In January 2017, John Schuyler asked me to be Best Man in his and Samantha’s wedding. At the time, John was 35 and I was a youthful 67, so I’d better explain. We’ve known John and his family since he was in diapers. We are as close to family as you can get. When he came over to the house to ask me face to face he said “Jimmy was like a brother to me and I always thought he would be my best man. Since that can’t be, I’d like you to stand in.” I was humbled and of course I said yes. But I cautioned, “This sends a loud message and Jimmy will be on everyone’s minds front and center at the wedding. Are you sure you and Sam are OK with that.” His reply was firm. “That’s why I’m asking you.”
This was a big leap for someone who until two years ago could barely speak Jimmy’s name in our presence.
The wedding was eight months later on Friday, September 22—what would have been my father’s 98th birthday—at the historic Avalon Hotel in old Palm Springs. Marilyn Monroe used to stay in the bungalow next to ours. We got out there on Thursday for golf with the groomsmen and the rehearsal dinner that night at Spencer’s, a very fine restaurant at a tennis club tucked up against the mountains. The other “old guys” Frank Schuyler, Peter Sobchak and Craig Johnson were in my foursome. Craig’s son Dylan was a groomsman, and the former president of the SAE house at USC a year ahead of Jimmy who was president of his pledge class in 2004. All the groomsmen, except for me and Nick Marietti, played football at Torrey Pines with John. Nick was the quarterback and a teammate of John’s at Brown University. Very funny guy—raised in Michigan and now lives in Chicago—who had everyone rolling in laughter with his rehearsal dinner toast.
The weather was perfect. After four months of 110 and above, the temps crashed to low 80s—high season doesn’t get any better. Golf was fun and the tone of the weekend was established on the 15th hole of the Indian Canyon Golf Resort. Craig, who I hadn’t seen in probably 8 years, teed off last after the rest of missed the green badly on the 175 yard par 3. I remarked as his ball was in the air, “that’s on a good line.” I think I’m a caddy at heart. The flagstick was in the back and obscured by a big mound in front of the green. The rest of us scattered to hit second shots out of bunkers and elsewhere. When I finally made it to the green, the others were looking for Craig’s ball—in bunkers, long rough behind the green. Craig reminded me “you said it was on a good line, right?”
I marked my ball and walked up to the flagstick and looked down. Titleist 3 with one black dot. My heart raced and I stifled my scream. “Craig, come over here.” He sauntered over and looked at his ball nestled at the bottom of the cup. He yelled—and then began to cry. “I’ve never had a hole-in-one.”
He’s 68 and has played a ton of golf except for the two years he spent in prison from 2009-2011 for some alleged fraud involving tariffs on shipments overseas from his company’s mushroom farm. The last time we played golf was in 2004 in Ireland. We reminisced how we always seem to play better together.
I thought back to November 8, 2008, and the day we spent at our friends Del Mar beach house—the day my Dad’s forty-year old letter to me finally arrived on Jimmy’s 25th birthday. Craig and his wife Lori had been walking on the beach, saw us and came over to say hi. Warm greetings and smiles. I don’t remember telling them of the significance of that day, but of course they knew Jimmy had been killed by a car 3 months earlier. The timing of the encounter to this day resonates with us.
Seven months later, Craig had been indicted, and his wife Lori was struck and tragically killed by an early commuter train racing through Del Mar. During his toast Thursday night for his buddy John, Dylan mentioned those who would have loved to be there—his mom Lori, whose birthday was the day before, and Jimmy Gauntt.
There was this impossible to describe instant, electric, reconnection with Craig and Dylan. We hugged hard—over the hole-in-one for sure—but there was so much more involved. The pain we shared and endured but had not spoken to one another about. Craig and I talked about the miracle of grandkids. Dylan and his wife are expecting their second in one week; our Wyatt and Hunter. And how sad it is Lori can’t hold her grandsons nor Jimmy his nephews. I believe we all had this sense we were supposed to be here, right now, to experience together this rare event—to reconnect and bond. It was time. Craig snagging his first hole-in-one was a good sign. That, combined with Hilary’s discovery the week before, got me excited about what might else be in store for us this weekend.
As you can imagine, I was a bit anxious about the Best Man toast. I struggled for months over what to say-or not say- and frequently huddled with Hilary, Brittany and Ryan to share thoughts. One week before the wedding help arrived. That story is told in the toast which Brittany helped me deliver. I’ve edited it down to high-lite the “reveal.”
I am Casey Gauntt. My wife, Hilary, and I have known John since he was two years old and have an enormous well of information about him— John, that isn’t necessarily a good thing for you, my friend.
John, I am so honored and humbled you asked me to be your best man, even though you made it very clear I was not your first choice. I am proud to stand for you on behalf of our son and your good pal, Jimmy Gauntt and our family.
I am reminded of John Dale’s opening line of his memoriam at the memorial service for his old pal back in 2008. “I wish Jimmy could have written this, because it would have been so much better.” Those of you who were there will remember the assembled erupted in boisterous laughter—which was rather surreal under the circumstances— but it was so true! Jimmy was the writer and no one could have done it better.
As you might imagine, I’ve struggled with what to say tonight: What would Jimmy say? What would he want me to say? Last week, Hilary was cleaning out an old file cabinet. She hadn’t touched that cabinet for 15 years. It’s crammed with newspaper clippings, school papers, report cards and other memorabilia of when Brittany and Jimmy were kids. Hilary dreaded going into that rabbit hole. For her it was like Superman’s kryptonite. But she got a nudge—more of a shove really—and a clear message to “suck it up and get in there!”
In the middle of her archeological dig through papers she stumbled upon a letter. It was a full page, typed; the signature at the bottom was handwritten—Jimmy Gauntt.
Hilary realized it was the letter Jimmy wrote in the spring of 2001 as a junior in support of John’s application to Brown University. And, of course, he got in! Jimmy had written everything we’d been thinking of. And—yes—he wrote it so much better than we ever could.
Jimmy’s big sister, Brittany Kirby, would like to read from Jimmy’s letter. Thank you, Jimmy, for coming to our rescue and showing up to perform your duties as John’s first choice for his best man.
[BRITTANY KIRBY READING]
IN ALL THE YEARS I’VE KNOWN JOHN, I’VE COME TO SEE HIM NOT JUST AS A FRIEND, BUT AS A BIG BROTHER. JOHN HAS ALWAYS BEEN THERE FOR ME IN TOUGH SITUATIONS, WHETHER MAKING SURE I GOT PICKED IN THE FLAG FOOTBALL GAME AT RECESS, TO STANDING UP FOR ME WHEN A BIGGER KID WAS PICKING ON ME. AND WHILE JOHN HAS ALWAYS BEEN A YEAR AHEAD OF ME, HE HAS NEVER BEEN TOO COOL TO BE MY FRIEND, EVEN WHEN HE WAS ABOUT A FOOT TALLER THAN ME.
JOHN IS ALWAYS WILLING TO HEAR NEW IDEAS AND OPINIONS, BUT HE IS ALSO NEVER RELUCTANT TO HAVE HIS OWN VOICE BE HEARD. JOHN HAS ALWAYS HAD THE ABILITY TO MAKE SOMEONE LAUGH, BUT HE’S ALSO BECOME A GREAT LEADER. THIS IS SHOWN IN HIS ROLE ON THE FOOTBALL TEAM. JOHN IS DEFINITELY THE BEST PLAYER ON THE TEAM, EXCELLING ON BOTH OFFENSE AND DEFENSE. BUT YOU WOULD NEVER KNOW THIS BY TALKING TO HIM. JOHN LETS HIS ACTIONS SPEAK FOR WHO HE IS. WHILE MOST GUYS TALK ABOUT HOW GREAT THEY ARE, JOHN PROVES IT BY TRYING HIS HARDEST IN EVERYTHING HE DOES. I CAN’T THINK OF A BETTER ROLE MODEL TO HAVE. JOHN HAS HELPED ME IN SO MANY WAYS, RECEIVING NOTHING IN RETURN OTHER THAN MY THANKS AND FRIENDSHIP.
I’M LUCKY TO HAVE JOHN AS A BIG BROTHER.
AS LONG AS JOHN IS MY FRIEND, I KNOW I WILL NEVER BE ALONE.
John, you and Jimmy will always be brothers. Just as Brittany and Liz and Anne Schuyler are sisters. Their parents are two of our dearest and closest friends. The Schuylers are family to us.
Samantha— today you have officially become a member of the Schuyler family, and that also makes you a member of the Gauntt-Kirby family. We welcome you with wide open arms and loving hearts.
Let’s raise our glasses to Sam and John—may your lifetimes-and then some- be filled with joy, happiness, vibrant health and, above all, love.
Brittany and I were able to get through the toast with only a few choke-ups. The assembled didn’t fare as well. Hilary was a soldier. This is only the second wedding we’ve attended of Jimmy’s friends. We went to Evan Nicholas’s wedding five years ago but, as Hilary recalls, that was more of a spectacle: three live bands, New Year’s Eve, astronomical cost. It’s hard for her to see Jimmy’s friends nine years later, married, some with kids, well into their careers. Would Jimmy be married? What would he be doing now- writing? But she hugged everybody, wore her party shoes and beautiful smile, and it was really good for us and for the boys. It’s hard for them too. They miss their pal and they can’t help but ask “Why him?” Healing all around.
After the toasts everybody went to the dance floor or the bar- I chose the latter. A young, tall, good looking man came up to me. I had seen him earlier, and wondered who he was. I could tell he was nervous, standing ram-rod straight. “Mr. Gauntt, your toast touched me deeply on multiple levels. I’m Henry Armstrong.”
‘Why is that name so familiar?’ I asked myself. We shook hands and, as I’m still trying to place the name, Hilary walks up. “Hilary, this is Henry Armstrong.”
Hilary’s eyes fly open wide, tears ready to fall, and she asks him “THE Henry Armstrong? Can I give you a hug?” They held on to each other like their lives depended on it. I now knew who he was.
Henry Armstrong was the last person to see Jimmy alive. Henry was one of the crew who went bar hopping that Friday night with their other friends from high school, and he and Jimmy taxied back to Henry’s house in Rancho Santa Fe to continue the party. Henry’s mom finally made them go to bed around 3 and put them in separate rooms. A couple hours later Jimmy got up and decided to walk home. He didn’t make it.
We never heard from or reached out to Henry after the accident. We reached out to the driver of the car that struck Jimmy, but not Henry. Britt and Hilary recalled it was just too painful for us to talk to someone who was last with him; and we didn’t really want to know the details of those final moments. Of course, at the time we really weren’t thinking of how Henry must have felt. We had plenty of our own shit to deal with.
“Henry” was also this mythical character that wove through Jimmy’s life. As we observed in Suffering Is the Only Honest Work, Jimmy named his saxophone “Henry” after its French manufacturer, The Henri Selmer Company. His college application essay about his love affair with his sax was titled Welcome Home Henry. The main characters in two of his plays are Henry Allman in Leather Clad Chaperone and Henry Torrid in Now’s The Time. Henry Armstrong was like another one of Jimmy’s characters in this all too real play.
Hilary and I spoke with Henry for a while—he graduated law school in 2008, had just taken the Cal Bar two weeks before the accident, and has been with the Los Angeles office of a prestigious New York law firm for the past 9 years.
I gave him a bear hug, we both cried and I put my hand on his heart and said “I know I am here in Palm Springs to be hugging and talking to you at this moment. You mentioned levels. Jimmy has the ability to operate at many levels, ostensibly, I thought, for one reason—to help us with the toast for his buddy John—only to then reveal the deeper, more powerful reason—to connect us with you nine years later.”
We were there to help Henry heal.
It was noisy and Brittany and Ryan went off with Henry to someplace quiet so they could talk. They spent almost an hour with him. He told them how devastated and guilty he has been-why was he the last guy with Jimmy- what could he have done differently—why couldn’t he reach out to us? Brittany and Ryan assured him it was nobody’s fault but Jimmy’s, and there was nothing anyone could have done. Jimmy was buzzed, never had any sense of direction just like his old man, and decided to walk home—going the wrong way– on a very dark, windy and narrow road with no shoulders. It was his time to leave—as confirmed by all the mediums and psychics we have seen.
I saw Henry when he came back to the party. He seemed lighter and less anxious. We made a promise to get together for lunch or drinks very soon—and I know that is a promise that will be kept.
Oh yeah, and as Hilary and I were checking out of the hotel Saturday morning, the last person we saw before getting into the car was—of course—Henry Armstrong who was just getting back from a run. One more hug and confirmation of our promise to get together soon.
Big healing all around.
Please note some names have been modified in respect of their privacy.