Farewell to a friend: John J. Fish

Donnie Douglas Contributing columnist

Sometime soon I will be speaking at the funeral of a best friend, and I know already that will be one of the hardest things I have done in my life.

I say a best friend because we have several who occupy different phases in a person’s life. John Jeffrey Fish became my best buddy in the fall of 1976, remained that way through my time at the University of North Carolina, and has always been an important part of my life despite the miles that separated us.

As I write this, John is at the very end of a 13-year battle with brain cancer that robbed him of so much, one that he waged with incredible courage and dignity. Not once during those 13 years did I hear John utter a single word of self-pity. I probably would have worn a T-shirt with “WHY ME?” emblazoned on its front.

We share so much — a love of UNC athletics, Atlanta Braves baseball, journalism, a good time, and we hovered in the same circle of friends, many of them fellow members of the Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity. I am among a legion of them who are heartbroken today. Everyone who knew John J. loved John J. — especially the ladies.

I met John in the fall of 1976 during Rush — for those who don’t know, that is when fraternities hold events to recruit new members — on the front porch of the Pika house. His hair was jet black and it turned out to be more than a match for years of chemo. He was flashing a mischievous grin, there was a twinkle in his eyes, he had a forward lean, and his entire affect was that he was ready to embark on a Great Adventure.

John would become my Pika Little Brother, and the Great Adventure commenced immediately. The stories are endless, largely needing no embellishment. Most aren’t necessarily appropriate for a daily newspaper. Our shenanigans during our two years as roommates, however, were a fraction of who John was at the time and the person he would become.

I remember also a Friday in March 2008 when Pat Davis, John’s mother-in-law and Lumberton’s current first lady, stormed into my office at The Robesonian, tears flowing, and told me John had a brain tumor. The next day his skull would be cracked open and a surgeon would remove what cancer he could.

Although John survived 13 more years and there were many more memories made, brain cancer robbed him of so much, including his work, his marriage and the freedom to live life on his own terms. John spent much of that time in a defensive posture, afraid to trigger a seizure or a return of the cancer.

In an interesting twist, John, a Boone boy, came to Lumberton in 1982 to work as a sportswriter at The Robesonian, recruited by Cliff Sharpe, a fraternity brother whose family owned the newspaper at the time. A year later I was in Greensboro, four years removed from college and pretty much rudderless, when John called and encouraged me to come to my hometown and give writing sports a try.

I did and would spend 30 of the next 36 years at The Robesonian, joined for a while there by two other Pika brothers, Ward Clayton and Sammy Batten. It is fair to say that John, although he only spent two years at The Robesonian, had an influence on the newspaper for decades.

I don’t know that John saved my life, but he certainly gave it a direction when there was none. I will forever be grateful for that gift.

Those old enough to have been readers of the newspaper at that time might remember the “I Fried Fish” T-shirts that the paper distributed to anyone who could out pick John on a high school football night.

John was really good at journalism and after his start at The Robesonian would spend time in York, Pennsylvania; Augusta, Georgia; Topeka, Kansas; and Naples, Florida, mostly on the business side. John was out in front when it came to the internet, and how it changed the newspaper industry. I remember him gazing into the future and telling me what he saw, although I mostly didn’t understand. As an executive at the Augusta Chronicle, he had the foresight to buy URLs related to The Masters that were eventually needed by Augusta National and were purchased by the club.

John was a terrific athlete, a leftie, and quarterback of Watauga High back in the day. But he sucked at golf and I remember when he was at the Chronicle him calling to say he was playing Augusta National the next day and what advice did I have.

“Don’t scar the course by taking divots,” I said.

I was told he holed out on every hole, often taking the long way around — not over — water hazards. There was no reliable information on the number of strokes taken and golf balls lost beyond “a lot.”

I share all this because there are many in this county who know John. This is where he met his ex-wife, Juan. They had two children, Hannah and Addie, and although John was lucky to meet his two grandchildren, Hunter and Garrett, he will be denied the pleasure of watching them grow up.

He is also survived by his parents, Barbara, and his spitting image John. Parents shouldn’t bury their children, and I promise both agree.

John’s parting gift is pending, when there will be a gathering of his friends, overwhelmingly Pika brothers, at a service in Winston-Salem. It will be a time to reconnect and to celebrate John’s life, which was lived largely despite the scourge of cancer that robbed him of what should have been the best part.

It was an honor to be asked to speak at his memorial service. I can only hope my words that day stand up to the task.