressions of him had been.
Our freshman acquaintance is the classic college story of differing lifestyles melded in a dormitory setting that launched a bonded friendship that, as far as I was concerned, would last a lifetime. We lived and shared like any college student. Our freshman year during a football Saturday, he brought a high school friend to meet me at my room but found me in my underwear, wearing just one shoe, hobbling in a circle saying, “I’m drunk, I’m drunk. I got to walk it off.” He returned later to make introductions.
My classmate and I could not have been more different, other than for our gender and religion. He was the only son in a thriving, long-established Midwestern Catholic business family and could rely on his father for a bushel of cash whenever requested. Our senior year he impulsively bought a Porsche, wrote a check for it and then “convinced” his father during a shouting match over the phone to back the check with a bank deposit. I always credited his military high school education as exuding his unique personal confidence that permeated his actions and expressions. In short, he was one of my classmates from whom I learned to improve my own personality and character.
I, on the other hand, hailed from a second-generation immigrant family in which my father was the first to attend – and graduate from – college. My dad battled in Anzio, Italy, in World War II and then used his GI Bill privileges to further battle an atmosphere of prejudice against Catholic Italian “wop” families. He became an elementary school principal but worked summer jobs painting buildings to earn extra money to help pay for my Notre Dame tuition. As a public school student, I also toiled as a summer laborer to earn college money. So the excitement of possibly working a summer in a New York City congressional campaign with my dynamic classmate trumped all of my summer’s dreams or expectations.
Once in New York, my classmate took charge of every assigned task. I marveled at how decisively and naturally he tackled each project with a keen eye for detail and effectiveness while chain-smoking cigarettes. I studied his seemingly endless talents. When asked to set up and operate a sound truck to draw attention to our candidate, my classmate instinctively pulled Santana songs, cleverly using “You’ve got to change your evil ways” as a signature message against our incumbent opponent. That summer, he met his future first wife, whom he married the following year. As was typical of his style, they bought a multi-unit brownstone apartment and converted four of its eight units on the first and garden levels into their huge unit.
We crossed paths a few times during the following decades. My classmate’s children grew to be fine married adults, but he eventually divorced their mother. He constantly ventured into many failed projects – buying a ferry just to have it go out of business, losing massive investments in neighborhood redevelopments of undesirable areas and simply making several unwise business speculations. Yet despite his outwardly confident and successful façade, he drank heavily, contracted cancer five years ago and became a broken, penniless soul, even when he attended his child’s wedding wearing an immaculate tuxedo and his Notre Dame ring. The classmate I so admired and respected could not, throughout his life, face the person he really was within. He chased ghosts of what he thought he was or what he wanted. Sadly, my classmate was not remotely the person I thought I knew.
Three months before he died, I reconnected with him on Facebook, knowing nothing of his divorce, cancer or broken life. My classmate’s second wife withheld his funeral information for weeks after his death to keep his estranged first family away. Ultimately, I shared a final moment when I asked on his sparse Facebook page for a cell phone that could double as a time machine and go back to a congressional campaign where I could be with my college buddy again. He replied in a way that I now understand acknowledged our friendship when he wrote, “Good to hear from you.”

Gary J. Caruso, Notre Dame ’73, serves in the Department of Homeland Security and was a legislative and public affairs director at the U.S. House of Representatives and in President Clinton’s administration. His column appears every other Friday. Contact him at [email protected]
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer