I lost one of my best friends yesterday.
I've known Gary Willmon for more than 20 years. He was a co-worker for a while at the Diboll Free Press weekly newspaper back when it was at its best. Gary was an editor there while I worked there as sports editor.
We worked there together for a while in cubicles right next to each other.
I'd been there a little more than a year and at that time it was really just the two of us that were responsible for the weekly content.
It was a month before Diboll Day, the bi-annual city-wide celebration, that Gary went into the hospital. I don't remember if this was when he found out he had Chrohn's disease or not. But I know he was there out for about a month.
I had to handle all the fall sports coverage and all the Diboll Day coverage, plus do all the layout for those pages. I was in over my head, but I made it.
Gary was a little fella. Never weighed more than 120 pounds or so. And never looked like unless he was on some kind of steroids for a while and his cheeks got puffy.
He was always upbeat, never said anything bad about anybody. Never wrote anything bad about anyone.
Donna reminded me today at lunch, when we were with a group of his co-workers from the Lufkin Daily, of the time he came back to the office in Diboll after having been chased by some big truck driver.
If I remember correctly, he had inadvertently cut off a truck driver and made the guy mad. I'm not sure if they actually exchanged words. But I do know that when he got back that he told us that he'd driven around town for a while to make sure he hadn't been followed. He was worried that since our office was right off Hwy 59 that the driver might have spotted him or his car as he was getting to the office.
I had left the Free Press to teach at Diboll High School and had been there for a year and a half when I took over as sports editor of the Lufkin Daily News. Gary had been the sports editor there before he came to the Free Press. Weird how it works sometimes.
I remember he wrote me one of the nicest letters I've ever received. How he knew I'd do a good job at it. Knowing he had confidence in me felt great. He couldn't have been any nicer.
Gary was a great newsman, a great friend.
I'll miss hearing these two things:
* Hearing him finish his 5-second prayers over lunch with "Amen, dig in."
* Hearing him say, "Dude, call me, we'll do lunch."
I went to visit Gary at the hospital last Friday. I'm not sure I've ever seen anyone look as bad as I thought he did. His face was jaundiced and he was hooked up to many things.
I knew he was bad.
I got the call from my friend Andy yesterday around 5 p.m. Two hours later I was to participate and write a story about the Ride of Silence, organized by my friend Jeremy Webb.
Andy told, "Gary died a little while ago."
Couldn't say anything. I felt like I was punched in the stomach. No breath.
Just walked around numb.
Called to tell my dad.
He told me I should just go home.
Then I remembered I couldn't go home. I had to write a story for the Lufkin Daily about the ride. I know those guys there so I get to do some freelance work. I knew I had to go.
Their photographer showed up for the ride.
At some point I thought that that's what Gary would want me to do. To do my job. To write the story. To write a story about something great a friend of mine had put together. To give some praise where it's due.
That's what he would do. I know it is.
At the bottom right of today's front page of the Lufkin Daily there's a story about Gary's death and a number of quotes from former co-workers. There's one from me.
To the left of that story is a my story about the Ride of Silence.
It's an honor that I get to share that part of today's paper with him.
Ride of Silence