The friend I needed in 1975

Jennifer & I hiked the trails in the McDowell Mountains this week, on the NE cusp of Phoenix, AZ. Here is Jennifer on the Gateway trail on Christmas afternoon.

Back in 1975 when I was in college in Manhattan, Kansas, I met a guy named Larry Londen. He was a city boy from Phoenix, Arizona. I was a small-town boy from Colby, Kansas. We were both attending a tiny Christian college trying to figure our our faith and what we were supposed to do in life. Larry befriended me when I really needed a friend.  I was going through a hard time, and Larry accepted me just as I was.  

Larry was opinionated, crass, and weird, but he was also open-hearted and gave me a wide berth. That’s exactly what I needed.

When Spring break rolled around in 1976, Larry asked me to drive with him from the college in Kansas to Phoenix, Arizona, so I could meet his family and we could spend the week in the sun and goofing around Phoenix.

Off we headed, driving through the night and much of the next day. Finally, we pulled into Phoenix and suddenly we were at the entrance of the Biltmore estates in north Phoenix.

Larry didn’t tell me that his father was the founder and CEO of a big insurance company or that his mother was deeply involved in Arizona politics. In fact, his mother was the first woman ever to head the Republican party in Arizona. I thought Larry came from a family with some money because he freely used his dad’s credit card to pay for whatever he wanted. Most students I knew didn’t have that luxury.

Larry’s home sat on the edge of the Arizona Biltmore golf course. Larry had only said his family were really looking forward to meeting me, and that turned out to be true. When we arrived at the gated community, Larry pulled out a pass out of the glove department of his car and showed it to the guard at the gatehouse. The guard raised the gate and Larry snaked his car through the exclusive neighborhood. Finally, Larry pulled his car up a half-moon drive and stopped in front of his home.

“This is it?” I asked.

“Yep,” Larry said, “This is it.”

“Wow, Larry.”

In the middle of the house there was a water fall flowing through desert plants. I had my own room and bath for the week. A sliding glass door in the bedroom exited onto its own patio. It’s where I read my Bible in the mornings. I’m sure I had great devotions that week. 😊  

The full-time maid took me under her wing and seemed glad I was there for a week. Larry’s parents and brothers were great — friendly, curious, and very welcoming. This kid from a working-class family from a little town in northwestern Kansas was in tall cotton that week.

Larry and I ate almost every day at the Arizona Biltmore club house, where Larry put the bill on his dad’s tab. That worked for me!

Some time during the week, Larry’s dad – Jack Londen – tried to recruit me to be an insurance agent for his company, telling me “You finish your Bible degree up there in Kansas and then come out here. I think it’s safe to say that before you know it, you will do very well financially, and I think you’ll love Phoenix. But you’ll have to want it, and you’ll have to work your tail off. There are a lot of great churches here in the valley, too. You’ll fit right in.”

My goodness, I really was taken with Mr. Londen. He was charming, self-confident, insistent and more opinionated than his son Larry. He smoked a long cigar while we talked. At one point he asked me what I thought of Jimmy Carter, who was running on the democratic ticket for the presidency in 1976.

I said, “I like him, I think. He’s a nice man.”

“What? Now don’t tell me you’d ever vote for a democrat,” said the man whose wife became the chairperson of the Arizona Republican party.

1976 was the first presidential election I ever voted in, and in fact I did end up voting for Jimmy Carter, the man with the big smile from Plains, Georgia.

Of course, life goes one direction.  I became a campus pastor at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, not an insurance man in Phoenix. I went east, not southwest. I have now ministered in east-central Illinois for nearly 42 years. It’s been a good ride, and I’m glad I made the decision to enter the ministry back in the day and come to Illinois.

Fortunately, I did stay connected to the valley of the sun by marrying a beautiful blonde young lady from Phoenix. She has now been my wife for 41-and-a-half years. She loves to come back to the desert, and that makes it fun for me, too. We’ve taken some lovely hikes this week, just on the north cusp of Phoenix.

We are staying at a Franciscan Catholic retreat center in north Phoenix called the Casa. We’re reading, hiking and pondering life. 

Back in the summer of 2017, Jennifer and I actually spent the summer here (June 4-August 9). I was given a summer sabbatical by my board and spent 8 weeks studying spiritual formation at Phoenix Seminary in Scottsdale with Dr. Ted Wueste.  That summer we rented a condo from a Canadian fellow near the seminary. The condo was next to the Paradise Memorial Garden, a cemetery in Scottsdale. 

What I didn’t know until this week is that Larry’s parents – Jack and Doris Londen – are both buried at Paradise Memorial Garden – Doris in 2006 and Jack in 2015. Their grave sites are only about 150 yards from the condo Jennifer rented during my summer sabbatical in 2017.

Yesterday I drove into Paradise Memorial Garden, found their grave sites and paid my respects to my friend’s parents. One of Larry’s brothers is laid to rest there, too.

Sadly, my old friend Larry died about 25 years ago out in California. I don’t think he was even 40. Before I met him back in the 1970s, he struggled with lots of substances. He was very open about it and told me how he found Jesus and put that life behind him. It was quite dramatic to hear him tell about his conversion.

In the early 90s before Larry died, he phoned me out of the blue one day from California.  I hadn’t heard from him then for more than a dozen years. He told me he was married and had a 10-year-old son. I’d lost touch with Larry and didn’t know any of that. He said he and his son were going to take a cross-country road trip. “Just the two of us,” he said. He wanted to stop in Illinois and see me. I told him that would be great.

The phone conversation ended, with Larry telling me he would call me back with the details of trip. But he never did. I always just thought something must have come up and I sort of forgot about it.

Sometime later – some months later as I recall, although I don’t exactly remember how many – a friend who knew both Larry and me called me and said Larry had died.  He said he didn’t know the details but he thought I would want to know. I immediately called the insurance company in Phoenix headed by his dad. Fortunately, I got to talk to him for a few minutes. I offered my deep condolences.

When I asked his dad what happened, he just said, “I don’t know.”

I could only reply, “I am so sorry.” 

“Yeah, me too,” he said.

Over the years, especially given the advent of the internet, I have tried to look up Larry’s obituary, but to no avail. I knew the town in California where Larry lived, but I never found an obituary or anything about his death, or for that matter anything about his life preceding his passing. Maybe there wasn’t an obituary. I just don’t know.

Hiking this week with Jennifer at the famous Camelback Mountain in North Phoenix

This week out here in Phoenix I visited the graves of Larry’s dad and mom, and his brother. I thought back to the days when the two of us became friends back in 1975 and how Larry accepted me for who I was. Even though the friendship covered a span of barely 2 years, I haven’t forgotten it. This week I am glad I had a chance to relive that memory at a cemetery in Scottsdale, Arizona.