Longtime friend's wit, smarts helped him stand in a select circle


Tom Kirvan
Legal News, Editor-in-Chief

Three weeks ago, a treasured friend died at age 70, just four months after he began treatment for an aggressive form of lymphoma.

His rapid decline during that period was startling, accelerated by a chemo bombardment that he was unable to withstand in preparation for a planned bone marrow transplant. When I last saw him several days before he died, Dave Laidlaw was a mere shadow of himself, ravaged physically and emotionally by a disease that spares precious few of its victims.

If my math is correct, I knew Dave for 41 years. It took me about 25 years before I could tell when he was being serious.

A longtime emergency room physician, Dave was a master of the “sarcastic,” which was his disarming way of breaking the ice on the road to developing a lasting friendship.

We first met in the early ’80s when my former wife Anne and I were house-sitting at one of the most beautiful homes in town, perched on a bluff overlooking a millpond. 

Anne and I enjoyed that house-sitting assignment – which had the added benefit of being rent-free – for the better part of a year.

And then something happened. On a warm weekend day, we were notified that someone had made an appointment to see “OUR” house. Anne and I were a bit miffed at having our weekend routine interrupted, but we hurriedly tidied up the place and walked down the street to her parents’ home, later catching a glimpse of the would-be house buyers.

They looked young. Mid to late 20s at the most, we surmised.

“No way,” we thought, “will they ever be able to afford that house,” especially since they also appeared to be looking at the adjoining lot, which would only add to the high price tag.

But buy it they did, bringing an unceremonious end to our house-sitting assignment.

Much to our surprise, being uprooted had an unexpected benefit. We quickly became friends with that young couple, by the names of Mary and Dave, two rising health care professionals who shared many of our leisure time interests.

So, as radio legend Paul Harvey was prone to say, “Now you know the rest of the story.”

But that is just part of the story. The heart of it was the joy of getting to know Mary and Dave, and watching their careers flourish and their family grow in the years ahead. 

Their three children – Erin, Kevin, and Lizzy – embody the best of their parents, and that was never more evident than in the past few months when they joined forces in support of their dad – and mom. 

Dave was not one to ask for help, but in this case, he desperately needed it and they delivered. That was a most beautiful thing. 

Equally beautiful during Dave’s life was his willingness to offer help, whether as a doctor, a parent, a husband, a son, a brother, an uncle, a mentor, a philanthropist, or as a friend.

Sometimes his help would come in mysterious ways, as I discovered not long after becoming a bachelor again. Within a few weeks of beginning my new journey, I was surprised to find the latest edition of “Bon Appetit” in my mailbox. A week or so later, a special package arrived, this time containing a hard-bound volume of easy-to-follow recipes for wannabe cooks. Dave, when questioned, disavowed any knowledge, but his fingerprints were all over those capers.

Unlike Dave, I was more than willing to receive help, and he gladly dispensed it, whether with a home improvement project, a community service need, or a bit of doctorly advice.

But I also learned something very odd about such a learned man, a fellow with an Einstein-like IQ who had an almost Encyclopedic knowledge of virtually any subject. As his son Kevin said of his dad, he was “Google before there was Google.”

With one exception.

Despite his brilliance, Dave had a difficult time finding his way home at night from a U-M basketball game. For whatever reason, it turned out to be his Kryptonite. At first, I thought it was just another of his lame jokes, and then I discovered it ranked as his most serious malady, one that dogged him for the better part of 40 Wolverine seasons.

Yet, as shortcomings go, that doesn’t even rate a blip on the Richter scale. 

What does rate was his strength of character, his concern for others, and his deep love for his family, topped off by Mary. 

Mary has been an inspiration to me – and countless others – for many years, volunteering her time and talents for virtually every good cause in the community. Twenty years ago, Mary was honored as the “Citizen of the Year” in recognition of her exemplary charitable work. It is an award that should be named in her honor for all that she has done – and continues to do – to make this community a special place to live.

And “live” is what her husband Dave did, placing value on every opportunity to learn, to laugh, and to explore. His life odyssey was one for the memory books, as was my joy in sharing such a large portion of it with an amazing friend. 

I have just one more story to share about Dave, which I’m sure he won’t mind me doing. It revolves around the dance floor, where neither Dave nor I was known to sparkle.

As such, early in our respective marriages, we were encouraged by our spouses to take ballroom dance lessons with them. “Encouraged” might not be the proper term. Actually, as I recall, it was phrased more in terms of an ultimatum: Either take dance lessons or spend the next six months sleeping on the couch.

Obviously, we got the message. Little did we know, however, that it would prove to be a fateful decision, one where Dave and I would meet our Waterloo.

Our dance instructor, a heretofore unnamed woman from Ann Arbor, quickly became frustrated by two male students who couldn’t get it through their thick skulls on how to do the fox trot. 

Consequently, her solution was to give our wives a break from getting their feet stepped on by pairing Dave and I with each other on the dance floor. In theory, it seemed like a brilliant piece of teaching strategy. In theory . . .

First, I got to lead. Then Dave was given his turn. Needless to say, it didn’t go well, except to provide the class – and especially our wives – with some much-needed comic relief. 

On the other hand, that aborted lesson with my dance partner Dave did end up serving a higher purpose. It somehow became the flash point for cementing our friendship, a friendship and a friend that I now will miss dearly for the rest of my life.

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