I met my friend over 25 years ago. She was blonde, dimpled, funny and canny. I’ll call her D for dimples. I was new to school public relations and she was a veteran. At that time, working in public relations for school districts was unusual. It mostly involved setting up and publicizing school events, helping the reporters who covered the school district, working with parent groups, and writing and producing reports. Most of us were former teachers and writers returning to work after raising families. We helped each other learn the ropes.
The ropes became more elastic, and we found ourselves dealing with heated referendums, teacher strikes, changes of all kinds (which make parents insane), AIDS, weather emergencies, and eventually, September 11 and horrendous school violence. We leaned on each other at monthly meetings of the Illinois School Public Relations Association (INSPRA) and went to the national meetings (NSPRA) where we learned and shared. A group of us became fast friends and confidantes.
I remember vividly the Plainfield tornado 25 years ago, the only F5 to strike the Chicago area. Several of us were released by our school districts to go to Plainfield to help with communications. My friend D had the most experience dealing with the Chicago press and led us through the long days. There were no cellphones and no email, and the school’s phones were completely tied up. At that time, few schools actually had fax machines; we had to find a way to communicate with the press who were not onsite. At the end of each day, we gathered up our press releases and headed to a local real estate office to use their fax. It was D’s idea. Then drinks.
I remember an early morning interview with ABC’s Elizabeth Vargas, who was then a Chicago reporter. We were at one of the elementary schools, which was going on split shift in order to accommodate kids from the local Catholic school, which had been destroyed. I convinced the reporters who were waiting for the buses from the Catholic school to stay at a distance from the kids. However, as a young child who was crying hysterically got off the bus with her mother, the mother headed her toward the reporters. She wanted her to be on TV. I was speechless. The birth of the Kardashian effect.
When I started my own consulting business, D sent me several clients. When I was consulting for the St. Charles school district, which had to close a building because of black mold, I arrived at 6 in the morning to deal with the press, and a friend from the Elgin schools showed up to help me out. We were like that.
Now my group of friends is retired, and several have moved away. A few weeks ago I got an email that D had been suffering with Alzheimer’s and was in the end stages of hospice. Over the next few days, I shared phone calls and emails with my friends and was flooded with the memories of how close we became doing good work.
It turns out that D’s death left one last gift — the warmth of our friendship. Three of us were able to attend the funeral and were asked to speak. We didn’t hesitate. We may be old, but we still know how to think on our feet. I was struck by how much we had shared with D and with each other. I think we brought a little joy to the sad affair, which is the best way to age disgracefully.