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 Last Laugh 

December 21, 2006 
Robert MadayMy friend Robert Maday died last week in Michigan. Cancer finally got him, but he didn’t suffer too much. We’d been pals for 46 years.

Robert MadayWe were classmates by my good luck, because though Today's column is "Last Laugh" -- Read Joe's columns the day he writes them.Bob was a year older than I was, his asthma had caused him to be held back a year. He seemed much older, in a way. He was always scholarly, with a booming voice and a professorial manner, though friendly and modest, with a laugh that made you feel good all over. He was always carrying grownup books, which he actually read. (Later, when I met famous scholars and intellectuals, they were often men whose names I’d first heard from Bob.)

Robert MadayYou couldn’t help noticing Bob’s bright red hair and alert, twinkling eyes. He looked deep, and I was curious. I struck up a conversation with him in the school cafeteria; that fall he was for Nixon and I was for Kennedy; he had reasons and I had only passions, but I enjoyed his thoughtful explanations. I’d assumed politics was just a matter of who you were loyal to, and here was a boy who actually thought about it — a novelty to me. I liked and respected him right away. He was challenging without being threatening. Even then he was wise.

Robert MadayBy high school we were close friends. His father, from whom he got his deep voice, had a small insurance business, his mother was a sweet Southern lady, his older brother a gifted pianist. The Madays were conservative Republicans; my folks were liberal Democrats. Though I developed a passion for Shakespeare, I was also a goof-off who kept getting hopeless crushes on girls; Bob’s interests were generally on a higher plane. He loved American history, Bach’s organ music, but also Laurel and Hardy.

Robert MadayDuring our college years we drifted apart. I got married and had kids. But I ran into him again when we were both in grad school, and our friendship took wings. I’d also become a conservative Republican and we had a lot to talk about. He got me reading C.S. Lewis.

Robert MadayMy wife and children came to love Bob; I got a kick out of the respectful way the kids called him “Mr. Maday.” And he was always so affectionate to them. They’re all grown now, scattered around, and they haven’t seen him for many years, but he’s their loss too.

Robert MadayBob’s own family life was sad. He never married; his heart was set on the daughter of one of his professors, but she didn’t return his sentiments, and he remained a bachelor. Then his father died, and his troubled older brother, Arthur, perished in a fire, leaving Bob to take care of his mother. They were devoted to each other, but in recent years her mind has been failing; then came his cancer. At least she doesn’t know she’s alone now. Poor, dear woman!

[Breaker quote for Last Laugh: A friend to thank God for]Robert MadayAfter I moved east we kept in touch by phone, mostly, with a few occasional visits. Both of us put on weight, and Bob’s flaming red hair turned gray and thinned. It lifted my heart when he boomed happily, “Hi, Joe!” A sound I’ll never hear again now. We’d chat about the news, have a few laughs, remark on the little ironies. Sometimes we’d reminisce about our old teachers, such as a liberal we’d come to respect over the years (I hadn’t expected to come to agree with him so much) and a comical little Communist. We both lost any faith we’d had in the Republican Party. How had it gone from Reagan to Bush?

Robert MadayWe never had a cross word in those 46 years. Bob’s good nature made that impossible, and we avoided the touchy subject of religion: he was a Protestant, and I was a Catholic, and we left it at that. Until the end.

Robert MadayThree weeks before he died, Bob was received into the Catholic Church. I called him for what turned out to be the last time. I told him the old joke about the old Irish Protestant who, on his deathbed, sends his son for a Catholic priest and converts to Rome. When the priest leaves, the son, stunned and tearful, asks, “Why’d you do it, Dad?” The old man answers, “Well, son, if I’ve got to go, I figure, better one o’ them than one of us!”

Robert MadayMidway through, I wondered if this was an appropriate joke to be telling a dying friend. It was. Bob loved it. That was our last laugh.

Robert MadayThank you, dear Lord, for giving me this friend for so many years.

Joseph Sobran

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