Rhode Island andLife Long Friendships – Published in the Providence Journal

BY JIM RAFTUS
jraftus@aol.com
Tonight I will be attending a high school 50th reunion. More than 2 million high school seniors across the country graduated in 1964, so I am not alone in participating in this ritual.
Here’s what will make my night somewhat different and Rhode Island-centric.
While there will be plenty of “not quite certain who that guy is” moments, I’ll be seated at a table with several graduates I’ve stayed close friends with since September 1952, on the first day of first grade at St. Leo’s School, in Pawtucket. In fact, a few of them — Bill, Steve and Ed — are often part of my regular golfing foursome. We’ve remained buddies for 62 years.
When I tell folks, especially non-Rhode Islanders, that my foursome consists of mostly friends from first grade they are incredulous. My joking reply to their response is, “Yeah, we can’t decide if we are really loyal or really boring.”
What we really are is Rhode Islanders. I’m convinced that there is something unique to our native Ocean State that tends to cultivate long-term relationships.
In our younger days, the boundaries of parochial school parishes herded us together during these important formative years. The parish school and church were links that bound us together. We navigated the influences, good and bad, of the nuns and priests as a united group.
Left to our own devices during non-school hours, we poured our energy into traditional sandlot and playground sports: baseball, football and basketball.
A few months ago, relaxing at the 19th hole after a round of golf, we reminisced about a “two-on-two” basketball league we organized between the summer of our seventh and eighth grades. My team happened to go undefeated. Steve insisted that it was only because I “towered over all of them.” I am 6-foot-4. I let him keep this fantasy for a week.
The following Saturday, as we sat on the porch overlooking the 18th green, I unrolled, like an old biblical scripture, a faded, crinkled copy of the St. Leo’s graduation class of 1961 photo. There, standing in the second row, separated only by a girl I don’t remember, Steve “towers” over me by at least a full inch. You see, I sprouted three inches the summer after this photo was taken.
Rhode Island’s most often noted feature, being the smallest state in the Union, certainly is a factor in the long-term maintenance of friendships. We are long since removed from the Pawtucket of our youths, “scattered” all around the state: Cumberland, Barrington, West Kingston and East Greenwich. (Scattered being a relative term that folks from other, larger states would find laughable.) Most importantly for our needs, we can all easily find our way to whatever golf course we want to conquer in Rhode Island.
We went to different colleges: Providence College, Bryant and Rhode Island College. We’ve served in the military, Vietnam and Alaska. We’ve had careers: education, finance, insurance and marketing. We’ve attended each other’s weddings, our children’s weddings and funerals for our parents, all now gone.
It has been a long, mostly blessed, journey. Although more than five decades removed, I can still recall the climb up the back stairs to Bill’s family’s apartment in a no-longer-existing building behind Howell Smith’s Drugstore on the corner of Newport and Central Avenues. I can still hear his wonderful mother’s hearty, infectious laugh.
Times have changed. A more mobile society, instant international communication methods and, in general, a more frenetic lifestyle seem to have made such long-term close-proximity friendships less viable. I know my children, while still in contact with old chums via social media, have established newer lives and friends in new locations.
Oddly enough, the reunion my wife and I will be attending, St. Raphael’s Class of ’64, is not the high school I graduated from. Financial circumstances at the time forced me to transfer after my sophomore year, but so strong is the bond with my friends that I’m always invited back to school functions.
So, while I’ll be saying plenty of, “Wow, I haven’t seen you for 50 years,” I’ll also, happily, end the evening with, “See you next week, 8:30 tee time.”
Jim Raftus (jraftus@aol.com) is a retired marketing executive who lives in Cumberland.

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