It’s been said that while it’s hard to write an obituary for a stranger, it’s harder still to write one for a friend. Truer words have never been spoken.
Dennis Essary and I met nearly a decade ago, but I remember it like it was yesterday. He was chair of the National Association for Pupil Transportation’s (NAPT’s) Executive Director Search Committee and the point person for the group of people who were conducting the interviews for my current job. He sat to my left, two chairs away, and leaned forward on the table, arms crossed at the wrists, his mangled hands relaxed. He had on a starched white shirt and a silk striped tie. He looked utterly professional.
He listened mostly while others spoke. He took some notes as I answered a variety of questions. All the while, his face was impassive. I could see a twinkle in his eyes, however, every time I cautiously answered another question about my credentials or my experience.
Breaking down the barrier
When Dennis spoke, finally, here’s what he said: “When was the last time you screwed something up?” He told me later that he thought I was being “too professional,” so he wanted to see how I’d react to an “unprofessional” question. He expected me to buy some time by asking him to repeat the question and then offer some politically correct answer.
Instead, I surprised him. I didn’t even think about my answer, I just blurted it out: “Yesterday, probably. Could be right now, for all I know.” As soon as I said it, I wished I hadn’t.
Dennis, on the other hand, laughed so hard I thought he was going to fall out of his chair.
I knew instantly from his reaction that he and I would be friends, even if I didn’t get the job. What I didn’t know was just how much his friendship would mean to me.
Like any good transportation director, Dennis worked a million hours. At the same time, however, he was extraordinarily active in his state and local level school transportation organizations — in both Missouri and Oregon. He was especially devoted to NAPT. For nearly two decades he selflessly supported the organization and its goals. He served on committees too numerous to mention. He worked on special projects big and small. He served on the board, including a term as the association’s president in 1995-96. In short, he distinguished himself as one of the school transportation industry’s brightest lights.
Respected by his peers
Dennis was constantly in demand because he had a particular knack for bringing a common-sense perspective to complex and oftentimes frustrating issues, and he seemed to have an endless supply of time and energy. He was known as a level-headed decision maker, an even-handed arbiter and a fair judge of character and ability. He was particularly adept at managing people. As a result, he was greatly admired and respected by his peers.
Dennis’ private life was equally impressive and no less frenetic. He was a devoted husband to his wife Pauline and a proud father of Matt and Bryan. He loved being a grandpa and would take any opportunity to show you the pictures of his grandkids, saying “Can you believe these beautiful kids got some of their genes from me?”
Dennis constantly tried new things, investigated new opportunities. He readily took courses at the local community college or technical school. He had enough credits to hold three degrees, though he didn’t receive his first until just four years ago.
He put his education to good use, especially in his local community. Over the past several years, for example, Dennis used his experience as a certified mediation counselor to become a thoughtful, articulate and dedicated advocate as well as an effective spokesperson for juvenile justice in the Portland area. He studied extensively about children who are at-risk or potentially at-risk in an effort to understand how to help ensure their safety and welfare. As a result, he become committed to their aid and spent a great deal of his personal time as a counselor and mentor to incarcerated youngsters and adults. They respected and loved him enormously in return.
My kids were no different. They called him Uncle Dennis. Every time we spoke, he asked about them and always made me promise to let them know he said “hi.” He sent them things to let them know he was thinking about them. The dream catchers he made them to protect them from scary things that might interrupt their sleep even came complete with directions so they could make them for other kids who might need them.
Dennis sent me things to remember him by, too. The clock he carved for me out of his beloved Oregon myrtlewood sits on my desk. The picture he sent me of him, his brother Ron and me on the golf course sits on my credenza amid family photographs. The one of Dennis, his wife Pauline, his son Bryan and Dennis’ other brother Gerald picnicking on Oregon’s Cannon Beach sits right next to it. The beautiful Gale Byars photograph of Mt. Hood that Dennis sent me hangs in my office at home.
Dennis loved Mt. Hood. He called it “The Big Boy.” I remember the goose bumps we both got on our arms when he took me to see it the first time. It is magnificent, a majestic presence that typifies the Oregon landscape that captured Dennis’ heart in the mid-1990s. We were supposed to climb it together a few years ago. I trained six months for that climb, but Dennis couldn’t seem to find the time to do the same so we had to abandon our quest. I didn’t mind; it gave me years of pleasure telling him that even though I was probably in the best shape of my life, I still couldn’t carry his fat butt up the side of an 11,400-foot mountain.
No fear of death
Dennis and I spoke of many things when we were together. Mostly we talked about life; he viewed every day as a new adventure. We also spoke about death. Unlike many people, Dennis was not afraid to die. He did wonder, though, what it would be like.
As I’m working through the process of trying to come to terms with his death, my current opinion is that his recent spiritual growth was the metaphysical equivalent of training for the climb we didn’t get to do together. In this scenario, he’s much better prepared than I am. Hopefully, he’ll help me make that climb when the time is right.
I will always treasure the time that we spent together and I will miss him terribly. At the same time, it gives me comfort to know that regardless of where he goes from here (and I am convinced that he’ll be going to a better place), he will view it as an adventure.
Good luck, my friend. Travel safely.
Mike Martin is executive director of the National Association for Pupil Transportation.