In the spring of 1986, a few months after we had arrived in Ann Arbor, Michigan, from a distant state, my wife Susan and I met Budd Gauger, who became one of our dearest friends. This meeting occurred at a gathering of University of Nebraska alumni in a Toledo restaurant. Budd and I found common interests not only in the exploits of the Cornhuskers, whom he called “The Men of Corn,” but also in gardening and journalism, neither of which I professed as avidly or practiced as blithely as Budd.
It soon developed that during football season, we would talk on the phone every week, reviewing details of the previous Saturday’s game. Sometimes we called immediately after a telecast, and Budd always laughed when I answered his ring by saying, “Husker Victory Central!”
But he could never understand a loss.
“We just looked out of synch,” he said disconsolately.
“Budd, the game was in Oklahoma. There were 75,000 people screaming against us.”
“I know, but…my word!”
For a few years when it was still a novelty to see the team on TV, a group of Nebraska exiles gathered in the social hall of St. James Catholic Church in Mason, Michigan, where the pastor was a native Nebraskan, and we watched on a large screen and ate popcorn. Budd would drive to our place–we lived in the village of Clinton in those days–and then we would shuttle the rest of the way together, always a pleasant trip over the country roads.
A big moment came on September 9, 1995, when the Men of Corn took on the Spartans in East Lansing. The home team was led by Nick Saban, the hotshot young coach who has since gone on to distinguish himself, but on that beautiful afternoon we destroyed them, 50 to 10, and as someone who disliked close games, who thought we should always win by 40 points, Budd’s giddy glee overfilled the stadium.
In 2004 we trekked to Pittsburgh to see our team take on the Pitt Panthers at Heinz Field. This game was uncomfortably close–we only won by 24 to 17–and whenever the home team made a good play, a panther snarled over the sound system at truly alarming volume. Budd recoiled every time. His gentle, pacific nature made no allowance for amplified menace. Good thing he never came along with me to hear AC/DC at the Palace of Auburn Hills!
We did many other things together: a violinist’s concert at the Peristyle; an exhibit of Andrew Wyeth’s “Helga Pictures” at the museum; and a Christmas program at his church, where the pastor bent over backwards never to mention God or Jesus.
But the best outing was an October Saturday when we went to the Ohio Gourd Festival in Mount Gilead. Only Budd would propose something like this. Even though it was a little, shall we say, offbeat, it turned out truly special. Vendors sold every variety of gourd and seed that you could think of, if you think of gourds. And crafts? There were birdhouses, Christmas ornaments, utensils, masks, musical instruments, and more.
We never observed Budd reaching a greater ecstasy. He loved to see people use their creativity. On the way home from Gourdtopia, we stopped at his favorite roadside place for dinner. I seem to remember his insisting on pie afterward. Susan remembers his complaints about the loud patrons.
After his retirement, we every so often for lunch in Dundee, Michigan. The first time, I took him into Cabela’s, the hunting and fishing store, where we looked at elaborate displays of taxidermy–noble elk, bears in attack posture, every sort of ridiculous predatory cliche–and he abhorred it as thoroughly as could be. It was like the time we saw the heavy industry on I-75 in Downriver Detroit. His revulsion was physical. “Why do we have to have this?” he said. Same thing when we went to Midland, Michigan, for an architectural tour, passing landfills along the way. Budd couldn’t contemplate ugliness any more than violence–at least the kind of violence that had nothing to do with football.
When he gave up his car, I would come to Lambertville and we lunched in an Alexis Road strip mall, a Chinese restaurant with dirty carpets. Budd thought it was “just marvelous” and enjoyed ice cream for dessert and was satisfied for the rest of the day.
We would have loved to attend his memorial service on May 18, but having left Michigan two years ago, it was just too far. We will think of him, though, imagining his attendance at Heaven’s weekly chicken auction, jangling the change in his pocket while he deliberates: what color silkie, how many, aren’t they all just marvelous?
Then that wry smile of his. He realizes he doesn’t have to choose. At last, he can have them all.
And Heaven excludes raccoons and ’possums.