My friend is gone. I didn’t see it coming; he was only 81 years-old.
Author, director, and inventor Tony Verna died late last week, after battling acute lymphoblastic leukemia (according to ABC News). Although I spoke with him earlier this month, he never said a word. Well, other than a modest, “feeling under the weather” in an email he sent me January 13.
I’m shocked and deeply saddened by Tony’s death. Hell, I thought he’d outlive me. He never seemed “old,” you know? He always sounded the same on the phone: a gravelly baritone mixture of Jersey wise guy and Hollywood pizzazz, his voice energized by a ready wit and boundless creativity.
“Hey, Jim, Tony Verna…” was the greeting I heard time and again over the years. I could feel him smiling, see the mischievous twinkle in his eyes. “I had an idea the other day…” (almost but not quite idear ) was the next phrase I knew I would hear, right after “how ya doin’?”.
Tony worried about me that way. When he asked how I was doing, he was sincerely interested. (I’ve had a couple two-week bouts with the flu.) I should have been worried about Tony. I guess I really did think he’d live forever.
Tony had the curiosity of a 10-year-old, with the brains to run with his ideas. He had, after all, invented sports TV’s Instant Replay over 50 years ago. In the years that followed he produced or directed five Super Bowls, the Kentucky Derby, the Olympics, and numerous special events.
I can picture him in the control booth, eyes flashing everywhere at once, calling out camera numbers and choosing the shots to broadcast. I wish I could have been there to watch him in action, but that was long before I met him.
Even after he “retired,” Tony remained a whirlwind of fresh ideas, pursuing patents and projects and inventions. He knew all about “apps” and so much more. He saw possibilities all around him, in all sorts of media.
But I knew Tony as a writer first, then learned more about his myriad accomplishments over time as we worked together. He first approached me in 2008 with a proposal to serialize his novel Beyond the Blue and the Gray on Helium.com (now off-line).
In the six years since, we worked together to publish his only full-length novel as a digital ebook, as a physical printed book, and even as an audiobook (to be released later this year). I probably have over two hundred email conversations archived in various “Tony Verna” folders. His messages were short and direct, filled with new ideas and suggested resources.
It’s hard to believe I won’t get any more of Tony’s emails, or see his name pop up on Caller ID again. I certainly never considered that “under the weather” meant anything ominous. How stupid of me.
You see, I took our friendship for granted. I could call him tomorrow, or next week — when I wasn’t “busy.” Wait ’til the weekend to answer his latest inquiry. He asked me to come visit, enjoy his sunny world in West Palm Desert. “You should come out here, Jim. You’d love it,” he insisted more than once.
Maybe in a few months, I’d think to myself. Or next year. When I had time.
Did I think there was an unlimited supply of Time?
Tony was only 75 when I first met him. A young 75-year-old whose attitudes and insights seemed more suited to 35. He was ageless to me, and always treated me as an equal despite our age difference.
I never thought of him as being 80 years-old, or anywhere near the end of his adventurous life.
The last time we talked by phone, he was excited about a new project he was working on. “Keep it between you and me, Jim,” he asked me. And we went on to discuss his concept for another 20 minutes or more. No need to break his confidence here, but let me assure you his newest idea was as current as this morning’s tech headlines.
He said he’d send me what he had so far, so I could give him my perspective. That was only about two weeks ago. I had wondered, vaguely, why he hadn’t followed up. Even thought about giving him a call, but didn’t want to “bother” him — as if he would ever have considered my call a bother.
I should have called, and I shouldn’t have taken our friendship for granted.
We hear lyrical lines like “The sun’ll come out tomorrow” and “There’s always tomorrow…” and foolishly take them as assurances. But they aren’t assurances; they are cautionary reminders not to squander today.
I allowed Tony’s enthusiasm and youthful approach to life lull me into a foolish complacency. And now he’s gone. Time’s up.
I’m so glad I knew him, glad that he invited me into his sun-filled world and shared his creative genius with me. I hope I gave enough back to him in encouragement and helping him bring his imagination to a broader audience. Of course I wish I’d done more.
I thought I had plenty of time to “do more” for Tony.
What a silly assumption. Whether my friend was 81 or 18, I was still wrong.
He could have died from an unexpected disaster at any time — and so could I. I could have been hit by a cement truck on the way to the shop any morning. We all know this, somewhere down deep; we just hate like hell to think about it.
I’ll miss Tony. I’ll hear his voice in my head and smile wistfully. Make some time to look through the messages he sent over the years. (I kept them all.) And try a lot harder to share his book with readers who won’t ever get to know him like I did. That’s the least I can do for my friend.
My heart goes out to Tony’s wife, Carol, and to his children and grandkids. I’m sure he brought plenty of sunshine into their lives. Doesn’t make saying goodbye any easier.
Goodbye, my friend. You will be missed, but certainly not forgotten.