As I hiked the trails in the McDowell Mountains overlooking Phoenix during the first week of January, I thought back to a friendship I made 45 years ago with a guy from Phoenix named Larry Londen. Larry and I were theology students in Kansas trying to figure out life. We drank coffee in an all-night café and argued about the meaning of the Bible.
Larry was opinionated and hard-headed. He also was open-hearted and gave people a wide berth, including me. I needed a friend like that. When spring break rolled around in 1976, Larry asked me to drive with him from Kansas to Phoenix to meet his family. We drove through the night and much of the next day, before pulling into the entrance of the exclusive Biltmore Estates in north Phoenix.
Larry hadn’t told me that his father was the founder and CEO of a successful insurance company or that his mother was the first woman ever to head the Republican party in Arizona. After Larry showed his pass at the gated Biltmore Estates, we pulled up to a lavish home that featured a waterfall in the middle of the house flowing through desert plants. I had my own room and bath. A sliding glass door took me from the bedroom onto its own patio.
The full-time maid took me under her wing, and Larry’s parents and brothers were great. This kid from a working-class family in a little town in northwestern Kansas was in tall cotton that week.
One evening Jack Londen, Larry’s dad, puffed on a cigar and tried to recruit me to be an insurance agent for his company. He said, “I can see that you are a talented and sincere young man. You finish your theology studies up there in Kansas and then come out here. If you work hard, and follow my plan, you will do very well financially. The sky is the limit. There are a lot of great churches here in the valley, too. You’ll fit right in.”
Jack Londen was charming, confident and insistent. At one point he asked what I thought of Jimmy Carter, the man running on the Democratic ticket for the presidency in 1976.
I said, “I like what I see.”
“What? Now don’t tell me you’d ever vote for a Democrat,” said the man whose wife was the chairperson of the Arizona Republican party. In fact, 1976 was the first presidential election I ever voted in. Jack Londen never knew that I voted for Carter.
Life goes just one direction and I became a campus pastor at the UI, not an insurance man in Phoenix. I went east, not southwest. Fortunately, I stayed connected to the Valley of the Sun by marrying a young blonde beauty from Phoenix, now my wife of 41-and-a-half years. Jennifer loves to return to the desert, bask in the sun and hike in the mountains surrounding Phoenix.
Back in the summer of 2017, Jennifer and I spent nine weeks in Phoenix while I studied at Phoenix Seminary. The condo we rented was next to Paradise Memorial Gardens. What I didn’t know until last week is that my old friend’s parents are both buried there. Doris died in 2006 and Jack in 2015. Their graves are just 100 yards from the condo Jennifer and I rented. Last week I found their graves and paid my respects.
Sadly, my old friend Larry died more than 25 years ago out in California. Before I met him, Larry struggled with substance abuse. He was open about it and told everyone who would listen how he found Jesus and put the life of a drug addict behind him.
In the early 90s, Larry phoned me out of the blue one day from California. It had been nearly 15 years since we had talked. Larry said he was married and had a 10-year-old son. He and his son were going to take a cross-country road trip, and Larry wanted to stop in Urbana and see me.
Larry said he would call back with the details. He never did. I forgot about it until a few months later when another friend who knew both Larry and me called to say that Larry had died. He had no other details. Immediately I called the insurance company in Phoenix headed by Jack Londen to offer my condolences.
When I asked Mr. Londen what happened, he said, “I don’t know.”
“I am so sorry,” was all I could say.
With the advent of the Internet, I have tried to look up Larry’s obituary but never found anything. There may never have been one. This week when I visited the graves of his parents, I thought back to the days when Larry and I became friends in 1975. Even though our friendship spanned just two years, I haven’t forgotten him, and last week in Arizona I was grateful for the chance to revisit those memories.