1975 was a glorious year. Captain and Tennille topped the charts, Jaws dominated the theaters, the war in Vietnam finally ended, and I was the latest recruit to a den of iniquity in Lexington, Ky., sometimes known as the apartment of E.J. Walbourn.
Our Irresponsible Years
E.J. was my classmate at the University of Kentucky Law School. We had just survived our first year and both remained in Lexington for the Summer,working part-time in different capacities at the Law School. A bad combination – idle hands are the devil’s workshop.
He became my roommate for two years, my friend for the next 40, and a roommate again in mid-life (more of that later). He was, undoubtedly, anyone’s best candidate for Reader’s Digest’s “Most Memorable Character.” He passed away last week after years of heath problems – two failed kidneys, heart problems, vascular problems, back surgery, and others.
I first met E.J. In the Fall of 1974, our first semester, in a Criminal Law class – a primordial twang from near the back of the room. I assumed it was how all Kansans spoke. I learned later that was not the case. That the only other human that spoke with such an accent was his son Jacob, who never lived in Kansas. The apple and the tree … you know.
I actually met E.J. through his other first year roommate, Gene Smallwood, whom I shared a small class with. Although E.J., Gene, and, later, I, shared rent equally, it was clearly E.J.’s apartment. It became the center of Law School social life in those years, with a party, it seemed, every weekend – not just law students but other residents of the complex. Like E.J., none seemed normal people.
In our first Summer – 1975 – E.J. recruited (more like kidnapped) me to join him in his semi-annual pilgrimage to his hometown, El Dorado, Kansas. To a city boy, it seemed like Mayberry – a Summer band concert, performed by a community band (of which E.J. surprisingly was once a member). Side trips were sponsored by E.J.’s father, Ed Walbourn, an enigma in his own right – college professor, community college president, and later education lobbyist. Ed could party any 23 or 24 year-olds under the table – and we gave him opportunities to do so. Ed was an Eisenhower Republican from upstate New York. E.J. was a yellow dog Democrat. He took after his mother Fran on that, I guess.
Of course, on the trip to Kansas, which started it midnight for some reason, we had to stop in St. Louis for E.J.’s personally conducted tour of the Budweiser brewery. Problem was, we arrived in St. Louis at about 6 a.m. The brewery opened at 7. We slept under the arch for an hour, before trying freshly brewed beer for breakfast. The highlight of the return trip was bootlegging 24 cases of Coors from Kansas (it was not available east of the Mississippi then). I hope the statute of limitations has expired on that one.
The following Summer I had a clerkship in California and E.J. reciprocated by accompanying me on that drive, with our Law School friend Jack Collins. But, of course, E.J. took charge of the itinerary – a side trip to the Coors brewery in Golden, Colo. (strangely like the Bud brewery) and another one to Las Vegas, where we arrived not so safely at 4 a.m. after a night-time trip through the Utah mountains.
[More after pics]
E.J. and friends – Peach Bowl 1976
E.J. with my girlfriend (now wife of 40 years) Carol at 1976 Peach Bowl
My mother – Erma (l.) and Fran Walbourn (r.), E.J.’s mother, with his beloved Milwaukee (c.) (the dog, not the human — my sister); Law School graduation, 1977.
Law School graduation, May, 1977. with Jack and Peg Collins
E.J. (second from right) in my wedding party
The Middle Years
During our time together, in addition to our Jack Kerouac experiences, we joined with each other for the Carter-Ford election results, the Academy Awards in 1977 (E.J. entertaining everyone with a new hairdo during every commercial break), News Years Eves, Derby Days, Super Bowls, and the Christian Leitner shot heard round the world, sinking U.K. in the 1992 Regional Finals.
E.J. took to Criminal Law in Law School. It is all he ever wanted to do. He fell into a job upon graduation as a Federal Public Defender, allowing him to start trying cases the day after he took the oath of office, admitting him to the bar. Although I always thought his heart was on the defense side, in 1990 he was hired as a federal prosecutor – an Assistant U.S. Attorney. That job was fortuitous for several reason – mostly for him – but a little bit for me.
For him, it provided a job with gold plate benefits when his health started failing in the early 2000s. I’m not sure he could have survived the last decade without that support. More important, it led to his long term association with Federal Magistrate Judge Greg Wehrman. When other potential donors (including his wife Jan) didn’t match, Judge Wehrman donated a kidney to E.J. They became great friends, the best E.J. had in that last years of his life, and a tag team – speaking to transplant survivors and advising potential transplant donors and patients. Judge Wehrman spent time with E.J. In his final weeks and visited him the night before he died. When he called me to report E.J.’s death, he expressed genuine remorse for the loss of his friend, but having witnessed a decade of suffering, admitted that for E.J., “it was time.” If there is a heaven, Judge Wehrman no doubt will be there – no small feat for a federal judge.
For me, E.J.’s new job – requiring a move to my home town – allowed us to reconnect after many years of living in different cities, and seeing each other only infrequently. In fact, as I hinted above, we became roommates again. E.J.’s move came near the end of his wife Jan’s pregnancy with their second child – Joe. Jan stayed behind in Ashland for her final pre-natal care and E.J. needed a place to stay before they found a new place. We had two kids double up and E.J. became a boarder for about a month. One of our neighbor’s kids told the neighborhood that the Conleys had a homeless man living with them.
In fact, E.J. was not homeless – but there was a problem. E.J. dressed and had coffee with us every morning. We had a very large labrador who took to E.J. and, after taking a big slurp of water, firmly planted her snout in the crotch of E.J.’s newly laundered and pressed prosecutor’s suit every morning. Although it was very funny, the biggest laugh came from E.J.
The Later Years
Although our proximity in later life did not lead to as much contact as it should have, a matter I will regret forever, we continued to see each other periodically.
E.J. was a member of the Inns of Court (for the uninitiated, a social-professional group of Judges, lawyers, and law students, who meet monthly for dinner, collegiality and education programs). He invited me to join and I did so, mostly to have a regular dinner date with my friend.
I was also one of his invitees to attend Cincinnati Reds games (he shared season tickets with some colleagues). His emails inviting me usually demonstrated some of his self-deprecating humor:
- 4/15/13: “I have an extra ticket for tonight’s Reds game. Come and go with me. We can swap lies.”
- 4/17/13: “How about the Reds tomorrow? You never answered. Great seats and a parking pass. We could discuss issues of grave constitutional significance.”
I am sure we did the former but not the latter. There are many more of these, but I have to protect the innocent (and myself).
With E.J. at my 60th birthday party
In our sojourns, when E.J. redeposited me to my car at his office, we sat – and talked about life, careers, kids, mid-life crises, medical problems, and, yes, death. He knew what was coming. After suffering through dialysis in his early health crisis, and anticipating the prospects of being again tethered to a dialysis machine, he wanted none of it. He said he had a good run and had no regrets.
At the end, if he were asked to “make a ledger of his life, to provide an account of what he had been, and done, and meant to the world,” E.J. had plenty of ammunition. He fought the good fight, he finished the race, in the words of St. Paul.
I am not sad that E.J.’s pain is done. I am sad for myself, his family, his many friends, and his colleagues. We will miss him and think of him often. When we do, we will think of the many memories he made with us and that he left us with. We will smile. We will laugh. And we will remember how he lived — fully, with gusto, and with no regrets.