By Dan Conaway
I once met Bob Hope.
He was appearing on campus, and my roommate and I thought it might be a good idea to make him an honorary member of our frat. Why? Well, we’d heard his son was an ATO at Arizona. And I was the public information officer for the chapter. And we’d had a lot of beer. And … aw, what the hell … so we climbed a fire escape and through the window into the hall of a hotel and knocked on his suite door. Amazingly, he came to the door. I gave him my pin, and he graciously accepted it and shut the door. It never occurred to either of us to bring a camera, or that I would never see my pin again, or that absolutely no one would believe us, or that drunk is no way to climb a fire escape. But Bob and I had that memory. Not Bob Hope, the honorary ATO, but Bob Alley, the roommate. Hope’s theme song, Thanks for the Memory, is all too appropriate.
The memory of a 17-year-old kid from Florida who had never seen snow, and when he did see it way up on a mountain on our ATO pledge retreat at Tuckaleechee, he stole the faculty advisor’s car, drove as far up there as he could, and walked the rest of the way to play in it. The memory of him taking me for a cup of coffee at Dunkin’ Donuts in Fort Lauderdale. In his plane. Flying low over Miami Beach just after dawn and so low over the Everglades you felt you could reach out and touch the waving sea of grass. We laughed a lot. A couple of years ago, I delivered a eulogy for Bob Alley. Fraternity brother, college roommate, best friend.
Maybe you believe that connections like that are never broken and become permanent residents in a greater eternal consciousness. Or maybe, upon reading that last sentence, you’d say what Bob would, “Oh, please.” But I believe this: We don’t lose people like that; we gain from having known them, we grow from the experiences shared, we own the memories, and we know we were and can be special markers in the lives of others, parts of other families, parts, in fact, of other people. When they go, unfairly young or fairly relieved of pain, a part of us goes as well. We can take comfort in what remains. In the things you think of—in family and friends still here, in the twinkle in a baby’s eye and a new ripple in the gene pool—but also in long-familiar things you might not think about much.
And be thankful for the whole ride.
This time of year every year, some of us who started that ride together in Knoxville decades ago get together and fire up the engines again. I’m thankful that we can laugh so hard at stories from a lifetime ago that they still brighten the lifetime lived since. Bob’s not there, but, of course, Bob is there. He’s there when one of us remembers launching a butt-ugly Mercury Comet off a barricade and taking it airborne 150 feet across Alcoa Highway and into frat history. He’s there when we recall one of us falling asleep in a plate of ribs. If I hadn’t turned his head to the side, I’m pretty sure he would have drowned in the sauce. He’s there when we recognize another of us who still holds the unofficial UT “Shot Down in Flames Award” for most unsuccessful phone calls trying to land a date. Bob is there because Bob was there. And the stories are there. On a beach in North Carolina. On a porch in Georgia. On a river in Tennessee. Engineers, an artist, an ad man, a lawyer, a business owner and entrepreneur. Husbands, fathers, grandfathers. Survivors now, we’re lucky to be alive and very lucky to have stories and laughter—and friendships—like that to share.
We didn’t lose Bob Alley. We found him and each other 47 years ago at the University of Tennessee.
Dan Conaway graduated from UT Knoxville in 1971 with a B.S. in communications, a strong like of Smoky Mountain Market cheese dogs and a strong dislike of three-draw plays and a punt. He lives in Memphis and is a communication consultant, columnist and author of the book, I’m a Memphian, a collection of his columns and posts. Visit him at wakesomebodyup.com.
Featured Photo: (From left to right) College friends Bob Alley (Knoxville ’71), King Rogers (Knoxville ’69), David Sims (Knoxville ’69) Dan Conaway (Knoxville ’71), Steve Larkin (Knoxville ’70) and Ken Clayton (Knoxville ’70, ’74) at a recent annual gathering.