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A Lifetime of Friends




Excerpted from
Comrades: Brothers, Fathers, Heroes, Sons, Pals
By Stephen E. Ambrose, Ph.D.

Friendships stretch across the horizon-fathers, of course, and sons, as well as wives, career acquaintances of every type, many more. The serendipitous ones come from college, either classmates or students. With them you attend the same classes, read the same books, more or less learn the same things. If you are a male you rush and later join the same fraternity, date the same girls from the same sorority, play on the same teams, all things that lead to a genuine connection. In order to enhance the opportunity for friendship, you must be open and able to reach out and accept an individual throughout your life.

This is true even though it is difficult to maintain a life-long friendship in modern America. I had close friends in high school, but we went to different colleges, then off to different business or graduate schools, then different cities to make a career. We changed jobs often and lost contact. But despite these and other difficulties, I've managed to keep up with and stay close to a few of my college friends, among them Dick Lamm, Jim Wimmer and John Holcomb. In each relationship we had lost close contact during the decades we were making our careers and raising our kids. But around the time we reached fifty years of age we came back together, and it came as easy as slipping on an old pair of favorite shoes. These relationships provide a sense of continuity to my life, a reference point, based on shared memories and experiences along with a desire to do something of merit for our society.

I met Dick Lamm on my first weekend at the University of Wisconsin, in early September 1953, at a rush at the Chi Psi Fraternity Lodge (a rush is a social event at which freshmen look over the fraternity and the brothers-upper-classmen-look over the freshmen. In retrospect it seems barbaric but at the time it seemed important). I was seventeen years old, Dick had just turned eighteen, we were small-town midwestern kids, embarrassingly innocent and naive, full of good intentions and ambition for we knew not what.

After the rush parties, Dick and I went to The Pub, a beer hall on State Street. Neither of us had much experience with drinking-the Wisconsin age limit was then eighteen-but we got started learning how to do it that night, buying beer by the pitcher ($1 per pitcher, ten glasses to a pitcher), knocking it back chugalug style, talking nonstop.

We talked about books, the books teenage boys read in those days-Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Anderson, Faulkner, most of all Thomas Wolfe and You Can't Go Home Again. It was a unique experience for me, I had never before met anyone who read Wolfe.

Wolfe's title spoke to our situation, obviously, and as the beer did its work we grew increasingly maudlin and nostalgic over what we were leaving behind, then about how glad we were to be leaving the small towns behind, how eager we were to embrace whatever.

We received invitations to pledge Chi Psi and accepted. We got started on our educations. By 1956, at the beginning of our senior year, we had moved out of the Chi Psi Lodge and into a two-room apartment over The Pub. It was a year crowded with events and decisions-I got engaged, played football, wrote a senior honors thesis, got accepted into graduate school at Louisiana State University, where I would study under T. Harry Williams. Dick participated in a variety of activities, especially student politics, and got accepted to law school. But in my memory, despite all that near-frenetic activity, all we did that year was talk about books-novels and history books, books on politics and economics.

Following graduation we went our separate ways, as fiercely competitive, hard-driving young men, concentrating on getting ahead. We got our advanced degrees and started our careers. As I climbed the academic ladder, Dick moved to Denver and got into politics, beginning in the state legislature, then on to the governorship. He was twice reelected.

It is pretty nice having a dear friend living in the governor's mansion. I got in the practice of inviting myself and family to spend a night there when we were returning to New Orleans from our camping summers in Montana. We would pull into the driveway in our Chevy pickup, a couple of canoes on top, bulging with camping gear, a Labrador dog, nothing but tee shirts and cutoff blue jeans to wear. Dick and his wife, Dottie, made us feel as comfortable and welcome as if they were a regular couple in a regular home.

But of course it was special. I was writing political history in those years-the years of Vietnam and Watergate-so naturally Dick and I talked politics. We disagreed-he was pro war and I was anti-but our respect for each other grew rather than diminished. He was doing what I could only envy-participating in politics at a high level with great success. I was doing what he envied-writing books on politics.



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