For about 85 years, my father-in-law maintained a close friendship James Zealy. Although they lived 250 miles apart for most of those years, Pat Witherington and Zealy remained close through telephone calls, occasional visits and a bond of friendship that could overcome distance and absence.
On Saturday, my wife and her sister and their husbands went to visit Dr. Zealy in Tarboro, where he is living in a senior living facility, three years after his best friend died. For a couple of hours, Zealy regaled the daughters of his closest friend with stories of his and Pat's adventures and antics when they were growing up. He filled in some gaps about the friendship that seems so incredibly durable and mutual. Both men were widowed and remarried. Their wives unavoidably became unlikely friends. Pat joined the Navy and served around the globe aboard LCTs and LSTs in World War II. Zealy was 4-F because he had no eardrum in one ear and went to work in war munitions for DuPont. They grew up in Goldsboro and graduated from UNC. Zealy went on to dental school in Kentucky, then returned to Goldsboro to open his dental practice. Pat opened his CPA practice in Statesville and raised four children.
Throughout 40 or 50 years, they would stop for visits with each other when they were traveling, and they would take vacations together. Letters and phone calls were common, the conversation never lagging between them. After I married Pat's eldest daughter, I became aware of the longevity and closeness of this friendship and marveled at it. My own connections to good friends from my childhood were far less frequent than the connection those two had. I had gone 10 or 20 years without speaking to my closest hometown friends and completely lost track of some of them. I clearly missed out on something special, something enduring and vital.
Now 93 and diagnosed with cancer, Dr. Zealy is still mentally sharp (just as his best friend was up to his death at 89) and still able to care for himself and drive. Thirty or more years younger than Zealy, we marveled at his keen memories and lively conversation in the couple of hours we spent with him. We departed for the drive back to Wilson happy and fulfilled that we had taken this time to be with a man who had been so close to the man we miss so much. Their friendship still amazes and inspires us.
We were left with one regret. We failed to take a picture of Dr. Zealy standing with two of his best friend's daughters. We'll have to do it again, and get a picture this time, one to add to the old black-and-white Kodak shots from 80 years ago at the beginning of a life-long friendship.