[Editor’s note: This story first was published on BoomerCafé in January 2014]
There’s something that as baby boomers we’re going to be doing more and more as the years roll by, and BoomerCafé’s co-founder and publisher David Henderson is doing it right now: remembering friends who aren’t with us any more. Which is why he has written a touching story, his Tribute On The Passing Of A Childhood Friend.
Maybe it’s part of the stage of life when we cross milestones, like turning 50 and then 60, but I catch myself taking stock of my own life. It goes beyond career and accomplishments to more primal and important questions of a life well-lived.
In Steven Spielberg’s powerful film, Saving Private Ryan, the fundamental questions the survivor asked of his wife were simply … “Tell me I’ve led a good life. Tell me I’m a good man.”
What is on my mind is the passing a few months ago of a good friend from my high school years in Arlington, Virginia, and reflecting how much she influenced my awareness in life during a very short period of time, decades ago. Her name was Beverly Bancroft.
Beverly was a loner by choice in high school. I wonder whether it was because her parents were serious alcoholics, and she was embarrassed by things at home. But, we were friends, and she opened my eyes to the world.
While doing homework together in the enclosed porch of her house, she played the LP recordings of singer Paul Robeson. I had never before heard such a rich, bass voice, and I had no knowledge of Robeson. Even before the start of the civil rights movement, Robeson had renounced America over the country’s racism, hatred, and provincial ways. He had moved to Moscow, as much in protest as anything else, I believe, because in his songs, he sang of his love for America.
Most people in my generation were not aware of Robeson and his magnificent voice because his recordings were banned from the airwaves. He was viewed as a “commie,” and there were no stories about him in the newspapers.
Years later, while working at CBS News headquarters in New York, I heard a radio station play an entire hour of Robeson’s songs to commemorate his birthday. I was driving home, and pulled my car in a small park beside the Palisades Parkway in New Jersey, just to pause and fully enjoy listening to Robeson’s magnificent voice. Thank you, Beverly.
The folk concert
Then, there was that snowy Saturday afternoon in December during our high school years that she drove over to my house in her dilapidated post-World War II, German-made Taunus car with broken windshield wipers to pick me up and take me to a concert at the Shoreham Hotel in Washington. She told me the names of the singers but I’d never heard of them.
Walking into the ballroom of the Shoreham, which had been set up with chairs for the performance, was like walking into another world for a kid, like me, who had been raised in the sheltered environment of Arlington. There were people of all races, many cultures, different languages, and dress. There were even men with ponytails. People were laughing and embracing. It was a different world to my young eyes.
Pretty soon, the room hushed, and a group of three or four people walked out onto the makeshift platform stage followed by a thin man carrying a banjo. When he spoke to greet the audience, his reedy voice was filled with more joy than I had ever before heard. And, then, they sang … and my world of awareness was changed again with the songs of Pete Seeger and the Weavers. I have no recollection of the drive home but I knew that concert had altered my awareness about life.
Some years later, I was visiting with Pete Seeger, and he remembered that concert fondly. Then, with his famously wide smile, he said he also remembered all that darned snow. Thank you, Beverly.
In the short time I knew Beverly … short in the span of a lifetime … she opened my eyes and left indelible knowledge and good memories that have always been a part of me.
I never saw her again after high school years. She graduated from George Washington University, and moved to Europe, never to return to America to live.
In London, she worked for Penguin books and met an author named John Berger. They married and moved to a remote village in the French Alps.
Haute-Savoie in the French Alps
The last letter I received from Beverly was in 1990. It was a lovely description of their life in Europe. Berger had become … and still is … famous in Europe for his writing, novels, poems, paintings and screenplays. Beverly wrote of how rock stars and celebrities would come to the remote serenity of their home to visit her husband, such people as David Byrne and The Stones. She wrote of the primitiveness of their mountain village in the Haute-Savoie region of France in such a way that it seemed a sort of Valhalla in my mind’s eye.
What a great distance she had grown in her life from that sad little house in Arlington, Virginia, to the heights of the French Alps. Even in that letter, she brought awareness. I started reading her husband’s books – “Once in Europa,” “Pig Earth,” “A Painter of Our Time,” “A Seventh Man” – and, I saw the world from a broader perspective and understanding.
Beverly was married to Berger for 40 years. She died of cancer last year, a quiet woman who preferred the peace and solitude of her family and of life in France. I never told her how much she touched and enlightened my life with awareness.
So, I write these few words in tribute to Beverly Bancroft and think about how each one of us touches other people — family members, children, colleagues, strangers — throughout our lives. May all our interactions be with knowledge, purpose, love, enlightenment, and of things to be cherished.
My childhood friend was a private person. Yet, aside from my parents and family, I do not believe anyone left a more quietly inspiring or lasting mark on my early years … that I remember to this day.
Thank you, Beverly.