In life, some individuals loom larger than others. Politicians, athletes, actors and actresses, authors… all seem at times inaccessible. Even in those moments when you are fortunate enough to meet one they appear larger than life. They might come across as the friendliest person you’ve ever encountered when you’re standing face-to-face with them but there’s always something about them that seems unattainable. You ask yourself “how could I ever be friends with this person?” In my own personal experience I’ve encountered everyone from Bruce Willis to the former Governor of Maryland and once-Presidential candidate Martin O’Malley. In both… in all cases we shook hands, chatted a bit and then went about our own separate ways. But even then—when my hand was clamped firmly in theirs—I felt separate. Not equal. That’s what celebrity is, I guess. Separate. Not equal. A chance encounter. You have an impact on each other’s lives briefly but thereafter? It’s over. Remembered only as “that time when,” or “remember when,” in the years to come.
That’s an adult’s perspective. A 41 year old Madchronicler’s take on celebrity. But as a child? That’s different. As a child celebrity is redefined. Sure the above mentioned, public figures remain celebs but there are others when you’re a child. Not just movie stars and sports heroes but parents, siblings, uncles and aunts, teachers and even neighbors. Before age and adulthood take a hold of you and you realize that your world is much, much bigger than the little town or towns that you grew up in there are people… celebrities that represent something greater. People that you look up to. People that you want to be like. And those people? One in particular? He is the reason why I’m writing this long-overdue piece of Mental Flatulence tonight.
You may have heard of him. Maybe not. But I want to tell you about him. Why? Because a person’s impact is not always measured by the size of his bank account or how many people know her name. Growing up in a once-little, now larger than life town on the outskirts of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (thanks to an actor named Bradley Cooper and a sitcom called “The Goldbergs”) called Jenkintown, there was this guy. “The Mayor of Maple Street” we called him. His was the most recognizable face on my street save for the faces of the family I lived with in my little twin house. This was likely due to his almost constant presence upon his porch, looking out over the droves of children that ran laughing, screaming and sometimes crying up and down the street. His street. Maple Street was Mister Ring’s community and he oversaw the goings on there with the firmness of a leader and the gentleness of a friend. His booming voice was a daily reminder that it was dinnertime and his shrill whistle signaled the end of the day—oft times after nine or 10 at night.
Calling us all home.
And we children? We heeded. We didn’t question. Because Mister Ring? He was larger than life. He was the celebrity on our street and around town. Everyone knew him. From the Hungerfords and the Parkers on Cedar Street to the Scharnikows and the McCreavys on Hillside Avenue. “Alley Kids” and Publics, Catholics and those who were somewhere in between… he was familiar to all. And as it happened I was doubly fortunate, for Mister Ring was one of my best friend’s Dads. He was also the coach of my Basketball team. My Baseball team. My Soccer team. The guy basically taught me how to play every sport that I dabbled in as a kid. I was never really that good at any of them but what I could do I learned from him.
I also learned how to win and lose graciously. You hear so many stories these days of coaches getting into altercations with referees and other parents. Not Mister Ring. Nope. Whether we won or lost he was as steady a presence on the sideline as any. Everything we did was a teaching experience. Not just sports either. Life. Anyone that knew me back in those days knew that I was a… well, I was a bit of an odd bird. Not very athletic; a bit of a clutz. No lie: I was a bit of a pansy at times, too. I cried a lot. What can I say? I was and remain an emotional guy. I’m a writer slash artist for God’s sake. It comes with the territory.
Those times when I was down on myself because of something someone had said or done… when I missed a foul shot or struck out or when someone called me a name and I broke down Mister Ring? He never smacked me across the face verbally or physically. Never told me to “man up.” No. He calmed me down with that same old, steady presence of his. He convinced me to “try again” or “don’t let the little things get to you.” And do you know what? I did. Maybe not so much at first. At first I was a bit reluctant to listen but as I got older I wised up. Looking back now I realize that a lot of the serenity I experience daily, i.e. my ability to “let shit slide” came from him. I should thank him for that. In truth? There’s a lot I should thank him for.
Sadly, I cannot do that in person now. I found out yesterday afternoon as I was home with my girls for All Saint’s Day that Mister Ring is no longer with us. Big Bill Ring (not to be confused with his son Little Bill) passed away on Monday night. He was 70 years old.
It seems almost unrealistic to think that someone who was such a force in my early life is no longer with us. I’ve been grappling with this for the last 24 plus hours. When my sister told me the news I’ll not lie: I teared up. I’ve watched a number of people pass this year but for some reason this one hit me the hardest. I now know why. Because when I was a kid, he loomed larger than everyone else. Even my own mother (sorry Mom). He was a politician and an athlete. Not an actor, though amazingly enough as I grew into my teens and started to gravitate away from athletics and more towards the artistic—acting, writing et cetera—he was one of my biggest supporters.
High school ended and college happened. I spent the first couple of years of my education at home and Little Bill went away. Mister Ring? He was still there, even then, hanging out on his porch and watching over the new generation of kids that ran laughing, screaming and crying up and down our street and the old generation of kids turned pre-adults studying for or embarking upon their careers. We talked a lot. Then I went away to school and left home for good. But when I graduated and came home to visit? He was always there. Always on his porch. Inquiring about me and my life. My job. My prospects. A few years later when he met my girlfriend Nicole I remember being a bit nervous. Would he like her? Strange, I know. And then my girlfriend became my wife and I remember him congratulating me when I told him. I remember my oldest daughter Cara being a bit nervous the first time she saw him. “He’s so big Daddy” she told me after I introduced her.
In truth? He was. Definitely larger than life. Definitely a celebrity. Funny that in my later years I grew to almost the same height as him but I can imagine what that must have been like for her, looking up at this towering behemoth of a man with a booming but passive voice. Because once upon a time I was her. Looking up at him. Looking up to him. The Mayor of Maple Street. Gone but never forgotten, even by someone that hasn’t lived on Maple Street in over 20 years. Before celebrity put Jenkintown, Pennsylvania on the map there was “J-Town” and that shrill whistle that signaled the end of the day.
Calling us all home.
God Bless you Mister Ring. Rest in Peace. And thank you.