My time with Michael Sturges

Michael Sturges was my best friend in Charlottesville. He passed away this week.

Michael might have been mildly amused to hear that I thought of him as my best friend. We knew one another through work and our families only occasionally saw each other. Michael was much more social than I. He had a long trail of friends from everywhere he went. He was deeply involved in his church and his kid’s sports teams. He had people that he and his family regularly took vacations with. I was not one of those friends. I don’t really know who he considered his best friend, though I like to think that I was somewhere near the top of the list. But I knew he was mine.

When I met Michael, I had already lived as a transplanted Yankee in Virginia for about five years. I worked in the University Bookstore; he had just started at the University Computer Store. We worked on a sales project together and I knew immediately that I just clicked with this guy. That really doesn’t happen to me very often. After a few weeks, I asked him if, by any chance, he was related to John Sturges, the great Hollywood studio director of such classic films as Gunfight at the OK CorralThe Magnificent Seven, and The Great Escape. Michael actually looked a little shocked, then told me that his father was indeed the director John Sturges.

Michael had grown up in L.A. and labored in the film industry at the same time that I did. His mother had worked at MGM and to him it was just the family business. Like me, he got to a certain point where he realized that he needed to see life beyond L.A., so he headed north to Washington state (coincidentally, where I was born), where he met his wife. She is an Episcopal priest, and also like me, it was his wife’s career that brought them to Virginia.

Whenever possible, Michael and I would get together and talk about films, both of us grateful to have found someone who shared our passion for the history and culture of Hollywood. He had wonderful stories to tell about being on the set with his dad, for John Sturges had directed some of the biggest names in the business.

When Michael was getting ready to stop working at the computer store full time, he suggested me as his replacement. So for a few weeks, he was my boss as he trained to take his place. Then he quit, came back as a part-timer, and I was his boss. We worked together there for a few years, then I moved on to another series of jobs, until I found myself at the central computing department for the University hospital. Michael had tried his hand at a few private enterprises, but by the time his son was born, he was ready for the steady employment of another University job. I recommended him to my department and we found ourselves working together again. I eventually moved on from that job to a one in the University Central IT department, and after a year there when another position opened up, I recommended him again and once more we found ourselves working side by side.

We just always made a good team. Whether it was rolling boxes of computers through the halls of the hospital, working together to solve some technical problem, or organizing conferences for a hundred attendees, everything was just easier and more pleasurable with Michael at my side.

Those last few years were the best. By that time, Michael and I were just old friends, laughing at the same jokes and shared memories, and marvelling at the growth of our children.

For reasons that I never understood, people at work would sometimes call me Michael. This was doubly-confounding to me because Michael is both my middle name, and the name I was known by growing up. So when someone at work called me Michael, I’d have to stop and think “How did you know that … oh, you mean Michael Sturges!”

I never really thought that we looked much alike, but because Michael was a very good-looking man, I always took it as a compliment. I was never sure how he took it, though.

Several years ago, I introduced Michael to the music of Nick Lowe, and he also became a fan. When we learned that Nick was playing at a venue in Northern Virginia, Michael and I drove up and spent a memorable evening listening to music and swapping stories.

For many years, I have been a volunteer with the Virginia Film Festival. In 2008, at my suggestion, the Festival screened Bad Day at Black Rock, one of John Sturges’ most lauded films, to a theater full of high school students. After the screening, we came out on stage and I interviewed Michael. He enthralled the students, including my oldest daughter, with tales of his father and what it was like to grow up in Hollywood.

A little over two years ago, Michael started experiencing odd health problems, oddities that perplexed his doctors and confused him, for he always took good care of himself and was in excellent shape. When they could not come up with a diagnosis, his doctors suggested a full body scan. On that day, Michael was not supposed to eat or drink anything except a liquid that would make the scan work better. His wife drove him to work that morning and I went with him to the medical center.

When Michael learned that he had cancer, he was initially a little relieved. At least they knew what was causing his strange symptoms and could deal with it directly. Colon cancer is common and highly operable. Michael had the surgery and went on chemotherapy. He complained that the chemo wiped him out, but Michael was such an energetic guy that his version of being wiped out just meant that he missed a couple of days of work every other week.

A few months later, during a routine checkup, it was discovered that the cancer had returned and spread throughout Michael’s intestines. His doctor told him that aggressive therapy could slow it down, but that there really was no stopping it. Michael decided not to continue with the therapy. He chose quality of life over possibly living a little longer and being miserable. And at that point, for all the doctors knew, he could go on for several years more.

About this same time, in April of 2011, I left the job that I had held for five years and moved to the University Library. Michael joked that he would probably follow me in a few months, but it was not to be. In September, Michael was informed that the cancer had progressed, and he might have no more than a year.

Last Spring, I learned that Nick Lowe would be playing again in Northern Virginia. We decided to recreate our trip from a few years before and took the long drive up to Alexandria, talking on the way up mostly about family, work, mutual friends, and of course, old movies. Nick gave a great show that night and I took lots of pictures and videos, but I kick myself now that I did not hand my camera to someone and ask them to take a picture of Michael and I together.

Only on the way home did we start to talk about the cancer. Michael joked that, except for the cancer, he was in great shape. And he was right. The chemotherapy that he went through the first time really laid him low. Now that the cancer was back, by not choosing the aggressive therapy, he just felt better and had more time to spend with his kids. That was the most important thing to him.

That night, I got a little lost driving back home from Alexandria. That was okay, though, as it just gave us a little more time to talk, to listen to some music, and bask in each other’s company. When I finally dropped him off at his car, he said “That was fun. Let’s plan to do it again sometime.” Michael was always just so naturally optimistic that I believed him. I believed we’d have another chance to take a long drive and enjoy an evening of music together.

That was the last time that I saw Michael Sturges. We kept promising to get together, but our paths did not naturally cross at work any more. A month later, Michael tendered his resignation from the University and we all knew that the time was near. But I did speak to him one more time.

I produce a local weekly radio show, and one Sunday morning in early July, our scheduled guest did not show up, so at the last minute I jumped in front of the microphone to discuss events in the news that week. I didn’t have headphones on because I was still updating the weather and doing other producer things. About halfway through, the host of the show told me that someone on the phone had called in to say what a good job I was doing. I quickly put headphones on, but I didn’t recognize the voice, I just heard someone saying how nice it was to hear me and what a great job I always did. Only after the show when I went back to listen to the audio did I realize that it was Michael.

I am grateful that our last conversation was recorded, that I can go back anytime and hear a testimonial to the man’s respect for me, but how I wish I had known then who it was I was talking to. Michael is probably still laughing about that one.

And there it is: I just referred to Michael in the present tense. This touches on perhaps one of the most remarkable things about our friendship. Michael was a Christian. I am an atheist. But Michael wore his beliefs comfortably. He never judged anyone for believing differently than himself, and strove always to measure people by their deeds.

My rational self knows that he is truly gone, but we humans are just not wired that way. When someone is as important to you as Michael was … is … to me, you cannot easily accept that they are not in some way still present. I feel his presence constantly. It’s impossible for me to take a fifty steps around the grounds of the University without passing through some place that holds specific memories of Michael. More than once in the past few days, I thought for just a moment that I saw him, only to sadly realize that it was impossible. It’s a trick of the mind, a ghost image burned into the core of my brain, and I hope that it never fades away.

Last Fall, shortly after we learned that he might not have much time left, I took Michael to lunch and I made him an offer. I had always enjoyed his stories of growing up in Hollywood and the adventures he undertook after leaving L.A. I wanted to write his life story, to document for all time what a remarkable man he was. Michael thanked me for the offer, and declined. He told me that he was too mindful of his limited time, that he didn’t want to do anything that might take him away from time spent with his children. That was true, but I think it was also Michael’s modesty speaking. He never fully believed what we all knew: that he was a great man; that he had a life not just worth living, but worth telling.

And so, at last, I do the only thing I could ever have done, my final gift, to write as well as I can of my time with Michael Sturges. For those of you who knew him, I hope that I have done him justice. And for those who now shall never have the pleasure, know that you missed a fine man.

Goodbye, my friend, my brother. Though we are all poorer for having lost you, we are richer still for having had you in this world.