A good friend knows all your stories.
A best friend helped you make them.

– Gift shop sign

On Friday, March 20, my best friend Robb “Polaris” Starck died of a massive heart attack in his home in Moon Township, Penn. He was 67. He was survived by Jeanne, his wife of 34 years, his brother, Rick, six children – Richard Strauss of Peyton, Colo., Susan Strauss Osborn of Coraopolis, Penn., Tracy Mehan of Columbus, Ohio, David Strauss of Burgettstown, Penn., Heather Hahn of Apex, N.C., Steve Starck of Bradford Woods, Penn. –17 grandchildren, four great grandchildren and friends all over the world.



It was the end of the summer of 1966 and I was sitting on the porch of the Phantom House in Delaware, Ohio. After less-than-stellar freshman and sophomore years at Ohio Wesleyan, I was back for my junior campaign. College campuses throughout the country were awash with drugs, sex, and anti-Vietnam War and civil rights protests. The Ohio National Guard shooting of protesting students at Kent State, 120 miles northeast of Delaware, wouldn’t happen for another three-and-a-half years, but the cauldron was beginning to boil.

I was characteristically behind the times. In a world of Beatle mops, I still sported the buzz cut my father had given me the night before sending me off to college. I hadn’t seen, much less inhaled, a single wisp of marijuana. My contribution to the civil rights movement pathetically consisted of playing the Temptations and the Supremes over and over on my cheap record player and slamming illegal $1 7-and-7’s at the black-owned Liberty Club across the tracks in Delaware. My only anti-war protest had been to opt out of ROTC, much to my father’s dismay. And most dispiriting at the dawning of the Age of Aquarius and free love, I hadn’t slept with an Ohio Wesleyan co-ed in two bumbling years.

Joining me on the Phantom House porch was a collection of similarly situated outcasts. Most of the Wesleyan upperclassmen lived in posh fraternity houses; the Phantom House was a university-approved outpost for those independent-thinking men (read nerds) who didn’t fit the fraternity mold. No doubt, Kahuna, Beezer, Oney the Lonely, Pomegranate and Mamet (the Turkish exchange student who professed to practice necrophilia) were there that morning when Rob Starck, sporting a spanking new pair of red Chuck Taylor All-Star high tops, putted up to the Phantom House on his “born to be mild” Vespa.

He dismounted the Vespa, revealing an alarmingly scrawny 6-foot-2 frame and strolled up the walk. I was struck by how white he was, as if he’d spent the summer in a warehouse. And poking out of a shock of chestnut hair was one of the most prominent noses (destined to be an ongoing source of Rob’s self-effacing humor) I’d ever seen. He stopped at the foot of the stairs and, without a trace of self-consciousness, said to this imposing congregation, “Hi, guys. I think I’m supposed to be staying here.”

And that, as they say, was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Rob and I were the only Phantomites without roommates. He was assigned a tiny loft in a widow’s peak, which the university must have hastily “discovered” when his father had declared, “There was no fracking way his son was rooming with a bunch of football players under the stadium bleachers.” It seems that Rob was the last student admitted to Wesleyan that year. After a sterling academic and athletic career at Linsly Military Academy, he was all set to attend Parsons College in Iowa until Life magazine ran an article that dubbed the institution (bankrupt and shuttered in 1973) “Flunk Out U.”

I lived in the cavernous basement of the Phantom House. My roommate was the eponymous Phantom himself, whose parents paid for his room while he illegally lived off campus with his recently graduated girlfriend. Dean Wormer, suspecting foul play, periodically popped in unannounced to inquire about the Phantom’s whereabouts. Early practitioners of the ancient code of Omertà, the Phantomites stoically faced the dean and pointed to the library across the street, their reverent expressions indicating that the Phantom spent all his time in a place they themselves had never entered.

And so, Rob, who quickly became known as “Polaris” because of his skill in Dr. Stang’s astronomy class, and I embarked on a friendship based on those prototypical late-night bull sessions – either in the widow’s peak or the basement – in which college students decipher the ways of the world and their place in it. We embraced H.L. Mencken’s “God is a comedian, playing to an audience too afraid to laugh” and spoke of “The Joke” as an explanation of an inexplicable universe. Much later, Rob (changed to Robb when he was baptized in 2014) embraced a completely different understanding of God.
We didn’t return to the Phantom House the next year, but found a couple of off-campus rooms at the ancient widow Mrs. Gary’s house, where we continued those bull sessions and further cemented our sophisticated views of the world. I was finishing up my undistinguished career as an English major and like to think I was responsible for Rob choosing that major. He took to calling me “Frenisson” after Alfred Lord Tennyson.

I graduated in 1968 and headed for Colorado, leaving Polaris to his own devices. In time, we each married, had kids and began careers. We stayed in touch on and off, sometimes going more than a year without speaking. But it seemed one of us would always reestablish contact, particularly as we came to realize that the world wasn’t quite how we drew it up during those late-night confabs at the Phantom House and Mrs. Gary’s.

Life ground on. Divorces and other disappointments drew us closer. Not seeing each other for long periods of time, we often reverted to our English major roots and wrote long letters of solace or encouragement and, always, our wonder that the world refused to conform to way we drew it up back in college.

I said goodbye to Polaris in the Copeland Funeral Home in Coraopolis, Penn., but somehow I feel he’s waiting for one last letter. I never thought I’d write him a final one, but here it is.


Dear Polaris,

You would have loved the funeral.

Dr. Carl (retiring president of the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary) and Reverend Rudiger (pastor of the Cover Presbyterian Church in Weirton, W.V.) performed the best and most healing funeral service I’d ever witnessed. They knew you (never once referred to you as “The Deceased”), respected you and loved you. Carl, a great scholar himself, spoke in awe of your studying at Oxford at age 65. Rudiger made reference to the fact that you were the most joyous and worst joke teller he’d ever known; when I talked to him afterwards, he knew many of the stories of our baseball trips.

And you would have been glad that Laurel – whom you always recognized as the right woman for me – was there. We arrived barely in time because we went to the wrong funeral home and Jeanne brought us up to front row, next to the family. I was in Florida and Laurel was in Denver when you died. I told her to stay home and I’d pass on her regrets, but she wouldn’t hear of it. She always thought you were an amazing man (she loved your kindness) and knew how much you meant to me. I didn’t really want her to stay home.

Your sons, sons-in-law and grandsons had raided your closet and sported some of your hideous ties, along with the trademark sneakers you always wore, even with a suit. I know how disappointed you were when one of your many doctors said you didn’t have the gout but needed foot surgery. You never tired of talking about “The Gout” and were sorry to see it go, along with your excuse for wearing sneakers.

You were a terrible dresser. How you were CEO of Starck Van Lines all those years remains one of the great mysteries in the history of the moving industry. How you thought that honesty, hard work and putting your customers first could trump a slick appearance, I’ll never know.

Among the many things I loved about you, the fact that you valued substance above flash is right at the top. It defined your life.

It was both fascinating and therapeutic for me and Laurel to hang out with Jeanne and your kids for a few days after the funeral. I always admired what a devoted father you were and I could see it in your kids’ faces and hear it in their voices how much they cared for you and how much they already missed you. I liked the fact that despite the challenges of blended families, you never used the words stepson or stepdaughter. I marveled at your stories of 400-mile round trips to watch Steve or Tracy or Heather play varsity basketball at Pickerington High School in Columbus, and then Heather at UNC-Wilmington and Tracy at Princeton. I loved how you didn’t live your athletic life through your kids, but how proud you were of their accomplishments. And you were just as proud of Susan, David and Richard for what they accomplished outside of athletics.

I know that our letter-writing style often included a variety of insults, but I think I’ll play it straight in this final letter. I need to tell you all the things I admired about you and all that I thank you for.

I am particularly thankful that you continued our tradition of maintaining contact. We were both amazed at how often a phone call came at just the right time when one of us needed to hear from the other. Distracted by golf and the ocean in Florida and away from my computer, I finally checked my emails for the first time in several days and found that exchange between you and, as you dubbed him, my Big Brother Bill, wondering if I had disappeared.

Without that push, I wouldn’t have talked to you less than 12 hours before you died later that day. Knowing how the cancer had been sapping your energy and even your indefatigable spirit, I was thrilled to see how up you were that morning. You were revitalized by your son, Steve, taking you to the Notre Dame-Northeastern first-round NCAA basketball game the day before in Pittsburgh. You sat seven rows up and Steve’s alma mater won by four – what a thrill! You would have loved how the Irish handled Wichita State and almost got by Kentucky in the Elite Eight.

The call lasted less than 15 minutes, but it was typical – sports, doctors, a few laughs, a few groans. We were always just glad to be connecting again. Wish I’d said something profound. Wish you’d told a bad joke.

It’s amazing – considering our limited success as basketball players at Ohio Wesleyan – how sports have been such an integral part of our friendship. I will never forget when you traveled to Denver for my retirement party in 2002 and said, “My retirement gift to you is that I’ll take you to every Major League Baseball city.”

And you damn near did. Can you believe we had only four to go – Tampa, Miami, Kansas City and St. Louis? Big Brother Bill and Steve have already talked about finishing up the tour with me, but a ballpark will never be the same without you.

The genius of the gift, of course, wasn’t so much the baseball, but the fact that we seldom went a year without seeing each other. And now the memories come flooding back.

It was amazing how many times you screwed up the baseball tickets. We had four for a Friday night game at Fenway and none for the Saturday game. En route to Milwaukee from Chicago (after you tried to pick me up at O’Hare when I was at Midway), you realized you’d left the tickets in your jacket at the motel. When we met Bill and his wife, Peggy, in Atlanta and were headed for Houston, but our tickets were for the Rangers instead of the Astros.

After Bill and StubHub straightened out that mess, he took over booking our tickets and, presto, we always had the right ones for the right cities on the right dates. And if Bill wasn’t booking our seats, we never would have had the all-time highlight of our baseball tour when he took a red-eye flight from Florida and showed up unannounced last July at the Yankees game in Seattle, walked up to our row and said, “I think you’re in my seat.” You enjoyed it as much as Bill and I did.

You didn’t screw up, though, when you got us tickets for Richard III at the Avon Theatre in Stratford, north of Toronto. We weren’t just a couple of dumb ex-jocks. We were dumb ex-jocks watching Shakespeare. We had a little swagger about us when we marched into Rogers Center that night to see the Blue Jays.

It was amazing how you became a part of my family. You’d have business in Kansas City and visit my sister, Ann. You never hesitated when I said I needed a co-pilot to drive from Denver to Fort Walton Beach, Fla., to show my father the restoration I had commissioned on the 1967 911 Porsche he had passed on to me a few years earlier. Neither of us will forget the last leg of that trip when a blizzard forced us off I-70 to Oakley, Kansas, where we got the last room in a cheap motel and watched the Marlins beat the Indians in 11 innings in the seventh game of the 1997 World Series.

I guess we would have made it to all of the stadiums if we hadn’t watched the Pirates so many times. There was a 10-year period there when you thought you might not live to see the Pirates have a winning season. I’m sure glad you got to see the last two years. Clint Hurdle, not good enough for the Rockies, has done a helluva job. It’s been a joy to watch Andrew McCutcheon, too.

But I’ll never forget that perfect Sunday afternoon in October 2013, just after your first cancer diagnosis, when we watched the Bucs beat the Cardinals to go up two games to one in the NLDS. It went unsaid, but we both probably thought that might be the last game we’d ever watch together. But there we were in the summer of 2014 hitting Arizona, San Francisco (oysters and Caribbean Queens at Scala’s Bistro in the Sir Francis Drake) and Seattle. And then with Big Brother Bill, we went up to Everett, Wash., to catch the class-A short season AquaSox. You were laughing in the face of cancer when you declared that after we finished the majors, we were going to see every minor league team.

I know Pittsburgh is a Steelers town (and I loved tailgating with your friends before a couple of Steelers games), but long before that it was a baseball town. And you were a Pirates fan from Groat and Clemente and Maz through all the losing years. I’m glad you got to see them finally succeed.

I know you were worried about how the Bucs would do this year, especially with Russell Martin departing for Toronto. Maybe you can have a little more influence on the National League Central from where you are now. If that’s a conflict of interest, I’ll understand. I’ve always suspected that God is a Cardinals fan.

Laurel and I hung around a few days after the funeral. We went to Fat Heads on the South Side and toasted you. We got to spend a lot of time with your amazing kids and grandkids and Jeanne. I’ve never seen so many people laugh and cry during the same sentence. And the conversation wasn’t perfunctory bullshit, platitudes or the kind of clichés you would have hated. You brought a lot of joy to a lot of people. I’ve never known someone who was loved by so many. If you had any enemies, they were all in the fashion industry.

Laurel asked me if there was anything else I’d like to do in Pittsburgh in your memory. I wished you’d held off for another two weeks, so I could have gone to one more game at PNC. The Pirates home opener was against the Tigers on April 13. I would have taught Laurel how to play Moundball. [Editors Note: Moundball is a gambling game based on who is holding the money when the umpire rolls the ball on the mound after each inning. Both Polaris and Pencils claim to have won fortunes from the other playing Moundball. Neither, ironically, claimed any losses]. I’m sure in the course of one game, she could have mastered it to the same level you had over the last dozen years. I’m going to miss that Moundball windfall every summer and may file a claim against your estate for future earnings.

Baseball was a conduit for our friendship. If baseball didn’t exist, we would have found something else. The real basis of our enduring bond was truth. I don’t believe we ever said anything we didn’t believe was true to each other. Not a lot of people can claim that in a relationship.

One regret I have is that I never wrote the Great American Novel you kept encouraging me to write (and for which you claimed to have the paperback and movie rights in Tibet). We both loved the written word and I always appreciated how you overestimated my writing ability based on a few short stories in college and my pieces in MHSM. I’d like to promise that I’ll write that novel and dedicate it to you, but I don’t want to tell my first lie in my last letter to you.

Those philosophies of life that we naively and jointly envisioned back in Delaware, Ohio, some 50 years ago have flown to wind, deposited in the intellectual recycle bin. We long ago parted company on a single philosophy. For one thing, you certainly got closer to God than I ever dreamed of doing. I was surprised at how involved with the church you had become, but loved seeing how much joy and peace it brought to you. I admired how little you feared death and think you hung on – with cancer and heart problems and the prospect of a lot of pain and a lot pains in the ass over the next few years – not for yourself but for Jeanne and the rest of us who could never quite get enough of you.

But I love how our philosophical differences never mattered in our friendship. We each spoke the truth as we knew it. We listened to each other. We disagreed without bitterness or confrontation. We could say anything about anything to each other. Nothing was ever “too personal.” Everything was intimately personal.

I think in the end, we were both in awe of the fact that very few people are ever privileged to have a friendship like ours. It has been the greatest gift I have ever known and will ever know.

Thanks for listening to all my stories and for being a part of so many of them.


Frenisson, aka Pencils

P.S. Are you still buying the baseball tickets?