Wednesday, September 08, 2010

The Happy One

Bob, Bob, Bob. What am I going to do for dinner now?

Last Saturday night, Bob Summers and I had dinner together in the News break room. This was nothing new for us. I'd estimate we had done that close to 150 times a year for the past few years. That's more than either of us ever ate with our respective wives in that span.

It turned out to be our last meal together. After work at midnight, Bob headed for the casino in Niagara Falls. He apparently suffered a heart attack at the blackjack table and died later that night at the age of 66.

We say the usual cliches in such situations, but they are true. This was very unexpected, and Bob left us too soon.

I'm not sure about the exact moment when I first met Bob. It was probably on the softball field in the early 1980's, as my pesky WEBR team would figure out a way to beat his powerful News Blues. I remember asking Jim Kelley once about News horse racing columnist Bart McCracken around that era. Jim laughed and told me to look carefully at the picture. Since Bob was in the financial department at the time, he had to use a fake name to write in sports. The column picture was of Bob, hidden behind binoculars the size of a small car. Bob moved over to sports shortly after that, and was there when I arrived at The Buffalo News in 1994.

Bob had a unique place in my life. We worked side-by-side for years in the sports department, usually on nights and weekends. Indeed, Bob jokingly talked about writing a book called, "What to do in Buffalo when your weekend is on Tuesdays and Wednesdays." While most people preferred to eat their meals at their desk, Bob and I both saw the value of getting up, walking down a flight of stairs, and eating away from the area that held us captive for the other seven and a half hours a night.

What do people talk about, night after night? Lots of things, as you'd expect. There was always journalism, of course. Copy editors are people are can pick nits with the best of them, getting into arguments over such things as whether the "A" in Around & About should be capitalized in our paper, or whether it should be double-header or doubleheader. The big issues of journalism would come up too, and not just those involving sports. Bob was one of the few people in the department who seemed to read serious, nonfiction books -- a kindred spirit in that sense.

This being Buffalo, the latest news surrounding the Bills would always be a subject of conversation. It would often be sarcastic -- "Think that Chan Gailey hiring will send people sprinting to the ticket windows?" -- but backed by the feeling that we'd be a little happier if the team actually won some games every once in a while.

Then once we got past the usual anecdotes about family, or politics, or whatever, there were hobbies. That means in my case, he had to listen about such subjects as running. When I'd say I had to get up early to run in a race the next morning, Bob would gently deflate me by saying, "And who exactly is forcing you to run in this race?"

In Bob's case, talk of outside activities usually meant gambling in general -- or horse racing in particular. I'm not sure anyone loved anything as much as Bob loved racing. He often said how he had spent a night looking over a Racing Form as he attempted to handicap the next day's card.

Sometimes I'd sit in the break room, listening to Bob, and marvel at the way he connected almost anything to horse racing. You couldn't stump him. Here's an example of Bob's single-minded focus. In August, Saratoga hosted the Bernard Baruch Handicap, in honor of the architect of some of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal financial plans. Bob had heard of him, because Baruch was a big supporter of racing once upon a time. But when I said, "What's next, the Ben Bernanke Stakes?" Bob answered, "Who's Ben Bernanke?" I used that line about the Federal Reserve chairman in our daily joke column, Five Spot, secure in the knowledge that it was one joke Bob wouldn't get.

The funny part of the relationship was that Bob and I rarely socialized outside of work. Bob had a routine that worked for him, and it was tough to get him away from that. One time we went to a Bisons' afternoon game together. He wanted to sit downstairs in the sun and drink beer; I wanted to sit upstairs in the shade, eat popcorn, and keep score. He won -- and we never tried it again. One time I invited him over for a poker game with my high school friends. Unless the game was five-card draw, Bob said, "Deal me out," and merely watched us play some silly wild-card games that took a team of accountants to follow.

But Bob was someone you could count on. A couple of times a year, I'd need a ride to the eye doctor because the drops left me incapable of driving home. If Bob could do it, he'd be there with a smile on his face. In fact, I rarely saw Bob in a bad mood, especially in the workplace. That sort of consistent good cheer is quite rare, and appreciated.

Maybe that's why I always tried to have Bob's back when necessary. Earlier this year, I noticed that Bob's picks for a Triple Crown race had gone wrong. That happens sometimes; if it were easy to pick winners, everyone would do it. Some blog commentator had left the message, "Your picks stink," for all to see. That just wasn't fair. I found the delete key, and the nasty message went to cyber-heaven.

Bob kept trying to predict the future even after the bad days like that one. I always felt he would have fit right into the newsroom of the Forties and Fifties, covering racing full-time. He always thought the next race would come out the way he thought it would, and he always thought a day at the track was the best place to spend his time. Racing isn't what it used to be, of course, but when Bob was at the track he was the happiest of handicappers.

Bob once told me that life was too short to miss one of the Triple Crown races, so he started making sure he went to every one starting in 1978. It's a comforting thought that he'll be watching those races now from a great seat looking down on the track. For us, still in the grandstand, we'll miss his gentle wit, good nature, and company.

As for dinner time, it will never be the same.

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