Thursday, December 15, 2011

Put an X in the box for Cox

He was good at everything he did. Correction, he excelled.

He never lost an election, from junior high to high school, even winning office as chief justice of the supreme court at Boys State, in a short week winning the hearts and minds of some of the best and brightest among high school Californians. I imagined, right about now, he would be a U.S. Senator. He might even have employed the same mnemonic slogan he used every single time he ran, trumping complex and conniving political strategies: Put an X in the box for Cox.

My friend, Greg Cox, passed away Dec. 5. A life lived fully, and ended too early, is encapsulated here.

Regret sucks wind out of my chest. Greg and I hadn't spoken for more than 20 years. The last we met and talked was in Solvang, near our hometown of Lompoc. He joined my wife and me for Long Island iced teas — we felt so grown up — and I don't remember what we talked about. Life story stuff, probably. It was the first and only time he had met Nancy.

Greg had just finished law school, another in an amazing beaded string on his academic legacy: 4.0 grade point average (we came in advance of Advanced Placement courses) and valedictorian at Cabrillo High School, where he was also student body president; 4.0 GPA as a Stanford University undergraduate, earning degrees in political science and economics; 4.0 GPA, I'm told, at Stanford law school. And what I didn't know — among the many things I didn't know — an MBA from Stanford Business School.

Everyone who knew him would say of him, "It figures." He was our equivalent of a golden boy, the best at almost everything he did, almost entirely by his own hard work, but also by benefit of what Seneca said: "Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity."

President Greg with me as
everyone's favorite genocidal
mascot, Juan R. Cabrillo …
"Golden Boy" diminishes him. Though intelligent and gifted, he took almost nothing for granted, and harnessed his gifts with hard work. Many, many school mornings I found him already sitting at the trigonometry or physics teacher's desk, his textbook and homework laid out, going over in detail the concepts he didn't understand, until understanding ensued. It was a lesson I took with me, though I rarely applied it myself, misguidedly relying on my wits in hopes of understanding what I still don't understand.

I repeated Greg's example for my own children, with spotty success. Our teachers probably remember Greg most for his early-morning doggedness.

Besides excelling in school — and still being blamed for skewing the curve — he played varsity basketball and golf, lettering most of his high school career. In our junior year, with the addition of a talented kid who transferred from an overseas Air Force base, Greg played on one of the state championship basketball teams.

Greg just made it look easy.

He was so smart. In our introductory addresses in seventh-grade speech class, when everyone else said he or she lived at such-and-such an address, Greg said he "resided" at his "domicile." None of us knew "resided" or "domicile" or how to use them. He was an only child, his dad a judge, his mom kind and gracious; I imagine he got a lot of attention, but he also rose to high expectations. I remember even in elementary school he had a four-drawer file cabinet in his bedroom, where he kept his schoolwork organized.

Part of Greg Cox' high school legacy, courtesy of a Flickr
photographer. Trees obscure the whole phrase, "Cabrillo
Spirit Conquers All." Greg pushed for this as student body
president. I remember lengthy, sometimes bitter debates
about the wording — Cabrillo's motto is "Our Spirit
Conquers All," after all — and about whether to pay for
such a monument at all.

Wit lightning quick, he could also plant a barb deep, and mock without mercy, and box you in during an argument, smiling just before you realize you were doomed to lose. I imagine some classmates still remember with reddened faces some fierce debates during student body government meetings.

He was a Boy Scout, and had we another opportunity — one in which I likely did not badmouth Boy Scouts — I might have joined the Scouts and fulfilled my passion for backpacking way back then, rather than waiting more than 30 years when my son wanted to be a Boy Scout.

Greg as ASB president, leading
the sometimes sharp debate
over that same monument.
This and above, from
Tierra Royal, Cabrillo
High School's yearbook.
Where Greg went after Stanford, I wasn't sure, until his obituary filled in some gaps. South Dakota for a while, I heard. South Dakota? Something about venture capitalism. He was a principal for a Pacific Northwest investment firm, when he died, near Seattle. His obituary also says he worked for one of the Silicon Valley's premier law firms, in Palo Alto, before that. These are just some of a long list of achievements.

My memory of him, I'm sad to say, is stunted, locked somewhere in the late 20th Century.

In high school it was the three of us — Greg, John Bingle and me. Mr. Johnson, one of our math teachers, called us The Triumvirate; I'm not entirely sure it was a compliment.

When we had time and moments to break free from the various and sundry vagaries of high school life — girlfriends (John), jobs (Greg), term papers (all of us) — we went into default mode: Driving downtown, usually in Greg's green Mercury Cougar, just driving around town and talking, talking, talking, about things far away.

Almost always, we'd end up at Winchell's Donuts near the crosstown railroad tracks on H Street and East Laurel, each of us with a bag of doughnut holes and chocolate milk, talking more under the blanching fluorescent light until we went home.

Annoyingly taciturn now — jabbering instead with my fingers — I wonder how we could have talked so much.

Once in my senior year, I came home late (still before midnight), and my mom went into a fit and started clapping me hard on the shoulders. All the time she was punctuating her anger with her open hand, I found it funny that the worst we were doing, the worst we had ever done, was waste Greg Cox' gas and scarf doughnut holes and chocolate milk.

The stuff of legend, that was us.

On one final drive around town, our conversation comprised what I imagine so many longtime friends talk about on their last meeting: That this was not the end but the beginning, that we would always stay close, that whatever mysteries awaited us, whatever adventures, whatever families and jobs, we would enfold them into our friendship. Our future selves would radiate from this center, this foundation we had built. We wrote the same to each other in our yearbooks.

It was, in retrospect, a jinx. Greg went famously to Stanford, John to Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology ("What?" we ragged him. "Where's that? An all-male university? What?"), and I stayed nearby, at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo. John and Greg went on to amazing careers that early outpaced my capacity to imagine that such careers were possible.

But of course we were not the center of our forthcoming mysteries and adventures and lives. The center dissolved immediately, and off we went, rarely to reconnect.

(Now I remember that this was part of our conversation over drinks in Solvang! Greg mocked our conversation in his car that August night after our senior year; even though he was part of the treacly heart-felt conversation, his recollection almost made it sound like he was outside the car looking in, scoffing. But that was Greg as I knew him then, and I'm sure I had my snarky moments too; I also know I've changed in many ways, good and bad, over the last 20-plus years; I miss the opportunity to discover how we've changed.)

I have talked with John more often — unfortunately not much more often — the last time forgoing my high school reunion to attend John's family's memorial for his mom the summer before last.

John said later he talked with Greg during that memorial weekend. We should get together and celebrate our 50th birthdays together, Greg told John. It's been way too long.

Regret wracks me. I'm the absolute worst at doing something about catching up, looking back, revisiting, even though those impulses nag me on occasion. Facebook, thank goodness, enables effortless connections at those moments. I wonder how and when I would have learned of this bad news without it. 

How appropriate this week that I remembered our last adventure. The subject was hypothermia, because I was talking with a swimming friend who I join twice weekly on cold-water swims.

Somehow Greg, John and I talked our parents into letting us go on a week-long fishing trip in the eastern Sierra, to streams Greg fished with his dad since he was little. Somehow, I talked my parents into letting me take our truck with the camper shell where we'd bunk. Somehow, I talked myself into fishing.

For the early part of the week, we stood in jeans, waist deep in wildly rushing icy June streams, pulling out trout almost as soon as we had dropped our hooks. I know enough from having been a Scout leader that we were doing a really stupid thing.

Greg and John stayed in until sundown some days, long after I had gotten out to read or watch the landscape change. They gutted fish well into dark, stopping only when one of them realized aloud that they could easily have cut into their frozen hands and not known it with all the fish blood spilling over the rocks. It was one of several ways in which we could have gotten hurt or died on that trip, of self-inflicted knife wounds or hypothermia or car wreck or pneumonia.

Small wonder I would not have let my own kids take such a trip. I'm glad they never asked.

Before going home, we headed south out of the Sierra to Magic Mountain, talking about everything and nothing the entire way. On the homeward leg, we tired of one another for reasons that befall most people trying to have the time of their lives in close quarters, and spent long final stretches of the journey in crushing silence. Home again, we were fatigued but at peace. We were ready for wherever we would go. We were ready to move on.

That's what I choose to live on in my memory. I pray for Greg and his mom and dad.


  1. Thanks Shawn. Too many times I was too busy in life to keep up with some of those things that were important in life.

  2. A wonderful tribute, Shawn. Thank you for bringing back some memories and sharing yours.

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  4. Shawn, an eloquent rememberance. You portray the strong friendships and bonds we are fortunate to come upon in high school and how those bonds may wane when we lose touch but how they can never be broken. A rememberance for all of us to restore those bonds of friendship before they wane even more.

  5. Thank you for sharing your memories with us. It makes me want to reach out and hug my high school friends. When all is said and done, no amount of worldly success can equal the importance of building lasting relationships.

    T. Lea Smart Moser, CHS class of 1981

  6. Thanks for your words in this blog and your stand up memories at the service. With regrets, I am guilty of not staying in contact with Greg these many years. As boys, we were good friends and team mates. Today I sat and listened about a man that grew into a genuine gift to all who he shared his life with. In the service today, the pastor spoke about 1 Corinthians...Love is patient and kind. Love is not jealous or boastful or proud or rude. It does not rejoice about injustice but rejoices whenever truth wins out. Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance. The men and women who spoke today described a man who lived out this verse in all aspects of his life. I left the service thinking, shame on me for not keeping our friendship alive all these years. It is said "That in tragedy, God has the power to bring something good". I think we can all learn something about the true value of relationships and how precious they are through this tough life experience.

    Greg Radabaugh,CHS class of 1979

  7. Shawn:

    I have never met you but I am grateful for these very (obviously) heartfelt words. I was one of Greg's good friends at Stanford, and kept in occasional touch with him after we both left campus. He was a very loyal friend, and NEVER forgot people with whom he shared meaningful times. At Stanford he would repeatedly talk about various folks from high school--principal's son(?) Dave, York/Jeff/T.P. from the basketball team and the '79 CHS team he was so thrilled to be a part of, someone named Dan Loney?, and--I'm pretty sure--friends named Shawn and John. Most people in college sort of ceased talking about the hometown and frieds of youth, he NEVER did. He wore those memories and friendship with lifelong pride. Like you all, it is very difficult to come to grips with this. Prayer is the right thing, for all members of the Cox family. The Lord can do what we cannot.

    --John Platz

  8. hello all: your kind comments and lessons and shared memories warm me. thank you! shawn