Soon I’ll be speaking at a best friend’s funeral, and I already know it’s going to be one of the hardest things I’ve done in my life.
I say a best friend because we have several who occupy different phases in a person’s life. John Jeffrey Fish became my best friend in the fall of 1976, he remained so throughout my time at the University of North Carolina and has always been an important part of my life despite the miles that separated us.
As I write these lines, John is at the very end of a 13-year battle with brain cancer that has robbed him so much, a battle he fought with incredible courage and dignity. Not once in these 13 years have I heard John utter a single word of self-pity. I probably would have worn a T-shirt with “WHY ME?” emblazoned on its front.
We share so much – a love of UNC athletics, Atlanta Braves baseball, journalism, good times, and we have soared in the same circle of friends, many of whom are fellowship members. Pi Kappa Alpha. I am one of a legion of them who are heartbroken today. Everyone who knew John J. loved John J. – especially the women.
I met John in the fall of 1976 during Rush – for those who don’t know, that’s when the fraternities hold events to recruit new members – on the porch of House Pika. Her hair was jet black and it turned out to be more than a match for years of chemo. He was smiling mischievously, there was a glint in his eyes, he was leaning forward, and all his feeling was that he was ready to embark on a Great Adventure.
John was to become my little brother Pika, and the Great Adventure began immediately. The stories are endless, largely needing no embellishment. Most are not necessarily suitable for everyday life. Our shenanigans during our two years as roommates, however, were only a fraction of who John was then and who he would become.
I also remember a Friday in March 2008 when Pat Davis, John’s mother-in-law and the current First Lady of Lumberton, broke into my office at the Robesonian with tears running down and told me that John had a brain tumor. The next day, his skull would be cracked and a surgeon would remove the cancer he could.
Although John survived 13 more years and there were many more memories, brain cancer has robbed him of so much, including his job, his marriage, and the freedom to live his life as he pleases. John spent much of that time in a defensive posture, fearing that the cancer might start a fit or return.
In an interesting twist, John, a Boone boy, came to Lumberton in 1982 to work as a sports reporter for the Robesonian, recruited by Cliff Sharpe, a fraternity whose family owned the newspaper at the time. A year later, I was in Greensboro, four years out of college and pretty much rudderless, when John called me up and encouraged me to come to my hometown and try sports writing.
I spent 30 of the next 36 years at Robesonian, joined for a time by two other Pika brothers, Ward Clayton and Sammy Batten. It’s fair to say that John, despite only spending two years at Robesonian, had an influence on the newspaper for decades.
I don’t know if John saved my life, but he certainly gave it direction when there wasn’t. I will be eternally grateful for this gift.
Those old enough to have been readers of the newspaper in those days may remember the “I Fried Fish” t-shirts the newspaper handed out to anyone who could pick John at a high school football night.
John was really good at journalism and after his early days at Robesonian he spent time in York, PA; Augusta, Georgia; Topeka, Kansas; and Naples, Florida, mainly on the business side. John was at the forefront when it came to the internet and how it changed the newspaper industry. I remember him looking into the future and telling me what he saw, even though I didn’t understand most of the time. As an executive of the Augusta Chronicle, he had the foresight to purchase Masters related URLs that were ultimately needed at Augusta National and were purchased by the club.
John was a formidable athlete, southpaw and Watauga High quarterback at the time. But he sucked at golf and I remember when he was at The Chronicle he called him to say he was playing Augusta National the next day and what advice did I have.
“Don’t sweep the course by taking divots,” I said.
I was told it would burrow into every hole, often going along – not beyond – water hazards. There was no reliable information on the number of strokes played and golf balls lost beyond “a lot”.
I share all of this because there are many in this county who know John. It was there that he met his ex-wife, Juan. They had two children, Hannah and Addie, and although John was fortunate enough to meet his two grandchildren, Hunter and Garrett, he will be denied the pleasure of watching them grow up.
He is also survived by his parents, Barbara, and his spitting image John. Parents shouldn’t bury their children, and I promise both are okay.
John’s farewell gift is pending, when there will be a gathering of his friends, mostly the Pika brothers, at a service in Winston-Salem. It will be a chance to reconnect and celebrate John’s life, which was largely lived despite the scourge of cancer which robbed him of what should have been the best part.
It was an honor to be invited to speak at his memorial service. I can only hope that my words on that day will live up to the task.