How do you define friendship?
I think it’s probably several things. When you hear that a friend is coming, you might smile in anticipation of seeing him and talking with him. You occasionally share holiday meals with each other. You like to sit and watch sports with each other. You might tease each other about their favorite football team compared to yours. Friends can engage in serious conversation, friendly banter, even joking and teasing.
The common thread in a friendship is that the time spent together is enjoyable for everyone involved.
Shortly after I met Debbie in 1987, she introduced me to a friend of hers, Roy Harrison. She had worked with Roy at the Nike Center for several years. They developed a friendship that exceeded the workplace.
Roy was a client at the Nike Center; Debbie was an employee. Debbie’s job was to arrange for work to flow into the Nike Center workshop. The work was then completed by the clients. Roy’s job was to help with the work.
But their relationship grew beyond that. Roy was a sweet, sweet man. He was older than our own parents. He became like an uncle who visited on every holiday.
He never had much to say. Roy would settle back onto the couch and watch football games. He would sit with us as we all ate. Everyone loved to visit with Roy — brothers and sisters, kids, our own parents. He would give us an excellent play-by-play of whatever game was on TV.
Roy blended into our blended family just perfectly. He became part of our family.
Since those early days, a lot has changed at the Nike Center, but their mission remains strong. They remain committed to helping people with disabilities achieve their full potential. People and titles have changed over the past 34 years, but the Nike Center’s commitment to their clients remains strong.
Over the years, throughout the entire country, when it comes to dealing with people with physical or mental disabilities, a lot of things have changed.
About 50 years ago, people with mental or physical disabilities were often kept in institutions. They were segregated from society. You would rarely see a child with a disability mainstreamed into public school. It was rare to see an adult with a disability working in a grocery store, shopping center or any other public place.
Now, thankfully, that has become commonplace.
Years ago, family members of institutionalized people started filing lawsuits against various states institutions. They pointed out that conditions inside many of those institutions were horrible, unconstitutional.
Eventually, states started to clamp down. They found many of the complaints to be true. Institutions tried to implement changes, but it became evident that the best solution was closure.
People like our friend Roy, who had been living in institutions his entire life, were moved into community housing. He became a neighbor and a friend. Roy also became one of those special people in Wilmington that almost everyone would remember.
He also started working at the Nike Center and soon became Debbie’s friend.
Roy was old. He was born in 1921. Yet, he walked everywhere he went. You would always know when Roy was getting near because he wore taps on his shoes. He wore out shoe leather more than anyone I ever knew. Those metal taps on his shoes saved him a lot of money on shoe repair.
He had a few places to rest in town. Quite often he would take a break and sit on the low wall in front of the Clinton County History Center. Sometimes he spoke to people passing by; usually he did not.
He almost always carried his radio with him. Some folks liked to call him “Radio Roy,” or “AM-FM.” If the Cincinnati Reds were playing, Roy was listening to the game. Otherwise, he listened to country music.
Before every Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner, I would go pick up Roy. After dinner and some football on TV, I would drive him home. That is what friends do.
Our last dinner together with Roy was Thanksgiving 1999. Roy was starting to become more confused. He lived in the apartments on Prairie Avenue and started wandering away at night. People became concerned. A few times the police helped him find his way home.
One very cold Friday night, he did not go home. Phone calls were made. His friends from the Nike Center started scouring the neighborhood. We had a picture of Roy copied and distributed. Many people were out looking.
On Monday morning, I told my son, Danny, that we were going to find Roy. He asked, “How are we going to do that?” I told him we were going to think like Roy. We walked from the apartments down to Columbus Street and turned left. That was Roy’s usual route. At Wall Street, Roy usually turned right and walked to the gas station on the next corner.
They hadn’t seen him that night. So, instead we crossed Wall Street and went straight. That little, short roadway stops after about 100 yards. There is a fence to the right and an old brick building on the left. The only way for him to go was to walk behind the brick building. We walked that way and followed a path into a large empty field.
After a short walk through the weeds … there he was. He had taken off his coat and slacks and rolled them up to use as a pillow. Later, the coroner told me that, when a person is freezing, their skin will stop sensing cold and will start feeling heat. Often, people who are found frozen to death will have removed their outer layers of clothing.
Roy had frozen to death in an empty field within sight of his apartment. The police determined there was no foul play.
Roy is buried in Section 14 (the upper level) of Sugar Grove Cemetery. There is a boom-box engraved on his headstone. We have missed Roy every holiday since 1999. His friends will miss him every day.
Keep on walking, Roy. Keep walking.
Randy Riley is a former Mayor of Wilmington and former Clinton County Commissioner.