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A nerd maybe, but a friend indeed

I once had a friend named Ralph.


Ralph was a very private person, a loner even, and would roll over in his grave if he knew I was writing about him. 


To describe Ralph as a nerd wouldn’t be far off the mark. One definition of nerd is “a person who is extremely enthusiastic and knowledgeable about a particular subject, especially one of specialist or niche interest.” Another says, “an unfashionable person who lacks social skills or is boringly studious.”


I would give Ralph check marks on both. But I wouldn’t narrow his focus to just one specialty since he had broad interests. As for lacking social skills, he could be friendly but not in a back-slapping way.


I got to know Ralph when we were both attending a large church. The friendship was a bit unbalanced since I was married with three young kids and he was a bachelor.


He wasn’t a bachelor by choice. He once told me that he had a girlfriend he had serious intentions for. But she dumped him for someone, I would assume, who was lacking in nerdiness.


Ralph and I became friends after I began road running in the early 1980s. He wasn’t a runner then but had been a sprinter in high school. I think he may have been fast enough to advance to the regional or state finals.


We used to talk about the fastest milers or marathon runners of the day. And I would tell him my latest time in the 5K or 10K. 


Once he and I were out walking on a trail and he asked me to run at my pace so he could “feel my power.” Even though I was nowhere near world class, Ralph was curious to know what it was like to be a serious runner.


Another time, Ralph went with me to a high school track where I often worked out. He had his stopwatch and timed me in the mile.


I trusted Ralph as a timer because I knew how meticulous he was to detail. He was a math major, after all.  


I had run close to 5-minute miles but had never broken the mark. When I completed the four laps, Ralph told me I had run just under 5 minutes, 4:58. I was overjoyed as I looked at his stopwatch.


That was my first and last mile under 5 minutes and I have Ralph to thank, at least for his support.


It was about that time that Ralph came up with the idea to hold a field day for the church. It would be at a large park with paved driveways. 


Prior to the event, we set out to mark the race distances. We planned to have 100, 200 and 800 yards, one mile and two miles. We used Ralph’s tape measure to mark off the distances by making etchings in the asphalt. 


The field day came off pretty well with most people taking part as spectators. The next year we held the field day at a high school track and included jumping events. Ralph was a really good broad jumper.


But Ralph was interested in more than track and field. He devoted much study to science. I think he was especially fascinated with space and had taken an astronomy course in college.


Just as important to Ralph was classical music. He had enough experience attempting to play pieces on the piano to let me know how difficult it was.


As for Ralph’s private life, he would normally preface any personal information with, “Don’t tell anybody, but …” Then what he would tell me was usually something I would have no qualms about writing about in my weekly column.


In fact, he read one of my columns once and was surprised I had been so public with what he considered confidential.


But that was Ralph. 


Don’t tell anybody but, he said one day that he was shaving in his car while driving to church. He probably knotted his tie as well from his driver’s seat.


The last time I saw Ralph, he was attending another church and we seldom ran across each other. He told me he was having pains in his shoulder that were ongoing. I don’t think he went to the doctor about it since, well, he was private about those things.


It was just a few months later that I heard of his death, probably from a heart condition. I immediately remembered his shoulder complaints.


Ralph would have never won a popularity contest and was certainly not the life of the party. But he was a good friend who would favor me with a rare smile when we met.


Larry Penkava is a writer for Randolph Hub. Contact: 336-302-2189, larrypenkava@gmail.com.