The end of a tradition: ‘Good Friends’ bid farewell

By Ron Brocato, Clarion Herald Sports

It’s never easy, most often rather painful, to say goodbye to a good friend. 

I did so 25 years ago when I lost my lifelong friend, a dialysis patient whose veins could no longer support the weekly ordeal after 15 years of treatments.

We met and became instant companions during catechism class at St. Rose de Lima when our teacher, Father (George)Landry, sent us to the cloak room for talking in class three weeks before our confirmation. We had to add that tidbit of sin to our confession at the next Mass.

Eddie and I went to a public school together, spent our leisure watching movies at just about every neighborhood theater within walking distance or by bus if we wanted to spend seven cents that would have been used at the refreshment stand. We double-dated, joined the U.S. Air Force together and were miraculously stationed at the same base.

He became a Jefferson Parish deputy, and I a sportswriter. I was best man at his wedding and godfather to his younger son. We had a wonderful, lasting friendship until God wanted him more than I. 

If you live long enough, you try to get used to losing people and things that have significance in your life.

The latest sad news came in a June 17 letter from “Good Friends” organizer Gerry Aitken to advise the membership that their semi-annual reunions have come to an end.

The “Good Friends” were a group of men who gathered in the fall and spring to renew their comradeship and share the joys of their youth as high school athletes who were teenagers in the 1940s and now living their golden years. 

Perpetuating an idea

The reunions began when a small group of athletes from Sacred Heart School on Canal Street met for breakfast and decided to hold an annual reunion. Like shepherds, they gathered friends and opponents from other schools to join them in this ritual of reflection and frivolity.

In less than a dozen years, this fraternity grew to more than 400 as word-of-mouth continued to spread.

They met in April and October at The Balcony, a Metairie banquet hall. I joined them 20 years ago, at first to gather information for an article in the Clarion Herald. What I became part of was a Valhalla of great high school athletes of the past …

Holy Cross’ Hank Lauricella, Jesuit’s John Petitbon, St. Aloysius’ Roy Hoffman and Fortier’s Ridley Boudreaux sharing tales and breaking bread together. The names and faces of history and folklore filled the massive room …

 Joe Heap, Lester Kennedy, Ray Coates, Eddie Heider, Billy Burtschaell, Al and Walter Robelot, Lou and Eddie Bravo, Mike Trapani, Ray Weidenbacher, Arthur and Martin Schmitt, B.J. Pecoraro and Harry Gamble. There were too many others to name, but they gave me the material to write the book, “The Golden Game: When Prep Football was King in New Orleans.”

These good friends represented a cross-section of the remaining athletes who performed in the 1930s and ’40s; men whose gridiron accomplishments touched the lives of Orleanians through a world war and the recovery from the lingering effects of a Great Depression.

They played at a time when people looked for heroes to rally around and found them on the high school football fields, where these men gave their best as teenagers.

In the final quarters of their lives, these men found solace in each other’s company by reliving the past. Today, some still sit in the stands of a stadium where they once exhibited their talents, smiling as they look upon today’s young stars, much bigger and faster than the boys of their day.

In the spring of 2006, the group’s organizers sent letters to the membership to announce the April reunion date. They feared attendance would be low following Hurricane Katrina. But, to the joy of everyone who walked through the glass doors, more than 400 flooded the hall to reunite with their friends. It was one of their largest gatherings.

Two traditions of the evening were reciting the pledge of allegiance to the flag, the singing of “God Bless America,” and calling out the names of those who were no longer among us. They numbered about a dozen every six months.

Time has taken its toll

Each year, the numbers have dwindled as each year continued to reduce the roster.

Gerry Aitken’s letter sounded the death knell: “It is with great regret and disappointment that it has been decided to disband the ‘Good Friends.’ 

“We have not been able to maintain the membership numbers required to meet the minimum guarantee needed to continue having semi-annual meetings at The Balcony. The Balcony has been working with us over the past three years, but can no longer continue to provide the low cost we have enjoyed over the past 20-plus years.

“The kind of service they provide requires raising the cost per person and having a minimum number (300) of people guaranteed.”

Aitken also thanked the management and employees of the banquet hall for their kindness and cordiality. 

In saying goodbye, he and co-organizer Tony Sciambra thanked those who made the reunions possible for their decades of loyalty and support.

“It has been a pleasure to enjoy your friendship and to be in your company as a Good Friend. It is a sad day for all of us, but all good things must come to an end. With that said, we want to say, God bless all of you and God Bless America.”

Goodbyes are too painful to say, so perhaps a group of prep athletes from the 1950s and 60s will champion the tradition of “Good Friends” into the future. Perhaps not. But the remnants of this group may never see each other again.

Ron Brocato can be reached at rbrocato@clarionherald.org.

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