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Death of a friend, so abrupt, so unfair

Sometimes life seems particularly unfair — especially when someone leaves this world before their time. That's how it felt when I heard that George Bastable had died suddenly while vacationing with his family in California.

The news hit like a bolt out of the blue, coming in the midst of what seemed to be a celebrity mass exodus. George wasn't famous in the way of Farrah or Michael Jackson, but in his 51 years he made his mark.

I got to know George in a neighborly sense during his daily walks that took him by my house. Turns out he was an avid newspaper reader who familiarized himself with reporters' bylines as well as their stories, so that was often the opening for some easy conversations.

Over time we discovered things we had in common. We were born in 1958. Hailed from the suburbs of sports towns (him, Chicago — me, Boston). Graduated high school during this country's bicentennial. Listed To Kill A Mockingbird as our favorite book. And as the second-youngest child in our families we were greatly influenced by older siblings — especially when it came to music. Both of us still had some of those old favorite vinyl record albums hanging around, and while neither of us could lay claim to attending Woodstock in the summer of '69 (we were only 11 after all!), we knew all the songs from the Who's rock opera Tommy.

George was a husband, a grandfather and a father of two adult children, George Jr., and Melissa, and a much younger son and daughter who brought the welcome opportunity to re-live some of his younger years. I remember him sharing how psyched he was to be coaching Taylor's youth football team; how he relished watching 2-year-old daughter Zoe clomp around in her mom's high heels.

In earlier days, George and his wife, Vicky, lived in Hawaii for a time. That came up after he noticed our newly planted Plumeria tree that blossoms with the yellow and white fragrant flowers that are threaded into Hawaiian leis. One of my last memories of George was watching from my living room window as this hulk of a man stepped into our front yard to literally stop and smell those flowers.

So it came as a pleasant surprise when at his memorial service last week, family members draped in Hawaiian garb handed out colorful leis before sharing memories of the brother with the ever-present smile who loved books and music and played three sports while growing up in Chicago.

"He was always working on getting better," an older brother said, recalling how later in his life George had forged on with his schooling and eventually joined his wife in the teaching field.

Over the last eight years, scores of children came through the classrooms at Pine View and Rushe middle schools where "Mr. Bastable" taught Language Arts, dressed each day in a crisply pressed shirt and tie, his long, dark hair pulled back in a tight ponytail. In a quest to match the right read to the right student, he built an impressive classroom library and inspired budding poets and authors by telling them to always "write from the heart."

George was a writer, too, one who penned plays and garnered some fame after a couple of his guest columns were published in this paper.

"So when are you going to get around to writing another column?" I asked, chiding him a bit for procrastinating.

It was about a week before his death and he had just rounded the block, headed home.

"I'm working on it," he said, grinning, then pointed to his head. "It's still up in here."

"Ah," I said, nodding, understanding well the writer's common lament. It isn't always easy funneling those scrambled words out of your brain and onto the keyboard.

"Not to worry," I told him. "It's summer break so you have time to work it out before school starts up again."

Unfortunately, he didn't.

And so, it seems that sometimes life is particularly unfair.

To read George Bastable's guest columns, go to tampabay.com/opinion/columns/article779814.ece and tampabay.com/opinion/columns/article511604.ece?comments=legacy.

Michele Miller can be reached at miller@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6251.

Death of a friend, so abrupt, so unfair 07/26/09 [Last modified: Sunday, July 26, 2009 4:30am]
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