On the eve of my first day of high school, my father gave me some advice that altered my life. We were living in suburban Chicago and I was at that age where, when Dad spoke, I listened.
“Join the debating team,” my dad suggested. “I tried to tell that to your brothers, but they wouldn’t listen.”
My two older brothers had pursued different high school interests. Bruce was the track and football star. John served as student government leader, wearing sweater vests, quoting John F. Kennedy and seeming, at one point, to have dated the entire junior class.
That left me to make my mark with a silver spoon in the rhetorical arena of competitive speech and debate. It was in that arena that I first met Rick and Bob.
Of the hundreds of students I encountered in my four years of high school, Rick and Bob especially remain fresh in my memory. I think about them both regularly.
Rick was one of my high school debating partners who became a good friend, a wise counsel, and fellow outsider. In my yearbook, Rick signed off with a goodbye and a promise that we would both be on the Supreme Court in 40 years.
Why not? Rick was intelligent and articulate. Very analytical and a good sense of humor. Everyone, especially his parents, expected good things from Rick as he shipped off to North Carolina and Duke University–a school he really didn’t want to attend.
Perhaps his parents expected too much. Rick knew how to debate, but he never could argue successfully with his parents. Something happened. Something snapped. Halfway through his freshman year, Rick packed his car and vanished. For two years, no one heard from him.
Then he showed up suddenly , unexpectedly, one morning, back at his parents’ house. He said simply that he had been living in California all this time. Never offered another word of explanation. The parents didn’t care. They just wanted their son back.
That was 15 years ago.
Rick continues to live at home. Now thirtysomething, he has no career, no ambition, no dreams. He works at odd jobs and helps around the house. I can pick up the phone and call that number in Chicago. I know that Rick will answer. Tease him about finding a job, well, Rick laughs. It’s a running joke between us.
And then there is Bob.
Bob debated for our arch rival, Maine East High School. Even in those early days, you could see Bob was different. He had the gift. Oh, he was good. There were hundreds of high school debaters engaged in verbal combat around Chicago during the late ’60s, but Bob was more intelligent, more articulate than the rest of us.
I tried many times, but I could never score a victory against Bob. Six…seven…eight times we clashed, but it was never, ever close.
Bob was Abraham Lincoln. I was Millard Fillmore.
Things changed little in college. Bob and I both received debating scholarships to rival schools in Illinois and our paths continued to cross throughout the 70s. My own college performance was respectable. Bob’s was meteoric. He established himself on the grueling national college circuit, reaching the finals of the National Debate Tournament as a mere sophomore.
While I traveled the backwater circuit of Whitewater, Wisconsin and Emporia, Kansas, Bob was taking the halls of Harvard and Georgetown by storm. He won every conceivable college speaking award during his four years. Judges considered Bob the best–years later he has become a legend to a new generation of speech competitors.
Bob was Abraham Lincoln. I was Calvin Coolidge.
Bob won everything in college. Even hearts. There was one highly-respected female debating coach. She was witty and stunning, capable of lighting up any room she entered. Men stumbled over themselves for her attention. I was tongue-tied even trying to say hello to her at tournaments.
Years later, she filed for divorced from her husband. She and Bob married shortly thereafter. They live in southern California. Bob made partner in a Century City firm and then opened up his own practice.
Many, many years have passed but Rick and Bob remain on my mind. They are the bookends for my own career, ambitions, and dreams. Both provide me an important perspective on my own life. No matter what I accomplish, Bob has always accomplished more. He keeps me humble. He keeps things from going to my head.
I accept that Bob will always be a few steps ahead of me. Always.
Rick, on the other hand, has never tried. He has chosen to remain in the shelter and security of home and family. There are so many days that Rick’s path sounds so tempting. I want to drive to Seattle where my parents now live and say take care of me, protect me. I need you.
But I can’t. Still, no matter how difficult life gets for me, no matter how impossible the situation becomes, I take comfort in knowing that at least I’m trying. I know I am further ahead, even in failure, than Rick will ever be living at home with his parents.
Everyone has a Rick and a Bob. They allow us to keep our own lives in perspective, in balance.
And we all know what happened to Abraham Lincoln.
San Luis Obispo County Telegram-Tribune (February 1990)