Farewell to a sweet and memorable friend

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Early this week, it fell to me to tell the other members of my Friday lunch quartet that our friend, Bill Korber, was dead.

The bewilderment my friends felt was followed by sadness and regret. It had been more than a year since the four of us broke bread together.

There had been no falling out. Our friendship had been very much intact before Bill died, but our daily circumstances had changed, making the Friday lunches that began in 2006 more of an ordeal to arrange. Gary W. and Karamagi left the Post-Gazette to pursue opportunities more in line with their personalities. Bill retired from his job as a PG ad salesman in 2008 to follow his own version of bliss. I'm still here, the last of our ink-stained crew.

"He was such a sweet guy," Karamagi and Gary said independently of each other, repeating a mantra that would echo all week as word of Bill's death spread through the building.

Our lunches together had sometimes been heated affairs, with voices raised more than once in crowded restaurants in Squirrel Hill, Regent Square or East Liberty, accompanied by derisive laughter and vigorous head shaking. We all may have been liberals at that table, but we had profoundly different takes on what needed to be done to restore some semblance of justice in America.

Of the four of us, Bill was the first to support the unlikely presidential candidacy of then-Sen. Barack Obama. Because Bill was a Buddhist, his opinion was impractical and a little dreamy, according to our cynical calculus at the time.

It was much more likely, we insisted in 2008, that Hillary Rodham Clinton or John Edwards would lead the Democrats to victory over inevitable GOP presidential nominee Rudy Giuliani.

But Bill smiled his omnipresent smile. In the face of hundreds of years of American history, he had only one rejoinder: "No, fellas, I really think Barack Obama can win if he gets the nomination."

All we could do was laugh him under the table until the American electorate vindicated his crazy prophecy a year later. He never gloated about being right. With our track record, he was never tempted to defer to our collective powers of prognostication, either.

Bill was the only military veteran in our group. He served in Vietnam from 1966 to 1968, an experience that haunted him decades later despite his gentle and easy-going demeanor. He spoke obliquely of his time there, but it was clear that his devotion to Buddhism, vegetarianism and nonviolence was a reaction to what he'd experienced as a young Army private from Yukon in Westmoreland County.

To anyone who was eavesdropping, it must have seemed like a chapter out of "The Brothers Karamazov" when the four of us got together for lunch. Gary, Karamagi and I would, through no great effort on our part, mimic the characteristics of the loud-mouthed sensualist Dmitri, the religious cynic Ivan or the clan's dissolute father, Fyodor Karamazov. Bill was always Alyosha, the good-hearted novice monk at the heart of Dostoyevsky's greatest novel.

We'd go to fancy or exotic restaurants in the East End and all Bill would eat was rice, soup, vegetarian dishes or tofu. The rest of us would devour meat-based dishes in front of him with little regard for his sensibilities. He was such a saint, he thought our passive aggression was funny.

While Bill was a very good salesman, he wasn't the kind of guy who ever got in anyone's face. He preferred to move through a room without attracting attention. It doesn't surprise me that some folks who didn't interact with him directly have a hard time recalling what he looked like.

For a 71-year-old, Bill exhibited the same youthful energy and defiance of age as the pre-stroke Dick Clark. Like the founder of "American Bandstand," he drew a lot of inspiration from classic and contemporary rock and roll. He refused to age appropriately in his musical tastes.

"What music are you listening to these days?" Bill asked me each time we met. I'd rattle off a bunch of obscure bands, knowing full well he'd download them a few hours later. If he had any ego at all, it was in a desire to never be considered a square.

Our group had its last meal together at a Chinese restaurant in Squirrel Hill called KaMei, one of Bill's favorites. We had a good time, but because of our schedules, it was hard to organize. The next time we get together, when it will be in Bill's honor, we will be full of regret at not having tried hard enough.

Namaste, Bill Korber.

tonynorman

Tony Norman: tnorman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1631. Twitter: @TonyNormanPG.


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