Editor’s note: In 2006, we published a story by Don Shelton about a previous reunion of his University of Idaho fraternity brothers that centered around an ex-classmate with Alzheimer’s disease. This is his story about a recent gathering to honor those who have passed on.
Three old fraternity brothers pick at salads as we rehash an experience none of us will forget.
Andy Pedersen, Ron Jelaco and I are sitting in a Seattle pub after returning from Moscow, Idaho, for an all-1970s reunion of Phi Gamma Delta fraternity brothers (Fijis, we are called).
For three days, we rekindled relationships, recalled our time at the University of Idaho and tried to recapture a sliver of our youth.
But our weekend is over, and soon we’ll have to take Andy to the airport for his flight home to Kansas.
That’s when I see the e-mail on my BlackBerry. I interrupt Andy to share a message from the widow of a fraternity brother.
Cindy Allison-Billmeyer came to our reunion as a grief-stricken woman with a 10-year-old daughter, hoping to ease the pain by hearing our stories.
Along with tales of Kurt as she had never known him, she found much more – a hundred big brothers, one of them filled with regret and searching for forgiveness.
I just wanted to tell you how full my heart is with gratitude to you for inviting us to share your memories of a happier time in Kurt’s life.
What strikes me is how fast life happens, being dutiful – getting through the day and hopefully touching hearts from time to time. You gentlemen … gave Alli and I such a gift.
Kurt Billmeyer was a tall, skinny kid with a shock of red hair and a shortage of confidence. He was a year younger than me and so shy that one of his New Year’s resolutions was to be more outgoing around girls.
We shared a passion for journalism, a love of sports and a room part of his freshman year.
He was the little brother I never had.
I would graduate, get married, raise three sons, build a career, get divorced, get remarried – and somehow lose track of Kurt and my fraternity brothers along the way.
Kurt would struggle through school and eventually transform himself. I heard that he married in 1990, had a daughter eight years later, earned his Ph.D. in communication studies, and became a respected professor at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse.
Sometime in 2006 I found out something else about my old friend: Kurt was dying from cancer.
So why didn’t I call him? It would have been an awkward call to a guy I didn’t really know anymore. And what do you say to someone who’s dying?
I have been in a grief spot of anger … The anger is toward dashed hopes, dreams, and living the nightmare of seeing my beloved suffer through depression, cancer, pain, loss, fear and the reality that he would not see Alli become a teenager, a driver, a girl going on a date … a girl becoming a woman and finding the man that will love her almost as much as her dad.
The idea of a reunion for all my fraternity brothers from the 1970s was born in April 2006, when my pledge class gathered at the University of Idaho 30 years after graduation. Andy Pedersen was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s and wanted to see his brothers again before we faded from his memory.
That emotional reunion made me want to bring us all together before it was too late for Andy. But that would take a lot of work, and who had time? I put it off.
Meanwhile, Kurt was growing sicker as prostate cancer spread to nearly every bone in his body. As I debated whether to call him, he searched for a miracle cure while doing all of the things he never got around to doing.
A friend sent the family to Disney World, and Cindy cashed in her 401(k) so Kurt could go to Iceland, the French Riviera and Italy with a friend.
There was a week in Chicago with Cindy and Alli to watch his beloved Cubs play.
Kurt also flew back to his hometown of Pocatello, Idaho, late in the summer of 2006 to see several fraternity brothers. Just as my class had rallied around Andy a few months before, brothers showed their support for Kurt.
I decided I was too busy at work to go, too busy to even call.
Coming upon the gift of listening to you talk about the amazing years of being college boys – of learning so much about yourselves, each other, life, relationships and having fun - was so wonderful.
The sudden death of another fraternity brother I had lost touch with finally moved me to pick up the phone. Tom Kiblen collapsed Feb. 15 from a heart attack while playing tennis. He was 51.
By then, Kurt’s family had moved back to Pocatello after his insurance benefits ran out, and I heard he was fading quickly. Shaken, I finally called Kurt, leaving a couple of rambling messages.
I also started making calls to others about a reunion. Talking to my brothers, I learned of other losses – suicides, a plane crash and car wrecks. At least 16 of my fraternity brothers from the 1970s were dead.
Pete Noorda, three years older than me, had a ski accident three days after Tom’s heart attack and died March 4. Kurt’s inevitable death came on April 18. He was 52.
Seeing Allison soak in the weekend was precious. The way she warmed up to you, it made me realize … she will be OK! I will find ways for her to have bits of her poppa via you and your memories. Thank you!
Although I wasn’t sure how they would respond, I invited Kurt, Tom and Pete’s widows to our reunion the first weekend in October. All were dealing with the unimaginable grief of losing husbands too soon. Judy Noorda thanked me but said she wasn’t ready. Cindy Allison-Billmeyer and Cynthia Micinski Kiblen decided to come.
Cindy Allison-Billmeyer and Alli joined us Saturday for breakfast, an Idaho football game and a banquet. Cindy was outgoing, energetic and determined to find out all she could about Kurt. Red-haired Alli looked so much like her dad it startled me, and her shyness, sensitivity and intelligence also made me think of Kurt.
That night, as a banquet room filled with 142 Fijis and guests, Cindy and Alli came early. So did Pete Noorda’s older brother, Jan, another Fiji. He looked just like Pete’s pictures.
Cynthia Micinski Kiblen and 12-year-old Joe were among the last to arrive, with three other Kiblen relatives. Cynthia was tall, blond and outgoing. Joe was a younger, skinnier version of the Tom I remembered.
There was time only for a quick introduction of Cindy and Cynthia before the banquet, but their hug couldn’t be rushed. These two women who had never met but had so much in common seemed unable to let go.
Near the end of the banquet came a short tribute to the 16 fallen fraternity brothers. It finished with the names of the last three who died on a black screen, one after the other.
Pete’s brother reached into his pocket, and when Tom Kiblen’s name was shown, he gave Tom’s widow a tiny Fiji lapel pin.
Pete Noorda’s name was on the screen as she pinned it to her dress. The grieving brother and widow both had tears in their eyes as the final name – Kurt Billmeyer’s name – appeared on the screen.
I often feel a big hurt that so many people I thought I would hear from avoid Alli and I. I know they are mourning, they have lives to live, they are busy …
Cynthia Micinski Kiblen and Joe left early Sunday morning, but Cindy and Alli came to brunch hungry for more fraternity stories. They also carried six sweaters, Kurt’s sweaters. Cindy couldn’t bear seeing someone wearing them back home. Ron Jelaco offered to take them with us back to Seattle.
A few hours later, we began the long drive home. As a Beatles CD played, fraternity brothers talked about how the weekend had changed us. We talked about life and death and grief and brotherhood among men our age.
About how an old friend we haven’t seen in years can know us better than someone we work with every day. About losing touch too easily with the people we care about most and the price we pay for letting that happen.
Men our age think about retiring, about losing our parents, even about sending our children off to war, but we don’t think about losing friends or spouses – or about dying ourselves.
Until it’s too late.
I really do believe that this whole fraternal bond has reached out to Alli and I, and that comforts me. I do believe you are honoring Kurt by checking in on us and extending your brotherly love to us - what an intense gift.
As we drove, I admitted how guilty I felt about not picking up the phone earlier and calling Kurt. From the back seat, Jelaco told a story.
He recalled going to see a frail Kurt in February and bringing up Tom’s recent death. Jelaco could see the shock in Kurt’s tired eyes. No one had been able to tell him.
Later, Kurt’s mood brightened and he smiled as he talked about getting a surprise phone call the day before from country-music singer Rodney Crowell. One of Kurt’s buddies had left a message through Crowell’s agent about what a huge fan his sick friend was.
Crowell picked up the phone and called someone he had never met. That act of compassion breathed life into a dying man.
“You should be able to call anybody,” Jelaco said, his voice rising as he leaned forward. “If you’re going to make a mistake, make a mistake doing something. When Rodney Crowell called Kurt, it could have been a really awkward conversation. But he would have made a mistake in doing something. The mistakes we made were in not doing something.”
So thank you for letting us share Kurt, and for being there for Kurt when we weren’t and for loving him as a brother … forever, I suppose.
My voice chokes as I finish reading the e-mail. Three men are crying in a Seattle pub and none of us cares. We sit in silence for a few moments, feeling the power of our emotions.
And then I dial Cindy Allison-Billmeyer’s number.
I tell her how much her e-mail touched us, how we hated to let go of her and Alli and a wonderful weekend. I tell her she has a hundred big brothers to call on whenever she or Alli need anything.
“I love that. That’s a huge comfort to me,” Cindy says. “I could use some more big brothers right now.”
Then Andy takes the phone, smiling and looking better than he has all weekend. He wears a plaid sports coat over a bright yellow sweater.
The sweater fits him perfectly.
“I’m wearing one of Kurt’s sweaters!” Andy says. “I’m taking a little bit of Kurt back to Kansas with me.”
I certainly have fewer stereotypes of his fraternity days, and in hindsight, Kurt probably realizes that I would have loved him when he was a goofy, skinny, often drunk, academically challenged boy …
So, in a nutshell … thanks. I am not so pissed off at him, God, life …
And Alli and I are going to be OK.
This story first appeared in the Seattle Times, where Don Shelton is an assistant sports editor. He can be reached at (206) 464-8284 or
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