It is bitter irony that Robert “Bob” Otten is in an Assisted Living/Hospice setting with a failing heart.
He is neither demented nor wasting from the devastating effects of a dreadful disease such as cancer. His heart valves are malfunctioning and he is too high a surgical risk. Perhaps if he were a young man there might be a replacement in his future, but he is 86 and medical technology has still not perfected the techniques they need to perfect.
As he sits in his reclining chair he has the chance to reflect on his life. I am blessed to know Bob. He is my friend and over the past 4 years of writing about Junius Kellogg, we have grown close. We have talked a few times since his admission, and my prayer is that we are able to talk a great many more times.
The other day I asked Bob if he ever thinks of Junius Kellogg. Yes, of course. Bob and Junius spent many hours together as Junius was dying of heart disease at the Bronx VA. Bob knows that soon it will be his time. I hope that I may soon report to Bob that a publisher has bought the book I’ve been writing about Junius. “Hope” is a tough word. Sometimes, it is the only word we have left.
For nearly 48 years Robert “Bob” Otten and Junius Ananias Kellogg were completely unlikely, unexpected and dear friends. We always talk of Junius, rarely of Bob. I recently told Bob how brave he was. He and Junius began their friendship in 1951 and it physically ended with Junius’ death in 1998. They were first roommates and teammates, then friends.
Bob stood up for Junius at a time when white men rarely took a stance against racism. It was never a one-sided friendship. Junius helped Bob get through the drug addiction and death (from that addiction) of Bob’s wife. Junius taught him to moderate his temper and to respond, not react to life’s challenges. Junius “woke” Bob to civil rights issues and Bob carried these attitudes into his workplaces and to life.
For a fact, Bob’s friendship with Junius cost him friendships with his “white friends” who, he reflects were never friends at all. He sees them now as men of privilege who came from privilege and were never introspective enough to understand that they could have helped — and didn’t.
Bob reports he has had 60 or 70 visitors since his admission. Most have said the usual things, avoiding the realities of the situation. This is human nature. However, one visitor threw him for a curve.
Bob was discussing the book I’ve been writing on Junius Kellogg with Bob’s heavy input. This “friend” basically said, “I don’t know why you’ve spent (wasted) so much time on this.” The friend could understand why Bob has invested so much time on remembering Junius. All of these years later Bob noted some of these privileged characters still don’t get it.
The picture I’ve featured shows Bob accepting an award for Junius at Madison Square Garden from the Harlem Globetrotters organization in August 1998 about three weeks before Junius’ death. Why? It is what friends do for each other.