I Never Expected to Carry The Torch for Junius Kellogg
Robert Peter Otten, September 4, 1933 – August 30, 2019
Yes, I have noted that the torch has been given to me whether I wanted it or not. I am a 5’9″ old man, Jewish and from Long Island. When I was young, I was 5’10-1/2″ but life steals height from most of us as well. I was always Jewish and I have always been from Long Island.
The man I am charged to elevate remains a 6’10” African-American from Portsmouth, Virginia. It is not an easy burden to carry a man who at one time was the “toast of New York City” and the arguable, ethical light of 1950s collegiate sports, especially the sport of basketball.
To the very end of Robert “Bob” Otten’s life, he loved Junius Kellogg. This is not Hollywood drivel, it is a fact.
Two “anecdotes” I immediately want to share. After Bob was settled in hospice, he was visited by something like 75 people. One of those people (a former classmate) asked Bob why he had “wasted” so much time on Junius. Bob reacted as violently as a man on oxygen with a bad heart valve and Lewy body dementia could react. Knowing what I knew about Bob Otten, had the conversation taken place 50 years earlier, Bob would have placed the man through a wall. Bob could smell a racist a hundred yards away. Bob was raised by racists. He hated their ugliness.
The other anecdote was if Bob thought of Junius in the quiet times in hospice. I asked this of Bob in our second to last conversation as Bob was dying of heart disease. Junius died of a heart infection in September 1998. Yes, was the response, I think of him all of the time.
For myself, I have learned that friendships come when they come — and they’re complex. About 4-1/2 years ago, when Bob was about 82, he and I started talking. I had no idea that it would be possible to make a new friend. We became good friends. We talked nearly every week, sometimes several times a week, sometimes several times a day. I treasure each conversation.
He was plain spoken and quite disdainful of those who had tried to make a living off of Junius. He never forgave them. Frankly, there were some family members who lacked the class to thank Bob for his efforts on Junius’ behalf. Bob deserved better. One of them even tried to shake me down for his participation with this book project. I declined of course. I’m a writer, not a millionaire.
There is no sense to reason why there was mistrust. We know the answers. The racial divides created by this nation are not valleys but chasms.
I was told that Bob Otten would last six months, maybe more. I had hoped that, anyway. Nature works in her own damn time, good or bad. Bob lasted two months. I never flew to see him. I told him I loved him. He told me he loved me. It was enough.
He was surrounded by family at the end, the way it should be. I was, after all, only the writer. But he shared a lot with me. Every so often his insights were astounding. His memory could be amazing and he did all he could to hook me up with book endorsers and alumni.
Bob wanted no funeral. He felt he had said good-bye to everyone and it was enough. He will be interned in Maine. I would like to visit his grave and talk to him.
I promised Bob I would never-ever give up on the book. I won’t. In my lifetime I have broken many promises to those who loved me and those who didn’t. This is one promise I will keep.
I have still not processed my friend’s death. I expect to call his home, as I have done a hundred times before, and wait for him to say, “Who’s this?” Whereupon I would tell him someone’s name — any name. We would joke about colleges, religion, the president, but never about the book. It meant too damn much to both of us.
Publishing sucks. I have a good agent but she can only push so hard. Bob died without realizing this dream. It is no one’s fault.
I carry the torch. I can do it. I want to do it. This book will get published.