My friend Chris Farlekas died last week. He was 86.
I never knew either of my grandfathers, and my last living grandparent, Grammie, passed away when I was 9. So it’s always been convenient, when trying to explain the role that Chris has played in my life, to start by saying he’s sort of an adoptive grandfather. But that never seemed quite right to me.
I think it’s because grandfather-with-quotes implies a certain directionality of the relationship that just wasn’t there. Your “grandfather” is your old neighbor you got to know because he made lemonade for you in the summer, or the guy you met while volunteering at the nursing home that you called gramps for fun until it kind of stuck. In these cases, you’re the one doing the adopting. That wasn’t the case with Chris and me. Besides, he called me brother.
There’s also the problem of calling him “my” adoptive grandfather. Because it would be absurd for me to suggest I’m feeling uniquely devastated right now. But here’s where words fail me. Because I can’t figure out a way to convey the superhuman reach of this man’s life.
Korean War medic. Civil Rights marcher (and near martyr). Vietnam War correspondent. Community journalist. Community activist. Local arts patron. Domestic abuse counselor and interventionist. Literal saver of lives. Figurative saver of lives. Emergency shelter provider. Minister. Friend, son, brother, spiritual healer. In 46 years at our local paper, the Times Herald-Record, Chris had interviews ranging from Joe DiMaggio to Henry Kissinger to the Dalai Lama. There were books in his house signed to him by people who were famous when my parents were kids. When I got into Dartmouth he took me to meet Frank Gilroy ’50, Pulitzer and Tony Award winner, whose grandson Sam would also be in my class. I think he met the pope once. Jean Paul II, that is.
Our town was not big enough for this man’s love. And yet he never got too big for us. In semi-retirement from the Record, Chris took up the promotion of local high school and amateur theater. That’s how I met him. Or first became aware of him, I guess. I was in my high school auditorium watching a full dress rehearsal for Hello, Dolly! and I noticed an old man walking around stage taking pictures 3 feet in front of the actors’ faces. That’s just how Chris operated. He wasn’t shy about inserting himself into a scene.
It would be two years before Chris inserted himself into my life. That year we were doing Jesus Christ Superstar and one evening I went over to our Jesus – Pat Dunn’s – house. Chris was there, dropping off a pie, I think, which even if wrong is as reasonable a guess as any since Chris was also a prolific baker. I think after he left we were going to play poker, but I don’t really remember any of that. I remember that evening as the moment Chris decided he wanted to get to know me. We talked for a few minutes at a booth in the Dunns’ basement. All the while he studied my face. “You have a really big nose,” he said, finally. “It’s true, I do.” “What do you think is the greatest song ever written?”
For all the impact Chris had, for all that he gave to the community, when people talk or write about him I think they miss one of his most important qualities. Some people are really good at making you feel they’re interested in what you have to say, listening intently as you share, over time, stories that build an understanding of who you are. Chris, though, would know everything important about you after a 5-minute conversation. It happened with me, when a week after our first meeting he sent me a book via my school’s musical director that perfectly captured how I aspired to approach life. I saw it again with my mom, when he met my parents for the first time (at our house; he brought an apple pie). The conversation was meandering easily until he turned to my mom and asked her a question about her past so pointed and relevant it brought tears to her eyes.
How he would think to ask such a question has to this day been a mystery to me. I asked him about it once or twice, and he explained it by saying that in Korea, he had to decide very quickly whom he could trust with his life, and whom he couldn’t. So he learned to understand people’s character quickly. But I think there was more to it than that. I still don’t know how religious I am, but seeing Chris cut through all the barriers people put up between themselves and the rest of the world, minutes after meeting them, well, it felt like watching someone work a miracle every time.
I’ve been thinking a lot about all the times I saw Chris, and I wish I’d written things down as we’d gone along because it would make one heck of an eclectic list. There was the time we had dinner with the Bruderhof community in Walden; the time we watched a rehearsal of a play Sam Wright (Mufasa in The Lion King on Broadway; you’d also know him as Sebastian in The Little Mermaid; Chris knew him as a friend) was directing in…I want to say Fishkill; a bizarre but beautiful silent film we saw in Newburgh about Franciscan monks; lunches because some restaurant wanted to give him lunch and he wanted to talk; benefits at local communities and churches, including one to raise money to replace the stained glass at a church that had burned down… and at so many of these things, I got to meet some of the other people in Chris’s universe. It felt almost like being a member of a very special club; Friends of Chris is the foundation that will now carry on his work. But there was always this thing that passed between people introduced by Chris. You’d just know, as you extended your hand, this person was either exceptionally good, exceptionally interesting, exceptionally vulnerable, or some combination of these. Occasionally Chris would clue me in ahead of time. “We’re going to see a veteran with PTSD,” he’d say. Other times it was a young kid who’d gotten kicked out of his house and was living in one of Chris’s spare bedrooms.
So yes, it was an awfully big club. One time when I was at his house on Gardner Avenue in Middletown, I noticed a water stain spreading across his living room ceiling. The thing about giving away all your income is that you live on a razor thin margin, and I was concerned about how Chris was going to get this fixed. But all he wanted to talk about was the show he was producing the next week to raise money for the poor. We were heading out to Middletown’s Paramount Theater to confirm some details. As we hopped into his old red Pontiac convertible, I said, “Chris, you really need to get that ceiling taken care of.” I’m not even sure he heard me. But the next time I was at the house, the stain was gone, the plumbing repaired. When you touch thousands of hearts, at least a few are bound to belong to contractors and plumbers.
Even ten years ago, as I was preparing to graduate high school, Chris’s health was in jeopardy. Doctors at one point told him he was down to about 22% heart function, and gave him anywhere between months and a few years to live. So it was hard to leave him, when I went to college, not knowing how he’d be. But we spoke regularly. After all, he told me before I left that if I didn’t do something amazing with my life, “I’ll find you and kick your ass.” So I was pretty excited to tell him when I decided to sign up for Bike and Build, a bike trip across America to raise money and awareness for affordable housing. I remember intending to not even mention my fundraising requirement to him, as I knew he had other priorities back home. But he got around me. “Here’s what I’m going to do,” he said, on that very same phone call. “I’ve been saving money for a trip to London, but I want you to have it instead. It’s $1,000.” He wouldn’t take no for an answer. Not even with the knowledge that might have been his last chance to see London. For a man known for giving up entire paychecks to serve others, I’m not even sure this particular act of generosity stood out.
It’s hard, being here in China, trying to understand I’ll never see Chris again. But I think the hardest thing is this feeling that now no one else will get to discover him, to appreciate who he is. Reading the above I feel I’ve failed miserably in capturing what he meant to just me, one person. The whole world ought to know what we lost last week.
Chris did make it to London, by the way, with the support of another friend. In fact he lived for another 10 years after telling me his time was limited. And even after Bike and Build he wasn’t done giving. In December 2006 he sponsored a benefit concert I organized for my friend Marianna, again without a second’s hesitation, though this time I came asking for help. And from college until I left for China he served admirably in the role of chief girlfriend screener, though he never did tell me what he really thought until the relationships were over. So maybe he failed a little bit on that end. But I don’t really know how to deal with the fact I’ll never get to introduce him to anyone again. Maybe this piece can help, just a little bit.
I want to wrap this up nice and neatly, but to me that would imply closure and I don’t think I’m there yet. If you want to read a little more about Chris, I found this piece in the Record that is much better written than his obituary. And if you’re reading this from home, look out for a celebration of life ceremony in June. Chris always said for his funeral he’d want his friends to put on a show, and for the entry fee would be donations for the poor.
Chris will have his ashes interred at the Orange County Veterans Memorial Cemetery, with full military honors.