I don't know how Creighton Fee and I ever became friends. Certainly, the odds were against it.
Sure, we both taught at Paul Smith's, but in different disciplines, different buildings, and with different schedules. Plus, most of the time he wasn't even on campus, but was teaching out in the field.
Aside from all that, Creighton was no hail fellow well met, always walking around with a huge grin plastered on his mug, glad-handing friend and stranger alike - the living embodiment of Dale Carnegie at his best.
In fact, au contraire. Though he had a great sense of humor, he rarely smiled, and even more rarely laughed. Not only did he not suffer fools gladly - he didn't suffer them at all and it showed. And he didn't so much talk as grumble in sotto voce. All in all, he was a crusty old S.O.B. - a label I think he not only would've agreed with, but that would've made him smile, too.
As for us becoming friends? Who knows why anyone does? By their very nature, friendships are mysterious. They can transcend all lines and break all boundaries; be clearly understood, but not at all explainable; last beyond anyone's wildest expectations, or break up over nothing.
Since we knew each other for 40 years, the first 20 could've been a complete wash, and we still had two decades to get it together.
Ultimately, it doesn't matter when, why or how it happened - all that matters is it happened.
A sense of direction
Creighton was in charge of the surveying program at Paul Smith's, and the way he ran it, he WAS the program. His professional acumen and experience were matchless, and so were his status in and connections with the industry. But like a lot of people who are good and know it, Creighton didn't use his creds to fluff his ego; instead, he used them to help others - in this case his students. For one thing, he got surveyors associations to donate state-of-the-art equipment to the school, a lot of equipment - way up in the six-figures worth, if not beyond.
The other thing Creighton did for his students (aside from train them scrupulously) was help them find jobs. And find them, he did. Beyond that, he stayed in touch and interested in them for years. Inevitably in the course of our conversations he'd tell me about one of his charges who's now a successful surveyor. Plus his interest wasn't just professional - he knew who they married, how many kids they had, and darn near everything else.
He never bragged about his role in helping his students. Then again, he didn't need to, since it spoke for itself - especially in his students' devotion to him long after they graduated.
While he and I often talked about teaching, about education in general, and The Glory Days of PSC, we talked about a lot of other things too. Since he was a third-generation Tupper Laker, he had all kinds of stories about town history, characters, idiosyncrasies you name it. Plus, since he spent probably a full third of his life in the woods (he started at 13 icing the skidder roads for Oval Wood Dish), he was a font of information about woodsmanship.
I remember us discussing an article in the Enterprise about some flatlander who had to be rescued by the DEC because his GPS died. Of course he didn't have a map and compass with him, and I said something about how stupid that was.
"You mean it was stupid he didn't have a map and TWO compasses," said Creighton.
"Whattaya need two compasses for?" I asked.
"You ever stop to think what'd happen if you broke one, heh?" he said.
Point taken. I haven't gone into the woods with only one compass since.
The olive and the pits
While Creighton was no laugh-a-minute guy, he did have a good sense of humor and it was all his own. My favorite story highlighting it was told by one of his prize pupils, Stacy Allott.
In his day, Creighton liked martinis, and they liked him for the most part. He belonged to the Lions Club and at one of their night meetings he had one martini too many. The next day when he came into class, he wasn't in his usual fine form; in fact, he was pretty green around the gills. After about 10 minutes, he excused himself and left the room.
About 10 minutes later he came back, looking a whole lot better, but still not at the top of his game. He leaned on the lectern, took a deep breath, and then, shaking his head, said, "Musta gotten a bad olive."
The unspoken - and unvarnished - truth
Monday night before last, Creighton called. We schmoozed as usual. He talked about his students: I talked about mine. We reminisced about one of the old Paul Smith's characters who on whim decided to march into Dr. Buxton's office and tell him exactly what he was doing wrong as a college president. He told stories about one of his uncles and of being in Occupation Japan.
And on and on, until finally I had to hit the hay. In closing I asked him if he was up for our favorite Sunday morning ritual - having breakfast in The Swiss Kitchen with his wife Diane and the Amazon Queen. He checked with Diane, who gave the OK, and I said I'd call back on Saturday and get the time straight.
Unfortunately, that never happened. In the middle of the week, Creighton fell and broke his hip. He was operated on the next day, but never recovered and passed away on Sunday night.
Creighton was a real old-timer, one of those men who played his cards close to his vest. He never made a show of any of his emotions. He was loyal, kind, loving, and as good a chum as you could want.
But far be it from him to express such feelings. And, going along with that, far be it from me to express mine. For as much as I cared for him, I never told him. Nor did he ever tell me anything like that either.
Do I feel bad those things remained unspoken? Not at all.
Hey, I knew how he felt about me and he knew how I felt about him, and as much as I love words, I know there are times when they can't add anything.