Seven years ago, Dave McGrath, a local friend and athlete, died suddenly and unexpectedly.
Upon hearing of his death, a series of phone calls started - to my brother Pat, to Dick Hankinson, to Dick Shaffer and to Milford Pittman.
All of us had been close with Dave and with one another through our educational backgrounds and athletics. We shared and enjoyed the same activities.
Dave's viewing was in State College. Milford drove from Carlisle, and Pat, Hank, Dick and I drove from Altoona. We met at the funeral home, stood in line to say our goodbyes to Dave, to hug his wife Jeannie, his daughters Karen and Lauren and to hug his brother Tom.
Afterwards, the five of us gathered outside in the parking lot. Dick started to talk, struggled, could not find the words, and overcome with tears, had to walk away to compose himself.
And then he turned to speak.
"In 1964, I was hired to come to Altoona. I was assigned a group of students and was placed with other teachers. How was I to know that years later, those students and teachers would become my best friends?"
And, then, through tears, he said, "You don't know how much I love you guys."
Dick was a great teacher. He was always precise in what he said. Even though I understood the intent of his comment and was touched by it, I immediately knew that what he had just said was wrong.
Not only did we know, we all felt the same way. And while Dick may have thought that he said it too late, I think Dave McGrath knew it, too.
Again, this week, we were all shaken by the news that our friend Milford Pittman had suddenly and unexpectedly passed. But this time, the feelings that we had for one another were not left to chance. Not only were they expressed, they were expressed often.
Because of Milford's sports background, this column will appear on the sports page.
Milford was a standout football and baseball player at Altoona High School. He started every game for four years in college, either an offensive guard or middle linebacker at Shippensburg. For two of those years, he started every game both ways.
Milford also wrestled at Altoona, played Federation and City League baseball and coached football at Altoona and Derry Area.
He refereed wrestling at the high school and college level, working his way to both the PIAA and NCAA finals.
While all this is noteworthy, it is not where Milford's greatest impact was made. Sports did not define him.
He was his parents' son. He was the product of a loving and caring family. And it was that love and caring that he brought with him into every friendship he formed.
During the flurry of phone calls to, with, and among classmates this week, two different female members of our class referred to him in the same way: "He was always so kind and caring with me."
Their comments caused me to realize that it was not a sports or a "guy" thing.
Milford transcended that.
Indeed, the Milford Pittman that I and my classmates came to know would be best exemplified by Margery Williams' Velveteen Rabbit. He was made "real" by all those who loved him.
"It takes a long time. That's why it doesn't often happen to people who break easily or have sharp edges or who have to be carefully kept."
Milford the friend and athlete taught us all that there is nothing as strong as gentleness or as gentle as strength.
Through our classmates, he had many brothers and sisters who loved him. Milford was the only boy among three siblings.
Via birth he had no brother who loved him. In me, he had one, and in him, I had one more.