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Experience October/November 2023

Burt’s Rich Legacy

Gary Fry


  • Friendship is important especially later in life when dealing with the loss of many cherished friends.
Burt’s Rich Legacy

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For your life has lived in me,
Your laugh once lifted me,
Your word was gift to me.
To remember this brings painful joy.
—Yehuda Halevi

I’m at the stage of life (82) where my cherished friends are dying. Many from my generation are gone. And yes, when the Arizona bar magazine arrives, I head straight to the obituaries, where I’m sure to find the only names I recognize.

I’m doing my best to take the losses in stride. It is, after all, the natural order of things.

Feeling out of place

My nuclear family went long ago, and since we weren’t one of Tolstoy’s “happy families,” close friendships have always been especially important to me. Whenever I’m down, these friends are my bridge over troubled waters. With them, I don’t fear being alone.

Burt and I ran into each other in 1953, the same year Josef Stalin died. We were in the seventh grade. Small and determined, he was water boy for the baseball team (and proud of it). I was a beanpole. He beamed when Coach Jones paddled me for sliding down a banister, the forbidden fruit.

By high school I was aware that Burt and his Jewish friends had something lacking in my own life, something I had no words for. If I were to describe it now, it would be solidarity, the cement holding everything together. I was an introspective boy, passionate about classical piano, books—definitely an oddball.

Tucson High was an enormous melting pot, the largest public school in America with an enrollment of more than 6,000. Half of us were Anglo, the other half racially mixed. While the pot rarely boiled over, there was little social crossover. The Mexican, Negro, and Chinese (those were the demographic terms used in the 1950s) students stuck mostly with “their own.”

Other than the Jewish kids, the Anglos were flying off in all directions. There was no center holding us together. With no conscious effort on my part, a strong affinity for the Jews had taken root in me. Here I should say the appeal was secular, far less concerned with sacred texts than with assuaging my longing for connection.

To Jewish-American comedian Lenny Bruce, Jew-ish meant “feeling a bit peculiar and out of place.” That feeling in me found vicarious expression in the Jews before I later found my place in the world. I don’t know why. It just felt right. Years later, my wife said I must have been a Russian Jew in an earlier life because of my affinities—Rachmaninoff and Chekhov, to mention two more.

Irony flew over my head, for things were not as they seemed. Little did I know that solidarity had been essential to the Jews’ survival, that our schoolmates had likely lost family in the death mills of Eastern Europe and Russia. Only later did Shoah and “pogrom” enter my vocabulary.

From nothing to twice-daily calls

Burt became a periodontist and joined his older brother Bill’s practice in Tucson. Highly innovative, they were the marquee attraction at dental conferences. I’d wanted to be an English professor, but the stars weren’t aligned for many reasons. So I rolled the dice and went to law school instead.

In 1984, Burt emceed our 25th high school reunion. I hadn’t seen him since graduation or known he was such a quick-witted comedian. We hadn’t been close enough to stay in touch. We chatted briefly.

Fast forward to 2019 when volunteers were needed to plan our 60th Although I lived two hours from Tucson, I signed on. So did Burt. When I walked into the first meeting, he waved; right away I had a good feeling. Then I saw the cane and the delicacy with which he moved. He was sitting on a little green pillow. Someone mentioned his wife’s cancer (metastatic). I sensed a shared vulnerability.

Burt must have felt it, too, because he began calling me every day before his afternoon nap and bedtime. These weren’t conversations, mind you. They were monologues. I got in a few words, of course, but I was never certain he heard me. He was stone deaf. This was our daily routine for four years until he went on morphine. By then I was making half the calls.

When I mentioned Burt to a friend, he said, “Good lord, Gary, why do you put up with it? Have you nothing better to do with your time?” I was speechless. It would never have occurred to me to ration a friendship.

Phyllis’s decline tore Burt apart. Everyone loved her. She’d been a nurse at the county hospital, caring for the indigent, and had run the synagogue’s gift shop for 30 years. Whenever he broke down, he apologized. “Burt,” I said, “it’s OK to cry. I cry, you know!” She died during the pandemic when funerals were strictly limited to family.

Eleven months later, at the “unveiling,” the ancient Jewish tradition formally consecrating the grave site, I collected pebbles as the prayers were sung in Hebrew. It’s customary to leave small stones on the grave marker to honor the deceased. Burt and I each placed one on Phyllis’s headstone.

Burt loved Donald Trump and flooded my inbox with his tweets. I tried to understand the attraction. I knew that Trump professed to care about Israel and that Bill worshiped Trump (Burt seemed to need his brother’s approval). But something pulsed in Burt’s veins known only to him. He had a good heart, and that was all that mattered to me.

The end of a friendship

In the beginning, I was aware that Burt often repeated himself. I thought nothing of it at first. Then he started losing things, a credit card here, a hearing aid there—even his traveling pillow. When he set off his Life Alert alarm in the middle of the night, he awoke to firemen swarming the bedroom. He later took a chocolate cake down to the fire house to thank them.

He told me about his mishaps with a childlike glee: “Guess what I’ve done now!

“Tell!” I urged. It was painful to watch this gentle soul unravel.

Burt’s daughters, Beth Ann and Amy, finally put him in an assisted living facility. Never have I witnessed such despair. “Take me home, Gary, I want to go home!” he begged. Later he told me, “You keep me going.”

“No, Burt, we keep each other going,” I replied. “You’re as much here for me as I am for you.” His good-natured, self-effacing humor helped to keep me afloat.

Cancer struck Burt for the third time, first the prostate (another bond between us), then a kidney, and now the tumor in his neck. He underwent surgery and radiation, and although the malignancy hadn’t spread, he cascaded. In the elderly, a co-morbidity (simultaneous health condition) may lead to a poor outcome after major surgery. He had two: dementia and frailty.

Since solo travel is now difficult for me, I was unable to attend Burt’s memorial. I watched it on Zoom. I’d flown to Tucson earlier and taken him to his favorite Mexican restaurant, where he barely touched his chimichanga. When I called the next morning, he didn’t remember a thing.

In her eulogy, Amy said she’d been at her dad’s bedside all day, and as she was leaving to get some sleep, he weakly motioned her back. With an elfin grin, he asked, “Am I dead?” Vintage Burt to the end.

The legacy Burt left

Somewhere I read that every loss is a gain—an odd paradox. But Burt had opened a whole new world for me, a world I wasn’t born in. Because of him, I have two new friends, Barry and Sam, two of his oldest friends from childhood. Burt’s emails—Trump and all—brought us together (three liberals to outnumber him).

Barry, a talented infielder, led our high school team to a state championship. He became an educator and community leader. Sam is a retired history professor whose books on Russia and Judaism are beautifully written and informative.

I also learned from Burt what it means to be Jewish and have considered conversion. Since there are no rabbis or synagogues nearby, Sam came up with a solution: “You can be a Jew-by-choice,” he said. Susanne, an old friend from high school (and successful lawyer and health care advocate), now calls me an “Honorary Jew.” These friendships, new and old alike, are enriching.

To be welcomed into a community of kindred spirits, where everyone has the other guy’s back, as the saying goes, is deeply humbling and comforting. I am blessed.

Thank you, Burt.