As a writer, words are my tools but also, sometimes, my weakness. For instance, I tend to describe people whom I like or admire as “characters.” I think the term suggests they play fascinating roles in life, but sometimes I’ve been called on it. Once, I wrote a story on a fringe gubernatorial candidate who had died after years of quixotic campaigning. I was interviewing the man’s daughter and referred to him as “a colorful character.” She grew silent, then informed me, sharply, “He was not a ‘character.’ He was a real person!”
As 2008 ends, I find myself remembering three real people who died this year who were also, in every sense of the word, important, colorful characters in my life.
Phil Englehardt, aka Motorcyleman, passed away in July. He wrote for me from time to time, but most times he came by the office to tell me about his David-and-Goliath battles for his beloved Honey Bee Donut Shop in Hampton, or else relate some fantastic plan he had cooking. He pulled a few of those off, notably writing two remarkable works of escapist fiction and starting a local publishing company that continues to foster the hopes and dreams of dozens of ambitious authors.
Al Sprague, an old friend and colleague, was owner of the Bedford Granite Group, a consummate ad man, occasional thespian and a self-described “arrogant S.O.B.” His health had been bad for a while and he had kept a low profile, so it was a shock to learn he had died so quietly. Particularly for someone who relished life and had so many friends. But as is often the case with larger than life figures, the man within had a great sense of perspective and a deep streak of (don’t haunt me for saying it, Al) sincerity. For all Al’s bluster and hype, he knew how to offer an encouraging word or a genuine compliment better than just about anyone.
Lothar Patten was a formerly homeless man who became one of Portsmouth’s most famous residents with a documentary movie role and his series of hand-written books of observations like “The Diary of a Nice Man.” Lothar loved and was loved by his city. He loved riding around it on his bike and paying attention to its every detail, but his big heart gave out and now, I assume, he’s spending more time with the friendly ghosts and angels who sometimes accompanied him, appearing as shafts of light. The rest of us will miss him. About 400 turned out for his funeral in December.
All three of these late friends of mine were about my age, a reminder that life is short. This year, more than ever, seems like a great time to contemplate that fact, start over and correct course. So I hereby resolve to be more considerate of others and choose my words more carefully, but I also intend to continue to surround myself with characters like the ones above. Their stories, along with hundreds more I’ve encountered over the years, give me a firm resolution to look past the surface of the characters in my life and recognize the real persons within.
This article appears in the January 2009 issue of New Hampshire Magazine