Memories of a friend

The word “unique” gets tossed about too casually. Often it is used incorrectly. It means “one of a kind.” Thus the word takes no modifiers. Not “most unique,” “somewhat unique” or “very unique.” Just “unique.” Many times the appropriate word is “distinctive,” which refers to someone or some thing that is quite special and rare, but allows that there may be a few others with similar characteristics.
I am about to tell you about a unique individual.

When I relocated to Chapel Hill in the fall of 1965 to enter the University of North Carolina, I became involved in the Baptist Student Union (BSU). One of the regulars was a guy named Bill Colclough. He was older — how much, I was to learn, was part of a delightful, on-going mythology. He had graduated in some previous year and immediately began working on his master’s degree in summer sessions while teaching school. After completing his graduate degree, he continued taking classes. More on that in a minute.

I think my introduction to the myth came one evening at BSU when we were singing songs from mimeographed sheets. When we got to “Too Old to Cut the Mustard Any More,” it was dedicated to Bill. He smiled appreciatively and waved his arm as if to direct while we sang.

Yet while the myth — enjoyed by no one more than Bill — was that he was ancient, the reality was that he seemed ageless. He was at home in each generation of college student. He seemed never too shocked by current trends and was not judgmental. He was accepting of his friends and genuinely interested in them. I’m sure these qualities contributed to his success as a teacher and guidance counselor.

One memory illustrates his subtle wit and his proclivity not to say anything bad about anyone, as well as his perceptiveness. A past mutual acquaintance, a guy prone to affecting an air of wisdom, came up in a conversation one time. “As I recall,” Bill commented, “he was studying to be an intellectual.”

I witnessed these characteristics through the BSU community for many years. And then there were all those decades of courses.

Sometime, maybe in the early ’90s, I was in a gathering of BSU alums. We were introducing ourselves. I said I graduated in ’69. Others similarly said, ’72, ’80 or whatever their class year was. When it was Bill’s turn, he said slyly, “I graduated in June.” In a sense, though, he was a member of each class.

As long as possible, Bill’s summer break featured attending both summer sessions at UNC. Eventually, the shifting schedule limited him to only one session. He was a little disappointed. After he retired, he moved to fall and spring semesters, taking one class in each. He chose from among courses offered on Tuesday and Thursday, 9 a.m. or later. Most, if not all, were in history, his undergrad major, or English. There are few courses in either department that he never took, and I think that in time he may have revisited some.

Bill attended each year’s graduation ceremonies, as well as other commencement weekend events. One of those was the “Friday Frolic,” at which each reunioning class had its own tent. Bill dropped in to most or all. He once told me about running into a young woman who remembered him from a class or two they had shared. Though she was with her classmates, Bill was the only person there she knew.

This ability to relate to college students continued the rest of his life. In recent years, he had gotten to know some students at his church who eventually made him a member of their fraternity.

Many years into our friendship, Bill told me the actual year he graduated. It would be inappropriate for me to divulge that, but I will say, it was later than the 1910s. Still there is the myth. . . .

One evening in the early ’70s, a group of us were at a UNC baseball game in the then-new Cary Boshamer Stadium. Mr. Boshamer himself was there. When he was recognized, it was noted that he was of the Class of 1917. We all turned and looked at Bill. He smiled, nodded and said, “I remember him well.”

Bill often attended UNC games and various other campus activities. He rarely missed a football or men’s basketball game. I dare say he is the only person who was an enrolled student in the years of all six of the Tar Heels men’s basketball NCAA championships.

My wife and I saw Bill at so many events on campus, we grew to assume he always would be there. That tapered off some in more recent years, but it still seemed that he was always around. It will take time for me to stop assuming he’ll always be there.

Bill’s email address referred to him as “Wild Bill.” This was wonderfully ironic. He was a gentle man, who walked the straight and narrow, albeit with a sharp wit. Each email included a header that said something like: “A message from the past.” The default signature was: “Your best friend, Bill.” I’m sure he intended both to be humorous, though there was a lot of truth in the latter. Taken together, they present the myth and the man.