While visiting in South Bend on Sunday, I had a chance to look through the South Bend Tribune. I checked out the obituaries (as I generally do when reading that paper) to see if I knew anyone who had recently passed. I was dumbfounded to see the obituary of my friend Dennis James Perry of Terre Haute. He died on May 10 in a hospital in Indianapolis. I felt very sad at the news, and experienced waves of melancholy the rest of the day.
Dennis and I met in high school, when we were on the staff of the Washington High School Hatchet, the school newspaper. Dennis was a year behind me in school, and was a year or so younger than I. Perhaps that’s the reason he took to calling me “Pops.” Whatever the reason for his adopting that name for me, I reciprocated by calling him “Sonny.” That’s who we were to each other for the remainder of our friendship.
Dennis was a Thespian in high school and enjoyed acting and singing. He practiced his craft at every opportunity. I caught him once practicing crying, as he explained to me, when I walked into a dark Hatchet office and saw him sitting at a desk with tears streaming down his cheeks. I was amazed at his industry and dedication to his art. Years later, I wondered if something else might have been at play in Dennis’s life besides preparation for a part in a play. I will never know for sure.
I vividly remember his performance in West Side Story at the Country Playhouse south of South Bend. In the scene where the Jets sing “Gee, Officer Krupke,” the final line of the song ended with the Jets on their knees, staring into the audience. Dennis, as one of the Jets, looked directly at me and grinned. At least I thought he was looking at me. I should have realized that he might not have seen anyone in the audience because he wasn’t wearing his glasses. The imagined recognition of me by him helped me remember the evening, however, and I’m grateful for the memory. I’ll never forget the way Dennis looked as a skinny young fellow with a toothy grin and a sincerity and openness that most of us could not match.
I did not communicate with Dennis for many years after we lost touch with each other in our younger days. Dennis returned to our high school after graduation from college and taught vocal music. He then spent years working at Indiana State University, his alma mater. I knew he was living in Terre Haute, but knew little else about him.
Then one day, about five years ago, I received a birthday card from him. It was just like the cards he used to send me every year on my birthday, so many years ago. I’m not sure how he found my address, but I was pleased that he tracked me down. We started corresponding via snail mail, and then continued our discourse via email. It was fun getting to know Dennis once again, and to realize that we had so much in common politically and philosophically. We had never discussed such wide-ranging topics in our youth, and it was interesting to learn how Dennis felt about such things. We were much more alike in thought than I would have guessed. Perhaps that’s why we got along together so well so many years ago.
Dennis’s passing reminds me, as I’m reminded almost daily, of my own mortality. Not that I really ever forget about it, but often I take someone’s existence for granted and fail to prepare myself for their possible departure (or for my own) by making the most of each incidence of contact. Will I make my departure without telling those close to me how much I appreciate them? Perhaps I should start enacting measures that will eliminate this worry from my list of things to worry about.
I’m grateful to Dennis for tracking me down and rekindling our friendship. I liked him very much and valued his friendship. I hope he understood this, even though I never told him so.