BEWARE OF COAT HANGERS THAT MAY LODGE IN YOUR NASAL PASSAGES.

This sign was taped in the doorways of the Administration Building on the Washington County campus of the University of Wisconsin.

The day before, I had turned a corner and bumped into a coat rack in the hall, an impact that somehow caused a hanger to become stuck in my nose. Bob Thompson, my friend and Dean of the West Bend campus, couldn’t stop laughing, despite the blood. He claimed he had an obligation to warn both faculty and students of such imminent danger.

My nose bled for two minutes; we laughed for 10 years.

Over the years, I’ve noticed most of my positive changes in behavior have been initiated or supported by friends, with humor being a key ingredient. Loyal friendships have not been carefully constructed in my life, but they spring up in unexpected places and times. Everyone deserves a Bob Thompson.

On Saturday afternoons Bob and I would forgo the college football games to wage a battle of our own on the driveways of suburbia. We would visit garage sales in the affluent North Side of Chicago and try to compete with each other’s bartering prowess. Ten dollars went to whomever could uncover the tawdriest object and negotiate the asking price down by 80 percent.

We’d hone our lines: “I recognize this hand-painted bumbershoot holder is worth more than your sticker says, but I already have one in a slightly different shade. Would you consider…”

I didn’t realize what a treasure Bob Thompson was until a heart condition took him away only weeks after our competition in the famous Annual International Ping Pong Tournament of Humility. There were always only two competitors. Thanks to a cracked ball and invisible glue I had dabbed on his side of the table, I took a 20-to-16 lead. I let Bob’s next four serves bounce by me without lifting my paddle, both a gesture of brashness and love.

With the score tied, Bob took a bathroom break and returned with a hanger dangling from his nose.

We both had won again.

Update: August 3, 2016

Since writing this in October of 2011, several other close friends and colleagues have died, a couple of them very unexpectedly. The experience has encouraged me to invest more time with those special individuals who give my days both joy and meaning.  I have a hunch that the pain involved in losing a close friend, pales in comparison to the sadness of never having one.