My Friend Warren

Our life’s journey is sharply defined by the collection of people we encounter—especially those we ultimately consider close friends, who reflect God’s love through their loyal, supportive, and enduring friendship. Unfortunately, in today’s fast-paced mobile society we often change jobs, relocate, and lose touch with those dearest to us. After more than twenty-five years of separation from my friend Warren, God brought us back together in a way that positively impacted both of our lives.

My reunion with Warren came at a time when I was intently focused on my busy career as president of New York Life Insurance Company. Warren’s illness and his encouraging me to retire and pursue other passions were instrumental in the critical decisions I would make and execute in the subsequent two years. God most certainly brought us together again and delivered an important message to me through Warren’s voice.

After graduating from Amherst College in 1970, I moved back to Michigan to pursue a teaching career. I hadn’t expected what I found: a market glutted with teachers, primarily because the Vietnam War offered a draft deferral for teachers. The application process was extraordinarily frustrating and demoralizing. There were often hundreds of applicants for every open teaching position; just getting an interview was a major success, and securing a job seemed impossible. Though I would have preferred to teach high school mathematics, the competition for those positions was greatest. The best I could get was an entry-level position teaching largely remedial mathematics at Franklin Junior High School in the Wayne-Westland School District.

The six years I spent teaching at Wayne-Westland were rewarding and fulfilling. Although it was less intellectually challenging to teach mathematics at the junior high school level, the students at that age were far more impressionable and in greater need of positive role models than were high school students. As a result, I felt I was doing noble work and changing the world in a small way by positively impacting the lives of the young people in my classes as well as the students I coached on the football, wrestling, and track teams. I recall many times feeling gratified to think that I was doing the work God intended me to do. That conviction stayed with me; years later as an executive at New York Life, I enjoyed occasionally teaching some of the in-house training courses on leadership, and even now, in retirement, I have reignited that passion by teaching a college-level business school course on executive management and leadership at Fairfield University in Connecticut.

During the six years at Franklin Junior High, I eventually moved into more advanced math courses and also taught a beginning-level course in photography, which I pursued as an avocation. In addition to doing something I loved, teaching photography allowed me to spend each morning preparing for class in the darkroom in the school’s science wing. It was there that I met and became close friends with a number of science teachers—among them Warren Rysberg, who became my best friend among the faculty.

Warren had a zest for life, an amazing sense of humor, and a presence and charisma greater than almost anyone I had ever known. We greatly enjoyed each other’s company and spent much time discussing our classroom experiences and sharing our successes as well as our failures in impacting students’ lives. Warren was a true friend and an incredibly knowledgeable and effective teacher who loved his work, loved his students, and loved his fellow faculty members.

I would later realize that the joys and sorrows of teaching were emotionally volatile, testing the range of my emotions in significant ways. There was no greater satisfaction than realizing I had touched a student on meaningful levels and helped change his or her life—but few frustrations compared to the inability to touch certain students, a situation that could be very depressing.

After teaching in Wayne-Westland for six years, I had much respect, appreciation, and affection for my teaching colleagues, especially for my dear friend Warren. That made it extremely difficult for me to leave Franklin in 1977, but I could no longer live with the uncertainty of getting layoff slips in the spring and not knowing until summer whether my contract would be renewed in the fall. Given my strong mathematics background, I decided to try my hand at the actuarial profession instead, moving my young family that summer from Michigan to Boston.

It was a decision I would never regret, but as often happens with long-distance relocations, I lost touch with my former friends. Communication became less frequent; eventually some holiday greeting cards didn’t reach the intended recipient, whose address may have changed. Sadly, even my important friendship with Warren went into suspended animation.

Many years later, long after Warren and I had last made contact, another dear friend, science teacher Sue Johnson, did a Google search of my name and discovered that I was working at New York Life Insurance Company. She called to inform me that Warren had cancer, was not doing particularly well, and had retired from teaching years earlier. Sue gave me his new address and phone number and said she was sure he would enjoy hearing from me.

I called Warren that very day; he was in excellent spirits and genuinely excited to hear from me. We caught up quickly on what had transpired in the years since we’d been in contact, and it was wonderful to hear his engaging laugh and to reminisce about some of our memorable experiences at Franklin with some of the more colorful students and teachers from that era. He also updated me on the whereabouts of numerous other friends from the school.

We vowed to stay in touch and I promised I’d be praying for him and for his recovery from cancer, which had been diagnosed at a late stage. We did stay in touch, and in the process I also connected not only with Sue Johnson but also Barb Duncan, another dear friend from my teaching days.

In the many emails, calls, and cards we exchanged over the following couple of years, I started to talk to Sue and Barb about the two of them visiting the New York area with Warren. Warren had always wanted to travel to New York City; in particular, he wanted to go to Ellis Island to see if he could track down records of some of his ancestors who had entered the country there in the early twentieth century.

My wife, Sue, and I offered to have the three of them stay at our home in Connecticut, and plans were successfully pieced together for a five-day visit in May 2005. I was initially very excited about the chance to spend time with my former friends, but as the day drew closer, I began to get somewhat apprehensive—it had been more than twenty-five years since I had last seen them. I wondered if we’d have enough to talk about after so many years of being apart. I wondered if Warren’s condition would significantly restrict his ability to get around. And given my extensive job responsibilities, I wondered if I could really take enough time from work to give our visitors adequate attention without causing major disruptions in my New York Life responsibilities.

Imagine my joy when my fears and concerns were totally unfounded. From the moment they arrived until the sad moment when they departed, the experience was a reunion of friends that was absolutely glorious and a timely blessing from God. Warren was his normal, ebullient self; had it not been for the typical hair loss resulting from chemotherapy, I wouldn’t have been able to tell he was ill. His positive attitude, his appreciation for our friendship, and his zest for life were remarkable and inspiring. We laughed uncontrollably over our shared recollections of events I had nearly forgotten. My children and my mother-in-law became quite enamored with my three long-time friends, none of whom they had known twenty-five years earlier.

We also arranged for some wonderful one-day excursions into New York City that were memorable for all of us. We took a private one-day guided tour of New York City with an eccentric but fascinating city historian, author, and guide named Timothy “Speed” Levitch. Over the course of the day, the lively interactions between Speed and Warren made for a unique and memorable experience punctuated by Warren’s infectious laughter. Speed was a city-dweller who spoke of the sights and sounds of New York City in grand metaphorical and poetic terms, while Warren’s down-home, country-boy background gave him a far different reaction to the busy city streets. The contrast was truly delightful. Sue Johnson had called and arranged for front-row, center-stage seats for The Lion King, a unique experience we shared that night with our visitors from Michigan. We had a bird’s-eye view of the orchestra pit from directly behind the conductor, and I was pleased to see the expressions of joy and wonder on my friends’ faces as they watched a very popular first-class Broadway production from a front-row perspective.

The next day we returned to the city and took the ferry ride to both the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, where we stopped to walk the grounds, peruse the shops, and ask about Warren’s ancestors at the Ellis Island site. In so doing, Warren fulfilled the original intent of his visit to New York, but he later told me the trip had greatly exceeded his expectations in many ways.

As we walked arm-in-arm up to the Statue of Liberty, I thought about my own mortality and how I’d be saying my own goodbyes to so many friends in the not-too-distant future. After all, none of us can really know when our mortal existence will end. At that very moment I experienced a new and unfamiliar emotion that warmed my heart and touched my soul. I realized the value and great joy of true friendship and how the power and purity of God’s love can find expression in such relationships.

Our time together and the events we chose to share proved to be a fitting reunion of four long-time friends and associates. And during the five-day visit, there were several very poignant moments when Warren and I had a chance to speak privately. At times we simply sat in pleasant, rich silence and just enjoyed each other’s presence while thinking of the past, absorbing the present, and contemplating the future.

As we spoke about his illness and the obviously difficult topic of its prognosis, I had the opportunity and privilege to assure him of his immortality by expressing my own faith and my strong belief in a glorious afterlife. He would later share with me and others how important those reassurances were to him and how he derived such hope from my expressed certainty of a continued existence beyond these limited days on earth.

On several other occasions during the visit, Warren strongly encouraged me to stop and smell the roses and to consider retiring early so that I might spend more time with my loved ones and following my passions. I shared with him my plans to retire early and attend divinity school, teach, and write. He loved the idea, and during the five days he often exhorted me to make that decision soon and execute it without doubt or hesitation.
We reminisced, we hugged, and we shared mutual respect and admiration during those five short days that will remain etched in my mind forever.

I knew I would have some difficulty fighting back my emotions when saying goodbye to Warren, Sue, and Barb. Knowing that I would have to leave very early the next morning before any of them awakened, we said our tearful goodbyes the evening before. As is typically the case, I often don’t express everything I’d like when I get emotional, so I woke at four the next morning to write and leave the following note to Warren:

I can’t tell you how much this weekend has meant to me. Seeing you again and enjoying time together laughing and reminiscing has been truly special for me and really very therapeutic. My own illness (workaholism) is in many ways more devastating and fatal than your cancer.
You have been one of my very best friends and I only regret that I let so many years get away with such little direct contact. I thank God that He allowed me the true privilege and honor of seeing you again with Barb and Sue over such a glorious week together.
You have touched so many lives in so many ways that none of us can ever dream of living a more full and complete life.
I have been praying for you every day since I heard of your illness, and I will continue to do so. I knew immediately when I saw you that God had answered those prayers because you looked so terrific and full of “life.” Clearly God is not done with you yet and I’m certain God will give you more time to spread your wonderful humor, love, and joy to all of those whom you continue to touch.
Thank you for reminding me what life is really all about before it was too late for me.
Your friend forever,

Warren sent a response to me expressing his deep gratitude for our friendship, the visit to our home, and especially for the note I left him. He mentioned it often in our subsequent calls and correspondence.

I maintained fairly frequent contact by phone with Warren after that visit in 2005. Warren had no children and his wife, Wanda, was confined to a nursing home, so for the next many months Sue Johnson often visited Warren at his home in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, helping him sort out his affairs and prepare for his death. What a blessing she was to him as she cared for him in his moments of greatest need. She also kept me informed of his condition, so I knew when the end was near.

I called Warren in mid-June of 2006. He was weak and heavily medicated, but his spirits remained high. Sue was with him and put him on the phone. I told him I loved him and that he was instrumental in my decision to retire at age fifty-nine and attend Yale Divinity School. I reminded him of how he had encouraged me to make the choice quickly and to implement it without doubt or hesitation. I thanked him for his trust in the strength of our friendship and for pushing me so hard. I told him his encouragement made the difference in leading me to the final decision. He seemed very pleased. Then, with tears streaming down my face and a painful lump in my throat, I said my final words to him: “Warren, I love you and I’ll see you on the other side.”

Warren passed away two or three days later, and I attended his funeral in Michigan. It was truly a celebration of the life of a remarkable man. He hadn’t been the leader of a large company, or even head of the small science department at Franklin Junior High School, but through his career and over the course of his life he touched the lives of thousands. One could sense from interactions with the hundreds of attendees at his funeral that every one of them felt as deeply as I did about his friendship.

I thank God that a former colleague reached out to find me in 2003 and that I reconnected with Warren. I thank God as well for Sue Johnson’s and Barb Duncan’s role in bringing us back together again after so many years. And I thank God for how my life and my future was transformed in just five short days by words and expressions of love and encouragement from my dear friend Warren.