Taller Than Me

Gary and me

My brother was taller than me. I didn’t think about it much when I was young because, well, he was older and I was growing too. It’s just not something that ever occurred to me.

Many of you who are seeing me for the first time could be forgiven for wondering if we’re really brothers. We don’t look the same. We live in different parts of the country. We’ve had very different careers. We don’t talk the same. But for the first 18 years of our lives, we were inseparable. Same small town of Neillsville in Central Wisconsin, same parents, same sister, same school, same teachers, same church, same church orchestra, same vacations. We even shared the same room. The only difference between us is that he was a year older. And he was taller, so he got the top bunk.

He was first to Kindergarten, and our family has an interesting story that tells you what kind of person he was, even back then. When the big day arrived, his mother dropped him at the school and told him to wait at this spot for class to end, and she’d pick him up. When the day ended, Gary dutifully went to the appointed location and waited for his mother. And he waited. He waited while all the other kids left with their parents, one by one, and he waited while, finally, even the teacher left and he was alone. I don’t know what happened that day. Probably Mom was caught up dealing with something caused by my sister or me. When she realized the time, she rushed back to school in a panic, thinking Gary would be all upset, probably balling his head off. But instead, she saw him waiting patiently, just as she had told him. “Mommy says she’ll be here, so I just have to wait.”

He was Momma’s boy.

Now that I’m a parent, I understand why my first day of kindergarten went so much more smoothly than his did. The second kid benefits from the mistakes you make on the older one. And that happened all throughout our childhood. Gary did something first, and by the time my turn came around, everything seemed so much easier.

I don’t think Gary liked having a little brother. But I liked — needed — him as a big brother.

He had a rough time in high school, and in some ways I owe my own success there to his example. We were both scrawny and awkward, “city kids” among big, tough farm boys. You can’t blame the ugly glasses or the mismatched clothing all on the 70’s. Face it, we were dorky. Perfect targets for any bully.

But he had to face all that awkwardness first. By the time they got done picking on him, they were bored with Spragues and ready to try some other kid. I was lucky to be younger.

He had better success outside school. His first job was delivering papers. Up every morning before dark, before school, in the Wisconsin cold. Fifty houses to visit on bike before school. If that bike broke down on the route, he had to fix it himself. In the summers, Dad put us to work too: cutting trees out in the woods.

Later, he found a job at a grocery store and saved his money. He bought his own car (and paid the insurance and gas), then a boat. All before he was 18. How many kids today can say that?

Then I left for college. Our parents moved to New Orleans, and Gary found himself alone in our home town. He was doing well — that grocery store owner told me recently that Gary was “one of the one or two best employees” he had in his entire 50+ year career at that store. I believe it. Nobody was more diligent than Gary.

But I think he missed his family, because after about a year he moved to Louisiana too, never looking back. For his entire life he was proud that he’d had enough initiative to leave his home town. It’s the advice he gave his children: follow the opportunity and don’t be afraid to move, far away if necessary.

After moving to New Orleans, he did okay for a while, but he had a hard time figuring out what sort of life he wanted. He didn’t want to keep working at an hourly job; he wanted a salary, a career, maybe in something like banking, a difficult choice for a young man with no experience or college degree. But he persevered, submitting applications throughout the south shore until he landed an entry job as a teller at the Whitney Bank in Kenner. It was a pay cut for him, but it’s something he really wanted to do, so on the side — nights and weekends — he did one more thing that ended up leading to the biggest and most important thing in his life.

He took a part-time job at Walmart, where he caught the attention of a girl named Maritza Feinstein. And everyone who knew Gary before and after will tell you that’s when his life really began. She saw something in him that until that moment he hadn’t seen in himself. He told me, “She makes me feel like I can do anything!” and it was true. For the first time in his life, he felt tall!

His life after that just clicked. They bought a house, fixed it up, bought another one, fixed it up. The kids arrived. He wasn’t afraid to work hard, and for many years he continued to work multiple jobs to provide for his family. Nobody worked more hours, or slept fewer than Gary in those years.

A diligent and honest worker, he served in a wide variety of positions at the bank, a breadth of experiences that, during the chaos of Hurricane Katrina, proved his invaluable operations abilities, earning a promotion to VP. After the recovery, he moved his family to Covington, where he bought a big home, surrounded by close family and friends.

And he watched his family grow. He was so proud of his kids. His daughter Kateylnn: a straight-A student, so smart, so confident. And Cameron, so far beyond anything Gary could have done. Gary played in the high school band, but nothing like Cameron. And Cameron: so good-looking, so many friends. Gary was so proud.

When we first heard the diagnosis, it was out of the blue. My brother had never been sick a day in his life, not a broken bone.

In fact, one of my earliest memories was of me in the hospital, looking down the corridor at my sister and brother. The doctors told us that I was unlikely to live, and that this could be the last time I see my brother. But now, here almost 50 years later, I was in the corridor again, only this time Gary was on the wrong side of the hallway!

But he fought it. He did every treatment he could find, changed whatever he had to to beat that thing. And all the while he insisted on continuing to do what he thought was important: work and most of all family.

A few weeks ago, I was with him on what looking back was probably his last really good day. He was full of energy and wanted me to drive with him to Gulfport for a business meeting.

And that’s how I will remember him: walking into that big glass headquarters building wearing his white shirt and banker tie, briefcase in hand. Confident. Dependable. Independent. A proud father. Devoted husband. Sincere and believing Christian. A loyal son. Great friend. My Big Brother.

He’s still taller than me.