Gary Laney died without warning Friday, two days before Christmas. He was 47. The news was crushing. The shock hasn’t worn off, and I am flailing about in search of words.
His funeral is happening now in Baton Rouge. I wish he were here to talk about it with me. Gary’s presence here two years ago, the day before the funeral of our first editor in the daily newspaper business, was a gift to me from the cosmos. Now, he’s gone, and we are not having lunch together, not having beers, not telling Lake Charles stories, laughing and crying.
In a year of so much loss, Gary’s death is one of the hardest losses to bear.
We first met in the mid-1980s, when my journalism career was just getting started and he was a high school student with an interest in sports writing and newspaper work. He came up one day to the makeshift press box at Legion Field in Lake Charles where I was covering American Legion games, and on some level, he never left. Gary was like a friendly puppy, tagging along as I did my job. He was likable, smart, curious, full of questions, and eager to discuss sports, music, writing and many other subjects.
Just a few years later, Gary was writing for the daily where I worked, on his way to becoming a full-time member of the staff. When I left Lake Charles in late 1997, he inherited the McNeese State University sports beat I’d held after taking over four years earlier for Bobby Dower, my first editor, who took a different editor position in the newsroom. When I left The Advocate in September 2008, Gary moved to Baton Rouge, accepting an offer to fill the vacancy in the department. I joked that he should pay close attention to my life if he planned on following in my footsteps. During a 14-month stretch of unemployment, I didn’t get a job I applied for that he had previously held, and I joked that the reason it didn’t work out was because we had it in the wrong order.
Before I moved to Oregon in 2010, the last time Gary and I spent time together and chatted was at a Community Coffee shop — CC’s — in Baton Rouge. I was struck by how much he’d matured since his high school days, noting that his personal growth hadn’t robbed him of his smile and good nature. He never seemed to take himself too seriously, a former co-worker said after Gary died, and it’s true: He could laugh at himself. Another trait that speaks well of him: I never saw him being unkind to anyone.
On June 25, 2014, Bobby Dower went in for gall bladder surgery, and that afternoon, some of us who’d worked for him learned what doctors had told him earlier: that he had stomach cancer. He died 14 days later.
Gary was one of several former co-workers of mine I stayed in contact with after hearing that Bobby was sick. At some point, Gary told me he would be in the Portland area for a work assignment the second week of July. He was writing for an ESPN-affiliated website and would be in Beaverton reporting on an annual summer camp at Nike for the top high school quarterbacks in the country. We vowed to find time to see each other while he was here.
Bobby died while Gary was up here. Unable to get to Louisiana for the July 12 funeral, we had lunch the day before, on a gorgeous Friday afternoon as we looked out at the Columbia River from the Washington state side. We ate, drank and told stories about Bobby, laughing until we were crying. The Bobby stories led to other Lake Charles stories, which always led back to Bobby.
I was grateful to have Gary here to talk with about Bobby on the eve of the funeral. I’d like to think that Gary, so far from home, was glad to have me to visit with during that grief-filled week. On such a day, it’s easier to see the universe looking out for us when we’re in need.
Gary and I spent hours at our outdoors table at the restaurant, but I had to begin my Friday night shift by 3:30 p.m., so we said our goodbyes, gave each other a hug, and I headed downtown to the office. I stopped to buy coffee to go at a Starbucks close to work, and as I walked from my car to the coffee shop, I could hear a song playing on the speakers that allow those sitting at sidewalk tables to hear what’s being played inside.
It was “Lake Charles” by Lucinda Williams.
Now there’s another funeral, happening now, and Gary’s not here to make me laugh and feel better about things. This time, on the eve of the funeral, I spoke by long distance with Pam Spees, a mutual friend and former co-worker on an extended vacation from work in New York. She was in Lake Charles, planning to go to Baton Rouge for the funeral today. That conversation was another revisiting of the past, and of a number of emotions. I was grateful for it, too, and for Pam.
I don’t have an ending for this story, but I can tell you that once it’s posted, I’m going to have a cup of Community Coffee and listen to “Lake Charles” on repeat.
Miss you, Gary. Thanks for being here when I needed you. Rest in peace.