None of us will forget Tim Slevin’s laugh and his smile.
Since his death, memories have flooded us, laughter commingled with weeping, recalling the tales he told, both tall and true. Every recollection always seems to come back to that smiling laugh.
Tim’s courageous conviction that his cancer could be conquered was contagious. For thirty-three months, through daunting chemotherapy and radiology regimens, this happy warrior, this fighting Irishman believed that victory would be his, as we all prayed.
Now we have the memories that make us laugh and smile again. Capturing him in words is like trying to catch lightning, sunshine, joy, magic, and thunder in a Mason jar.
We met in 1961, both Spalding Institute sophomores-to-be aged 14. The Tempests, a band of schoolmates, were playing a summer dance in the St. Thomas school gym. Midway through their set, this apparition wearing blue-lensed sunglasses, black leather jacket, and blue jeans spun around, clutching a microphone and singing Little Richard’s “Jenny, Jenny, Jenny, won’t you come along with me?” I thought, “He looks like an interesting guy. I should get to know him better.”
I did. He was.
Because he bought a bass guitar, he moved to The Tempests’ front line, lead singer on Freddy Cannon’s “Tallahassee Lassie,” Huey “Piano” Smith’s “Don’t You Just Know It?” Bobby Vee’s “Walkin’ With My Angel,” Jimmy Soul’s “If You Want To Be Happy,” and The Showmen’s celebration of rock and roll, “It Will Stand.” Because I knew many lyrics, found a drummer from Canada attending Woodruff on my paper route, and drove a hard bargain for five matching blue batik blazers in Block and Kuhl’s basement, I became the band’s manager.
Quite rightly determining that The Tempests were increasing Tim’s exposure to beer and college girls twisting the night away, his parents Spalding and Jane terminated his music career. I filled in on the bass at one Bradley frat party in a barn on Pottstown Road by watching rhythm guitarist Paul Burson’s fingers before Billy Sutton took over.
However, music bonded us for the rest of our lives together. On the day the Beatles’ first Capitol single, “I Want To Hold Your Hand” b/w “I Saw Her Standing There” was released, we walked down to Jay’s on southwest Adams Street and bought it. Tim did a fab depiction of Paul McCartney on that picture sleeve.
His mischief was the stuff of Spalding legends. One day in Brother Houde’s senior English class, Tim snuck out the rear window. Some wit shut it. So Tim walked around the corner on the tiny third-floor ledge and knocked on Brother Houde’s front window to be let in.
His uncanny gift of mimicry stood him in good stead in Spalding skits. He’d mastered many imitations, but none better than his send-up of Father Brown, who’d been the principal our first three years there. With the loan of a cassock by co-conspirator Father Lund, our American history and French teacher, Tim became Father Brown, gesture and voice, down to the last dotty dignified detail.
As scriptwriter at one school assembly, I said, “To help motivate us to sell this truckload of World’s Finest Chocolate, an old friend has returned.” When Tim strode on, the gymnasium went up in gales of glee and howls of hilarity. I sat ten feet left of him, thinking, “They can’t give us jug until we leave the stage.” They didn’t; the Viatorians were laughing as hard as the rest of us. That grand moment turned up in the Spalding yearbook.
In 1964, Tim went west to Quincy College while I went north to Marquette University. Letters kept our friendship alive. He wrote like he talked, wild wit, sardonic observations. We shared our newest musical discoveries with one another. Discovering that Jim Morrison of The Doors sang just like our erstwhile sex-obsessed senior religion teacher Father McCarthy talked fueled more Timitations: “Come on, doctahs, light my fi-yuh.”
He turned us on to Lenny Bruce’s “Lone Ranger” schtick and the prison riot bit with Dutch and Father Flotsky. Musically, he was the first to be hip to everything from the Velvet Underground to Lyle Lovett to the Dixie Chicks to John Hiatt.
Over summers, he worked for his dad as a box salesman for Slevin Container Corporation while I was a night-side reporter for the Peoria Journal Star, getting off work around 11PM. More than once, we drove to Ishpeming in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to see Jim Croegaert and other erstwhile Tempests, now playing as The Heard. Homeward bound after a loud sleepless weekend, once I awoke outside Green Bay hearing Tim doing dialogue from Alastair Sim’s Scrooge, the Dickens Christmas classic 1951 film. Slevin had memorized every line. He never forgot them.
For one fantastic week after completing junior year, he and I teamed up to do publicity for The Heard’s booking agency, Ram Productions in Janesville. I interviewed and wrote, and Tim, wearing an Aussie bush hat, shot photos. We travelled all over the Wisconsin teen bar circuit, living on beer, bratwurst and brio, Kerouacs in paisley until the call of our “real” jobs forced our return to Peoria.
After graduation in 1968, Tim went off to U.S. Army officers’ candidate school in Georgia. He created the world’s shortest film, a ten-second slow-motion drive past a sign that said “You Are Now Leaving Georgia.” The Army’s slogan then was “A Choice, Not A Chance.” Lt. Slevin edited them with Magic Marker so they read “Choice? Not A Chance!”
I was teaching at Spalding, and then back up to Marquette to earn my MA in English. Our letters continued. Even in combat up country in Vietnam, his droll humor never failed him.
In spring, 1971, I flew home from Milwaukee with MA in hand to interview for a job teaching English at Illinois Central College. Since Tim was due to have completed his three years’ duty to Uncle Sam, after my interview I drove out to his parents’ home on Picture Ridge Drive. He answered the door. We took some beers out back and climbed up to the tree house overlooking the Detweiler woods. We were home free.
One memorable day, we walked from there down to the Illinois River. Tim hated spiders and every time he saw one enwebbed, he’d draw his .22 pistol, line up his shot carefully, and blast it to arachnid oblivion. “Do you think its little ears are ringing?” he’d say delightedly.
Only years later, on sabbatical at the Journal Star in 1982, did I discover that Tim had been awarded a Bronze Star in Vietnam…for disobeying an order. Up in country, the Viet Cong began hitting the villagers camped outside Tim’s compound. The terrified Vietnamese begged him to let them in, but the commanding officer had a standing “No Admittance” command. Though his master sergeant vigorously objected, Lt. Slevin gave them shelter from the shooting. After the captain returned, he called Tim onto the carpet and chastised him severely. Tim explained that they’d carefully searched each entrant and put them under guard where they could do no mischief. Nevertheless, said the captain, you disobeyed, you put the whole base at risk, and I’m recommending you for a Bronze Star; you did the right thing. That was one the one and only time we spoke of it His was probably one of the few battle stars awarded for compassion and mercy, not killing.
After living in Peoria for several years, we moved to the east side of the river, me to a Metamora farmhouse and him to the hills above Spring Bay, then later to a wonderful high-ceilinged home overlooking the Illinois River valley and the McCluggage Bridge.
Our misbegotten adventures continued. Once he climbed on my shoulders with his chainsaw to trim low-hanging branches. Young woodsmen, don’t try this.
Another time I persuaded him that we both needed to raise lambs, so we bought two each from an ICC colleague. He’d fashioned a triangular pen of 36-inch chicken wire. His duet took one look at that laughable confine, bounded over it, and for days were runaway ewes.
When they finally were tracked down in a barnyard down below, we went after them and cornered them. The bigger one went through me like Refrigerator Perry taking out a 145-pound Green Bay lineman, but Tim caught the other by the foot and for an hour, we carried that kicking, smelly, drooling beast back up the hills to his Alconbury Road abode. His young fiancée Nancy saw us returning victoriously from the hunt and brought down two ice-cold Michelobs.
“Slevin,” I said. “You’d better marry that girl.”
On Nov. 13, 1977, in their new mansion on the hill on Upper Skyline Drive, he did. I was the best guy. Son Drew was born on June 1, 1981, and daughter Natalie completed the family on April 22, 1983.
We shared many good times with them. When the Bears won the 1985 Super Bowl, the four of them and we four Fosters danced around the house, a triumphant Super Bowl Shuffle.
Slevin was always looking for new challenges and conquering them. Using the GI Bill, he learned to fly. His courtship of Nancy included flights around Illinois, practicing touch-and-go landings and seeking out grassy landing strips for romantic picnics.
Then he decided that Peoria needed a new auctioneer. So in 1989, off he went for a week at the Missouri Auction School in Kansas City, mastering the mesmerizing chants of the sudden sales artists. He donated his talents to good causes like Rock For The Cure and the campaign to save Metamora’s Black Partridge Park from golf course developers. My father Claude Foster, himself a lifelong road salesman, once said, “That boy could sell shit to the stockyards.”
We were competitive as only best friends could be, from eight-ball on his pool table to hand-held electronic football games to croquet to bocce ball to Guts Frisbee, which we’d play in hundred-degree humid July heat to frigid December matches splashing through ice-puddles with a frozen disc. Every Bears vs. Packers game, we bet a six-pack of good imported beer.
When my wife Jo and I would be gone for a weekend, a week, or even four months while I taught in Canterbury in 2004, our homestead of cats, chickens, turkeys, ducks, Guinea fowl, and lambs was fed and watered by Timwise Gamgee. Though he’d retired as shepherd after one year, he helped me bring home the two Cheviot ewes that would become my breeders in my Chevette hatchback. We were driving them up Germantown Hill, Tim in back trying to keep them from joining me in front., when two of his neighbors passed us by ogling and making “What?” gestures. Tim rolled down the window and yelled, “Double dating!”
He was a busy businessman and a sold salesman. His entrepreneurial spirit was infectious. He rightfully rejoiced in being Natalie’s not-so-silent partner in her Sugar Bakeshop in Denver and her star turn on Unique Sweets on the Cooking Channel. Nancy’s Good Mama jewelry-making business likewise made him proud. His July 4 fireworks shows and his “Uncle Chan” commentary loom large in his legend. Our dialogue as we shot pool wearing Shriner fezzes amplified the pleasure of playing what was, for me, almost always a sound defeat. But with Tim, I lost laughing.
Then cancer came.
In the time from his diagnosis to his death 33 months later, I only saw him twice. But I wrote him a cheering postcard almost every day. In our last phone conversation in late April, he was coughing and hoarse but chipper and confident that he was winning the match. “Maybe you can come over later this week,” he said.
“You just say when,” I replied.
That day never came.
When we would sit outside under the shade of the maples in my yard, we’d sometimes speak of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Old Friends” and “Bookends,” looking forward to the days when we’d sit side by side, lost in our overcoats, pondering how terribly strange it was to be seventy.
Alas. Tim Slevin and I will never share those days.
What I remember
Are nights we were driving or walking
And I remember
We solved so much just by talking
And we had our dreams
Of what would come to pass
When what would really last
Was the love and the laughter
What I remember
Is a smile that could warm anybody
And how it warmed me
Sometimes when the cold was upon me
And we did not know
How quickly it would fly (to)
Recalling with a sigh
The love and the laughter
What I remember
Is someone who through hell and high water
Kept on fighting
Not just for yourself but for others
And cancer could not break
The life it came to take
For even though we ache
The love and the laughter
Are what we remember