Robert B. Simpson: Coy and the Joes

September 8, 2013 

The lives of three college friends illustrated for me a lesson of immense importance, and I only realized it in recent years. When I now read comments on social media, or letters to the editor, or hear callers on talk radio, I think of the three and what I learned from them.

The two Joes were not at all alike. And Coy was not like either Joe. The dark-haired Joe was a classmate in a couple of my English classes, and we enlisted in the U.S. Army Reserve together. He was soft-spoken, laid back, slow-moving, and funny. I wouldn't have called him "driven," by any means. I liked him a lot, but I doubted he would set the world on fire after graduation.

The light-haired Joe was a ministerial student, already ordained, fixed in his theology, and unbending. We had worked together at a restaurant in town. Men's dorm space was extremely limited at Wake Forest in those years, and most male students lived in rooms in private homes around town. When my basement room flooded one time too many, I filled a vacancy in Joe's three-man room upstairs in a large house just off campus for two semesters, until I wangled a free room beside a basement coal bin and furnace downtown. In the meantime, we got along fine, but only by not discussing religion. I couldn't see the light-haired Joe becoming a great success as a preacher.

When a vacancy opened again, Coy moved in. Handsome, great smile, straight teeth. And he had a personality to match. Sad to say, he had been terribly crippled by polio. His slight build was bent to one side as he walked, one leg partly shriveled and the foot turned sideways and dragging. His right arm hung like a shrunken pendulum at his side, muscles atrophied, only the hand itself responsive. I felt great pity for him and wondered how he could survive in a fast-paced world.

Wanting to be thoughtful, I offered to move from my bottom bunk to the top one when he arrived in the room. No way, Coy said. He grasped the bedrail with his left hand, jerked his right shoulder to swing the shrunken arm up and caught with his right hand, and swung his body to the top bunk like a gymnast.

Coy rarely asked for help. At most, on cold winter days when we started to class, he would grab a stack of books and clasp them under his good arm, I would stuff his right hand in his jacket pocket, and away we'd go. When spring came, and college boys got even goofier, Coy and I would play our game after dinner. We'd open windows at the front and side of the room, then chase each other around the room, out a window, along the roof of the wrap-around porch, and in the other window. We never fell. I never managed to navigate the slippery tin roof any faster than Coy did.

Coy later became a salesman for a large business. I last saw him in his business attire, all cordovan tassel loafers, hounds-tooth sport coat, snap-brim hat, perfectly knotted tie. Driving a two-tone Lincoln. And charming loads of customers.

More than 30 years after I last saw the dark-haired Joe, I heard a familiar voice on "60 Minutes" one Sunday evening and said, instantly, "That's Joe." He had become a highly successful prosecutor in North Carolina, praised by fellow attorneys for his skill, hard-driving approach to his work, and success in prosecuting murder cases. He was known to relax by flying his helicopter high over the city, hovering and meditating.

After 15 more years, I heard another familiar voice. The light-haired, now gray-haired Joe was being interviewed for "Everybody's Got a Story" on CBS. He had never sought the big time, but had worked for a business and, on the side, pastored a small church for decades. When his church started going broke, he had continued to pastor it but stopped taking a salary. His congregation adored this plain, conscientious preacher. I'd been correct when I thought he'd never make the big time. He'd never sought fame and fortune, just the opportunity to follow his calling and to serve others.

Too often today the assumption seems to be that the poor are all lazy, or that the wealthy are all righteous, or that people who are "other" by virtue of skin color, or religion, or national origin are somehow lesser folks than the rest of us. And then I think about the two Joes and Coy, who illustrated so well the old warning about how unwise it is to judge a book by its cover.

Robert B. Simpson, a 28-year Infantry veteran who retired as a colonel at Fort Benning, is the author of "Through the Dark Waters: Searching for Hope and Courage."

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