My dear friend Bob Morantz died in March. He was 73. Rita and I attended Bob’s memorial service in Florida on April 18.
Rita and I have been friends of Bob and his wife Marsha Murphy for some 40 years. It started in local politics, but grew with our mutual interests in movies, plays, books and travel. Bob and Marsha have been our mavens in so many ways. When they would travel or see an art exhibit or a movie or read a good book, they shared with such enthusiasm that you just had to follow. Sometimes that would be quite far away. When Rita and I were planning our first Africa photo safari in 1989, they had been there and Bob gave me his books and wise travel advice. When we went to Luxor, Bob and Marsha insisted that we hire the same guide they used – an elderly man named Peter who as a boy watched the first opening of King Tut’s tomb – and the tour was grand. Peter had a ritual where the female of the couple would pose with him at a certain spot among the temples, and so we have matching pictures of Rita and Marsha with Peter. For Petra, Bob told us that most tourists don’t make the hard climb up to the High Place of Sacrifice, but that this was the best way to appreciate the wonder of this spectacular site. He was right and was also correct in his warning that we would be sore for days from the muscles used hiking back down. And on it went, Galapagos, Viet Nam, Europe, etc. This August, Rita and I will finally get to Cuba where Bob and Marsha went years ago on a medical tour. We still owe him a trip to Bhutan. Like most people we know, Bob never had any interest in following Rita and me to Antarctica.
Bob and Marsha were regulars for many years at the Telluride Film Festival and finally got us to join them in 2011. Rita and I haven’t missed a year since. After the Oscars this year, I sent an email to Bob and Marsha: “You were our mentors for the Telluride Film Festival, and it is the gift that keeps on giving. We have been five years, and last night’s Oscars kept our record intact – we have seen the best picture every year. I was a little worried coming down to the wire last night, but Spotlight came through.” This photo is from that first trip in 2011, standing in line and showing off our festival passes (Marsha, Larry and Diana Brewer, Lonnie and Bob; Rita was snapping the photo).
And on it went. Plays at the Unicorn. A night in 1991 when Paul Simon brought his African/Brazilian/American band to Sandstone on the “Rhythm of the Saints” tour. Many election nights – some wins, some losses. For the last several years, Rita and I have made a November trip to visit Bob and Marsha in Naples – this always generated talk of plays, movies, politics and books. At the beginning of the trip, Bob would sometimes hand me a book he had just read. My task was to read during the day on the beach and be prepared to discuss at dinner that night. As I look back at our emails, I get a reminder of some of the books we read and/or recommended to each other, often after Bob and Marsha had made their annual trip to the Miami Book Fair: Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer , Googled, Borowitz, Open, Obama’s Wars, Scorpions, Hitch 22, The Tender Bar, Garden of the Beasts, Cronkite (Douglas Brinkley) and Barak Obama: The Story (David Maraniss). The last two in this list came to me from Bob after he had met the authors in Washington DC through his Columbia classmate and long-time friend Robert Dallek. Years ago, when Bob and Marsha lived at Loch Lloyd, Rita and I were part of a dinner party when Dallek was in KC for an author event – he is a well-known presidential scholar and his books have also been part of the Bob/Lonnie book club. As you can tell, we were very light on fiction.
Another connection I had with Bob is that we were both descendants of Eastern European immigrants. Things then diverge. He was raised in an Eastern European/Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn and went to Columbia University and then medical school at NYU. I was raised in the Eastern European/Catholic world in and near Sugar Creek and went to engineering school in Rolla and then law school at UMKC. We were a year apart in age and so both liked Golden Oldies rock ‘n’ roll, but Renaissance Bob was also well versed in classical music. He leaned to Broadway plays, I to musicals. Viva la difference.
Bob’s career as a renowned neurosurgeon ended when he was diagnosed with multiple myeloma in 1999. While his condition required aggressive and painful treatment, the illness would never define him. He did not take it easy. He and Marsha continued to travel the world. They moved full time to Naples and both jumped into civic and nonprofit causes. Bob was a very active participant on boards for a neighborhood health clinic and a mental health center. He was part of Greater Naples Leadership. He mentored two young men in a local program. He won awards. He was the energizer bunny. Maybe the best way to summarize what I am trying to say about Bob’s service is to use his own words:
“At birth, we do not choose or earn our parents, intelligence, health, looks or the country in which we’ve been born. Therefore, I believe that those of us who have been greatly blessed, through no effort of our own, should contribute to the welfare of those who have not been as fortunate.”
Bob, both before and after he retired, served as the personal (unpaid) medical concierge for his friends. If we had a major issue (say my mom’s lung cancer or Rita’s breast cancer), one of our first calls would be to Bob for guidance. And he gave it most willingly. As Rita likes to say, Bob was a “healer.” What was amazing was his breadth of knowledge about medicine that went way beyond neurosurgery. I got some insight on why that was the case from reading When Breath Becomes Air, a book I finished on the plane ride down to Bob’s memorial service. I knew it was a best-selling memoir by a doctor who had cancer, but until I got into the book, I did not know that author Paul Kalanithi was a neurosurgeon. I learned from Kalanithi that the breadth of study needed for the specialty assured that neurosurgery residents aren’t just the best surgeons, but also the best doctors in the hospital. I particularly thought one passage captured much of what I appreciated about Bob (and coincidentally was read as part of the eulogy given by Rabbi Mark Levin at Bob’s service):
“I was compelled by neurosurgery, with its unforgiving call to perfection; like the ancient Greek concept arête, I thought, virtue required moral, emotional, mental, and physical excellence. Neurosurgery seemed to present the most challenging and direct confrontation with meaning, identity and death. Concomitant with the enormous responsibilities they shouldered, neurosurgeons were also masters of many fields: neurosurgery, ICU medicine, neurology, radiology. Not only would I have to train my mind and hands, I realized; I’d have to train my eyes, and perhaps other organs as well. The idea was overwhelming and intoxicating; perhaps I, too, could join the ranks of these polymaths who strode into the densest thicket of emotional scientific and spiritual problems and found, or carved, ways out.”
The term “polymath” jumped out at me. Renaissance Bob had picked the right profession.
The last email that I have from Bob was very short: “I’m in.” It was sent on November 23, 2015, and was in the wake of the Royals winning the World Series. I had badgered my friends with a series of long emails during the playoffs and had decided to continue with posts on baseball nostalgia and trivia. I realized that some folks were more World Series-winner fans than pure baseball fans, so I asked who wanted in. Hence, Bob’s response. Bob was then on the receiving end of my first eight “Hot Stove” posts from November to March. The loss of Bob was painfully brought home to me by what may seem like a very minor act – deleting his name from the email list for Hot Stove posts.
In January, Bob and Marsha went to New York for what they knew was probably the last time together. Like us, they were often in New York and we always traded museum and Broadway show intelligence. For this last trip, Rita and I in a bittersweet twist got to play the mavens. Rita and I had seen Hamilton in October and said this had to be at the top of their list, no matter the going rate on StubHub for the sold-out show. Our second item was to recommend our favorite cabaret singer Lauren Fox who was going to be at Studio 54 and doing her interpretation of the songs of Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell. Bob and Marsha got to both shows and sent back good reports.
The Leonard Cohen connection has a special meaning here. When Rita was going through breast cancer treatment three years ago, we often turned to the lyrics of Leonard Cohen to convey to our friends our outlook on the circumstances. As I look back at my emails from that time, those lyrics from “Anthem” are a perfect fit for how Bob Morantz lived his life, and at its most inspiring, after he was diagnosed with cancer:
Ring the bells that still can ring. Forget your perfect offering.
There is a crack, a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.