Monday - The Re-Education of Jon Pitts-Wiley: How Many of Us Have Them?
"I haven't been this hype since the '80s."
—Kelechi Okere, referencing the impending wedding of Jonathan Pitts-Wiley
That's the kind of absurd best friend I have. Love the guy because he'd make such a crazy remark; love the guy even more because he meant it. Today is Kelechi's birthday and as I reflect upon 20 years—15 of friendship—I find myself struck by the importance of knowing this man.
First of all, he's on the shortlist of people I admire. I don't mind using a tired cliché in saying he is a person I would want my kid to be like; he's a man of compassion and integrity with a grace he would be well within his rights to forfeit from time to time. On the lighter side of things, he's got a bit of an oddball streak; he's certainly not a weirdo, but he will call me and give me the rundown of WWE Monday Night Raw and wonder if I'm lamenting the retirement of Shawn Michaels. When my dad asked him to be one of the Mechanicals in A Midsummer Night's Dream, he threw himself into the role of Thisbe with gusto. Try to envision a 205-pound defensive back with a body fat percentage somewhere around ten or eleven completely committed to owning the role of a tragic princess and that was Kelechi. As I've written before, he dresses well and exudes a vibe I should probably be jealous of (but am not because I am taller than he is). He's the Nice Guy/Cool Guy combo that makes just about every woman I know ask coyly at some point "So uh...what's up with Kelechi?" If I were a girl, he's the guy I'd weave snatch to be with.
But the above are merely things that make Kelechi special; they don't really speak to why he is important to me; why, after all these years, we still bother. Now, it's easy to chalk it up to "Hey, we're best friends and it is what it is." On some level, that's true; you click with who you click with and to explore it too deeply is to tilt at windmills. But, as we grow up and become men whose lives revolve around more than sleepovers or game tape or college visits or bachelor pads, I recognize my friendship with Kelechi set the tone for many of my adult relationships. I can say I'm able to be a husband now due to much of what we learned then.
Growing up, we had plenty of friends and relationships that shaped our lives and it would be unfair to portray our youth as terribly isolating and adversarial. Still, our connection ran deeper. Throwing the football and running routes in sweltering heat; sitting at the kitchen table talking to our older brothers—whom we both looked up to—discussing issues and always trying to see beyond North Kingstown, Rhode Island; living a life in which we understood the nature of the foxhole and decided early on that we would stick together. Years later, when the straits of The Feath and I were dire, when running would have been the easy thing, I knew I could hunker down and make the foxhole a little bigger.
Kelechi and I had dreams, as kids do. Sitting in his living room, we often discussed going to the same boarding school and then going to Stanford to play football. Ambitious yet doable. But life didn't turn out that way. Kelechi went to school in New Jersey and I stayed closer to home. Barring holidays and summer vacation, we saw each other infrequently and when it came time to choose colleges, I headed off to New Haven while he made his way to Philly. We spent a lot of the years, years where lasting friendships are often forged or broken, apart. Earlier than most, we had to learn to navigate the adult version of friendship; we had to learn what a connection meant in the face of distance and schedule. We had to figure out the friendship of two lives that, largely, did not involve each other; a friendship that was not subject to our wishes at it had seemed in youth. This was our first adult test.
As we lived it, I'm not sure we thought about it on these terms; I think we just sort of adjusted to the realities of our lives without losing sight of the initial connection. Said or unsaid, we never forgot that day in sixth grade on the bleachers before school. We were more casual acquaintances than actual friends, and Kelechi swore up and down that Florida would beat Nebraska in the Fiesta Bowl, while I promised Nebraska's triple option would run roughshod over the Gators (for the record, I was totally right). We rarely discuss the day our friendship turned a corner, the day I was upset that his dad had acted an ass to me and he listened and apologized. I'm not sure he owed me an apology—it was his dad who acted like a jerk—but the humility and caring he expressed affected me. I not only knew this guy was a real friend, I knew he was someone to learn from as well.
I think I only became aware of how our friendship had evolved and endured in college. Having dropped out of Yale and mulling the options that lay before me, I took the time to go to Penn Relays and visit Kelechi at school. Being around friends and a life that didn't involve me was a little strange at first, but I walked away from the weekend having had a great time. As I returned to the drawing board and pondered transferring, I scratched Penn off the list. I'd had a great time, but that was Kelechi's life. And, unwittingly, he showed me it was best to return to mine. Our friendship endures because we understood growing up isn't the same as growing apart.
So, to Kelechi in what marks your 26th year on planet Earth, I want to thank you for not only your friendship, but also for the lessons I could not have learned without you, lessons that helped make me the man I am today.
And as you continue to grow and evolve into a man by whom other men should be measured, just remember: You're still the Chris Doering to my Tommy Frazier.
The odds an adult has ever taken an acting or theater class are 1 in 14.29.
The odds a person lives in Rhode Island are 1 in 289.4.
Related content: " Friends are Real Life-Savers"