Monday, April 22, 2013

"Hey Jake, It's Okie"

I can't believe I'm never again going to pick up my phone and hear the words, "Hey Jake, it's Okie."

Rowing has been a part of my life since my senior year of high school in the fall of '84, those long, skinny shells connecting me to the water in a way that I never had before. Then, during college and when the boats started to go faster and with more success, crew connected me to friends in a way that I never had before. Once again, in the 2000s when Tempe Town Lake sprung up in the middle of the Phoenix metro desert, coaching got me back in the sport, and enabled me to understand motivation and how people learn in a way that I never had before.

Joe "Okie" O'Connor was the person who has kept me in the game during that last stretch. For several years on his coaching staff and putting on regattas, I got an education in leading by example. No one I've ever known worked harder in order that other people could grow, challenge themselves, and have fun. Quite often, "Hey Jake, it's Okie" meant that I was going to be busting my butt for a few hours and coming home filthy and/or exhausted. And I wouldn't trade those memories—dropping and pulling buoys, moving docks, rescuing abandoned shells, interminable meetings—for the world.

During this sad, awful week, there are a million tales being told about Okie and what he meant to each of us. But indulge me to share just one more, because it has nothing to do with rowing or the lake, and everything to do with who Okie was.

At our family's annual holiday party a few years back, we had shoveled our two dogs Baloo (age 11) and Bagheera (a puppy) into the garage to keep them out of trouble. At some point, Baloo escaped into the party. And at some point, someone tapped me on the shoulder to let me know the old boy had fallen over on his side and was having a seizure on the kitchen floor.

It wasn't the first time this had happened in his later years, but I could tell the situation wasn't good. Someone brought out his bed. Okie was one of the people who lifted 90-pound Baloo gently onto it, then grabbed one of the four corners of the bed so we could carry him into the bedroom and away from the din of the crowd.

Crouched down on the bedroom floor as if he were comforting his own dog, Okie held one of Baloo's big paws in his hand, and turned to me. "His paws are really cold, Jake," he said. "Do you have a blanket? I think I'd want a blanket if I were him." The next morning, Okie called to check how he was doing. (Made it through the night, though not to New Year's Day.)

So, I have to believe Baloo was there alongside St. Pete to greet you, Okie. God's got his hands full with you, but I'm sure you'll straighten him out right quick. And I'm keeping your number in my phone, because I simply refuse to acknowledge that you're not going to "Hey Jake" me for just one more exhausting, exhilarating day down on the lake.