Goodbye to a Friend

09/14/2010 01:54 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011
  • Jon Kerr Online journalist, author, speaker

As I've done many times over the past 20 years, I picked up the phone and called a friend. And in that familiar Missouri twang, my buddy Mark picked up like he always does, shouting into the phone, "Yell-o!"

We spent the first minute of the conversation in predictable "what's up" mode. He was on his way to the hospital to see the doctor about recent rotator cuff surgery. I was at home stepping over boxes after a recent move. Typical, mundane every day life stuff we all engage in every day. But this time, once we got that out of the way, the tone of the conversation changed.

In a way we had never experienced before.

After seeing the doctor in St. Louis, Mark and his wife were driving to Montgomery, Alabama. You see, Mark was required to report to the Federal Prison Camp in Montgomery the next day. In August, he was sentenced to 14 months in prison for conspiracy and tax fraud. It's a case that has made headlines in Missouri for a federal prosecutor who may have withheld evidence in order to secure a conviction.

But none of that mattered at this moment. In a few hours, his wife was dropping him off at his new residence, more than 600 miles away from home.

Mark and I met in college when I was a freshman at the University of Missouri and he was a sophomore, in the fall of 1988. I was a chatty kid from the north shore of Chicago and he was a more serious, yet adventurous, kid from western Missouri. We had rooms just down the hall from each other and hit it off immediately. We instantly became social chairs of our floor, organizing off-campus parties with a very simplistic business plan: get our guests as drunk as possible as cheaply as we could. Mark was always good at crunching the numbers. I was good at mixing the party punch. Like any good partnership, we knew our strengths.

We had lost touch over the years, as what happens with college friends. Two years ago, Mark called me up and said he was in some trouble. He was an office manager for his older brother, who was a successful West Missouri surgeon. The feds were after them, saying they had intentionally diverted income to avoid paying taxes. He said he didn't do it, but the feds didn't believe him. Neither did a judge.

And now, tonight, he was driving to Alabama to go to jail.

"How big is your cell going to be?" I asked.

"It's actually a cubicle" he said. "10x10."

"Will you have a roommate?" I asked.

"Yeah," he responded, with the cell phone cackling. "We've even got our own locker and a desk. We're not that closely supervised. It could be worse."

I paused. "Right. Unless you're stuck with Jan Zee."

Jan was a beastly size of a man who shared our hallway freshman year. A medical student from Tennessee, he was legendary for leaving 24 oz bottles filled with dip juice all over his dorm room floor.

Mark chuckled at the memory.

I then asked him about his children. He has an 11-year-old son and 9-year-old daughter who are going to be without a father for the next year.

"What did you say to your kids?" I said.

"I told them their dad got accused of something he didn't do and has to go away for awhile," said Mark. "I asked my son 'have you ever been in a situation at school when a buddy was talking to you and your teacher thought it was you and you got in trouble?' He said 'yes, dad. My teacher told me I shouldn't have been listening to him.' That's what happened to me, son."

Mark said while his children don't fully grasp what is happening to their family--how could they?--he was very proud of both of them. He would be home before they knew it. Be sure to honor their mother, he told them, and each other. Family is all you have.

He was nearing the hospital, so we had to wrap it up.

"Will you have a phone or email address inside?" I asked.

"Yeah, I'll be given an email address and phone access. Three hundred minutes a month," he said.

"Be sure to shoot me an email when you can, OK?" I said.

"I will." He responded.

We hung up, but before we did, I told him I would try and visit him. I meant it. I then went back to my boxes and the routine of life.

I wish Mark had the ability to do the same.