You never know where you are going to find good friends. Maybe it is someone you grew up with or met at school or worked with. Or maybe it was just a guy walking up the street, like Tom Horton.
In one of life’s ironies, Tom lived on one of end of our block-long street and I lived on the other, yet we were never in each other’s home. Still, we became good friends and rare was a day that we didn’t talk.
Tom walked the neighborhood most every day, a group of one-block cul-de-sacs. No matter where I was headed or how late I was likely to be, I stopped, rolled down the window and we had a chat about any and all kinds of things. Many times, it was about my latest column. (He was always kind in his reviews.) Sometimes, we talked about the football fortunes of his alma mater, Georgia Tech, and of mine at the University of Georgia.
You can learn a lot about somebody even if you only see them walking the up the street. Tom Horton was quite an athlete in his younger days at Screven County High School in east Georgia. Good enough to be named to the school’s Hall of Fame. Only, he never told me that. I found it out later.
He did tell me that one of the first people to recruit him to play in college was a guy by the name of Vince Dooley. “Coach Dooley had just arrived at the University of Georgia and contacted me about coming to Athens,” he told me one day. “I was flattered, but my dream was to play for Bobby Dodd.”
Bobby Dodd was the legendary coach at Georgia Tech. When Coach Dodd came calling, Horton said he wanted to be sure that the coach would be there for his college career, should he sign with the Yellow Jackets. Dodd said he would. Tom Horton signed. Dodd retired. Horton never got to fully live that dream.
If he regretted that decision, he never said so. He was proud to have played football at Georgia Tech and to have been a letterman, but it wasn’t something he talked about a lot. He didn’t talk a lot about his career, either, and a distinguished one it was.
Tom Horton was a communications officer in the Air Force and retired as a colonel. During his military service, he served as the executive assistant for the Joint Chiefs of Staff and commanded several assignments overseas and stateside. After his retirement from the Air Force, he spent 20 years at his alma mater, serving as chief of staff at the Georgia Tech Research Institute and a variety of other responsibilities there.
He had someone he wanted me to meet in the Georgia Tech athletic offices who he thought I would enjoy getting to know. On more than one occasion, Tom told me that he was going to set that lunch up. He never got the chance.
I found out last week that Tom Horton had died suddenly after a brief illness. I was devastated at the news. I realize I won’t be seeing him walk up our street again. There will be no more friendly waves. I won’t be stopping the car (even though I am running late) to ask him how he thinks Georgia Tech’s new football coach will do. I won’t be getting a column critique and won’t be giving him a sneak preview of next week’s targets. I have lost a good friend. And the world has lost a good man.
Over my long life, I have become cynical about friendships. Regrettably, most were a mile wide and an inch deep. When I was vice president at BellSouth and could hire staff, consultants, PR firms and advertising agencies, I had a host of friends. When I retired, I found they glommed onto my successor.
When I was appointed a managing director of the 1996 Centennial Olympic Games, I picked up a new set of friends wanting a piece of the action. When the flame was extinguished and the circus had left town, so did a lot of that crowd.
Today, there are those friends in politics and elsewhere who are aware this column goes from one end of this state to the other and that my opinions have impact. When this latest iteration of my life is over, I have no illusions about how many of these friends will remain.
That is what made my friendship with Tom Horton special. It wasn’t based on a what benefit might accrue for either of us from the relationship. We simply liked each other. Those kinds of friends are hard to find and are to be cherished when you do. This good friend I found walking up the street and I will miss him deeply.