Sea Foam

Author Pat Conroy pays tribute to life-long friend Gary Fordham

May 2, 2011 

Thanks to Pat Conroy of Fripp Island for sharing a tribute to Beaufort City Council member Gary Fordham, 64, who died April 22.

Remembering Gary Fordham

By Pat Conroy

When I heard that my long-time friend, Gary Fordham, died last week, I realized I'd been praying for his merciful death for many years. I played on the basketball and baseball teams with Gary at Beaufort High School, and both of us were on the field when the 15-year-old fire-baller, Randy Randel, fell dead on the pitcher's mound in our first game of the season. Those present at that game who witnessed that scene established a bond that was as life-changing as it was fragile. The death of Randy Randel tied my destiny to Beaufort forevermore.

In the makeup game we later played in Hampton, I pitched the first three innings and Gary Fordham the last four in a game I think we won. When I handed over the ball to Gary, I said, "Let's win it for Randy." Gary's response was, "Let's win them all for Randy."

In the last week of school that year, Gary began to tutor me in the Byzantine ways of Beaufort politics. Since I had been raised a military brat, I had never run for an office, and for the good reason that I'd never known more than one or two of my classmates at best. The same held true for Beaufort High, but during that first basketball season, I had become well-known in the school without my noticing it. Much to my honor, some of the senior advisors -- Millen Ellis, Peggy Moody and Walt Gnann -- had put my name in the running for senior class president. Since I didn't know the name of 90 percent of my classmates, I was so upset that I skipped school on election day, sitting in my room in pure misery and waiting for the outcome of my fate. At 3:30, Gene Norris called to tell me I hadn't received a single vote. As I was bitterly protesting a destiny I hadn't asked for, the mischievous wretch Norris told me I had won in a landslide. That's when Gary Fordham began to teach me about politics in Beaufort.

At 1600 hours that same day, Gary called me to congratulate me on my unforeseen victory. He had just been elected vice president of the student council by defeating his childhood rival. Gary told me how the two had run against each other since the third grade. Then Gary took me by surprise by asking if I would be his campaign manager the following year. Stammering in amazement, I told Gary I considered it a high honor for me.

I hung up the phone and it rang again. It was Gary's opponent, who asked, "That was Gary Fordham calling you, right?"

"Yes. How did you know?"

"Because I was going to ask you to be my campaign manager for the student body presidency next year. It's a shame you won't be a part of my victorious team, Pat."

"I'll get over it," I said, and we both laughed.

Over the next year, I gathered Gary and the impressive number of workers he had enlisted into his camp, and Gary and his mother would give us pep talks and snacks. Mrs. Fordham was ambitious for her son, and she took me outside of her Ribaut Road home to inform me that his opponent had once been caught cheating on a test in first grade.

"We can't have a cheater become president of the student council, now can we, Pat?"

I told Mrs. Fordham if that was the kind of campaign Gary planned to run, then I had to resign. There was much back-tracking, wailing apologies, and poor Mrs. Fordham finally admitted it was only a rumor, and that she hadn't really believed it either. My oily piety intact, I remained in Gary's race.

THE CITADEL

My friendship with Gary Fordham deepened at The Citadel. The night Gary found out he was assigned to my Romeo Company, I heard from his parents. Mr. and Mrs. Fordham tracked me down to the Lobster House on Boundary Street, where Tut and Ellen Harper had taken me out to dinner. (My favorite fact about the Lobster House is that it never served a single lobster.) Mrs. Fordham, like most Citadel mothers then, was nearly hysterical about the horrors of the plebe system and the Crucible her son was about to endure. In a piteous whine and the deepest Southern accent imaginable, she called out for the whole restaurant to hear: "Payat, are you gonna take care of my boy Gaarrry?" She burst into tears, and I comforted her the best I could by assuring her that I would, indeed, take care of her boy.

Because I was from Beaufort, I would've done so anyway. Ray Williams and Tommy Mikell had looked after me during my plebe years. In the next four years, I'd look out for all the boys from Beaufort, and took pride from doing it well. Gary Fordham was the first I got to practice on. During our era, the plebe system was brutal and out of control. I visited Gary and his roommate every night of their freshman year, telling stories to make them laugh or to lighten the way of that painful year. Each night I'd drift over to the sally port where a senior sold bags of glazed doughnuts, which I'd take to Gary and his roommate to eat. They weren't getting enough food to eat, starving at the end of evening study period. For the rest of his life, Gary Fordham adored me because I was his doughnut man.

THE FINAL DAYS

I was a terrible friend to Gary Fordham in his final years when my friendship would've really counted. But multiple sclerosis is such a vicious, crippling disease that I found myself uneasy in Gary's presence. We had run on fast breaks together during basketball games, and he loved to strike me out in practice games on the fields of Beaufort High. We ran wind sprints in both sports on the same field where Randy Randel had died. Gary was an athlete and cadet I'd admired greatly. His immeasurable love of Beaufort always moved me, and was more than a match for my own. But I'd failed him as a friend because of cowardice and my inability to man up to a killer Gary had to live with every day of his life.

The last time I saw him was the night we saved The Green, and I got to hug his neck one last time. I never got to tell him about how his high school political opponent's mother later told me Gary had cheated in a math test in third grade, and she was disappointed I'd lacked integrity by supporting him. I told her I'd learned the art of politics as it was played in the town of Beaufort.

I will miss Gary Fordham the rest of my life. But I prayed for his death.

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