Remembering Reggie

by Leonore Gordon

Through our shared Parkinsons Disease, I’ve had the honor of loving Reggie and calling him my friend, and “family,” for a very short, but blessed, four years.  Reggie was an inspiration on which to model my own life.  Eighty-two years young when he died, this incomparable human being had a lot to emulate: he had big-time class, brains, leadership, a wicked sense of humor, and a heart and social conscience bigger than this planet.  Reggie loved beyond his own doorstep with true intention, and he put that huge heart, and his purse-strings, to use in so many ways to make the world better.  Others will tell of the many boards he sat on, and the programs he helped to found, including Theater Row!  Above all, Reggie was loved- was it the finally-humbled Wizard who said to the Tin Man as he handed him his medal, that our true worth is not how much we love, but how much we are loved by others?  Well, I say that both are a pretty good measure, and Reggie certainly deserves medals for both.  Just look around you today.

Last Tuesday, my friend Cyndy and I were alone with Reggie in his room at the hospital as he passed.  What a profound experience… Bobbye had called from her home to let me know the end was imminent, and Cyndy and I were lucky enough to get there in time.   We knew Bobbye had already said good-bye, and we each did the same, both telling him that it was ok to let go if he needed to. Moments later, he left us.  Cyndy’s first words after the doctor pronounced him gone were, “Reggie was a man of integrity.”

We were joined soon after by other BPG friends, and as some wept, we all sang to Reggie’s spirit, just as we’d all sung with him in our singing class.  We sang Amazing Grace and Sweet Chariot.  As Bobbye arrived, we’d begun singing, “Can’t Help Loving That Man of Mine.”

Twenty-five years my senior, this until-recently indefatigable Reggie has always shown up; twice weekly, he showed up at 10:30 in the morning to our Parkinson’s Exercise classes at LIU to lift weights and to bop along with 15 of us to a vigorous aerobic exercise routine.  He showed up weekly, along with Bobbye, to sing show tunes with our singing class and to our Dance for Parkinson’s classes at Mark Morris to dance along with the rest of us.  If Reggie could make it there, how could I NOT show up when I felt too tired?

Reggie was interested and concerned about the lives and families of all of those he loved and it deeply moved me a few years ago that he was always asking about my very challenging teenage son.  He truly supported me through some very tough times and helped me to believe in myself when I doubted my ability to hold up against some tough odds.  I have no doubt that he did this for uncounted others.

But Reggie and I didn’t just share Parkinson’s.  On the many rides home from dance class offered by Bobbye and Reggie, we three found much common ground: activism, social justice, education, and a love of the arts, especially jazz (and Nina Simone).

Thus, some of my favorite times shared with Reggie and Bobbye were at our shared outings to numerous Broadway shows and dance performances (usually with Cyndy and a few others).  We saw Porgy and Bess, Alvin Ailey, and West Side Story, and when we all saw “Black Angels over Tuskegee” on Broadway, Reggie sported his Tuskegee airman cap, was proud to tell us that he’d been friends with the original heroes, and talked about helping to integrate Fort Hood back in the early 50’s.  I was impressed.

Everywhere he went, Reggie was perpetually surrounded by a group of admirers listening to him hold forth on this or that.  The word, “gregarious” was clearly invented to define Reggie, but he was never full of himself; unlike so many others gifted at commanding attention, he also knew the art of listening and of asking the right questions. He made you feel special and important.

Without question Bobbye was the love of Reggie’s life, and their nearly 53 years together exactly mirrored my own late parents’ devotion and marriage.  Reggie and Bobbye were crazy about each other. Reggie was also an unrepentant, irresistible flirt.

If he was incredibly good-looking in his 80’s, I can hardly imagine him as a younger man (ok, I’ve seen pictured).  Knowing that an equally loyal, and even better-looking and classier Bobbye had nothing to fear, Reggie was totally non-discriminating in his flirtation, unabashedly offering his charms (and sometimes his lap) to every good woman who crossed his path and sent a smile his way.  We all loved it!

Whenever he returned for yet another of his too-many stays at Methodist Hospital, the female nurses, doctors and rehab staff were overjoyed to greet him.  I tried to visit when I could, and when Reggie’s cognition was especially fuzzy, I marveled at his skill in dazzling and distracting the staff from recognizing the worrisome level of his actual confusion.

Reggie’s ability to enthrall others could sometimes cause more serious, though temporary, problems.  Moments before the curtain rose for Porgy and Bess on Broadway, Bobbye, Cyndy and I were in a panic.  Reggie had been missing since Bobbye had dropped him off so she could park; for a good half hour, he hadn’t shown up at the seats we’d bought for them beside us.  Had he fallen?  Had a stroke?  These were not uncommon events in his life.

So where did Bobbye finally find him just before the lights were dimmed?  Oblivious to our panic, Reggie was happily ensconced in a front row seat…Why?  Unwitting ushers had clearly been persuaded…. that  the eight or so steps up to his own seat would be too much for this poor, well-dressed, apparently ‘lost’ man with a cane.  Never mind that someone may be looking for him!  I guess Reggie knew that his Bobbye would always somehow find him.  And she did!

Bobbye, I salute your fifty-plus years of infinite love, patience, faith and humor!  While my heart aches for your loss, I also salute the glory of the love between you.  I know that Reggie is nearby listening to us praise him, and loving us back, especially you, Bobbye.
I suspect he’s also out there flirting with the angels, asking them, no doubt, if he can sit on their laps.  I know I’d still let him sit,
ever so carefully—on mine.