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A life hit out of the park


IN MEMORY — Jeff Stout (bottom right) and Brian Oaks (bottom left) take a photo with their YMCA basketball team on Dec. 17, 176.

When Jeff and I met about 47 years ago, we both had a full head of hair, a passion for sports, and a sense of adventure. From that foundation, we became lifetime friends.

We were both crazy about baseball. We enjoyed playing on organized teams (Pepsi Zebras and Kokomo Glass), trading baseball cards, memorizing every statistic on the back of each one, and debating the all-time greats of the game. Jeff was a huge fan of the Philadelphia Phillies of the 1970s that featured future Hall-of-Famers Mike Schmidt and Steve Carlton. That same team also included lesser-knowns, such as Dave Cash and Larry Bowa. I only know the names of all the starters that year because Jeff did. He memorized every statistic about that team.

Jeff’s childhood house on Westminster Lane backed up to a neighborhood park, which was basically open greenspace with a basketball court and a small swing set. But to us, it was every baseball field in the majors. We both had large imaginations and invented a one-person whiffle ball home run derby game where he was the Phillies, and I was the Royals. I loved the Cubs, but he said I had to pick a team in the American League because the Phillies were in the National League and he wanted it to be the World Series every day. I remember he would come up to bat, call out the Phillies’ leadoff hitter, and I would pitch. While I don’t remember the crazy rules we adopted, I do recall spending an entire summer where the Phillies and Royals played in an imaginary World Series almost daily.

We also both had a desire for world travel, at least as far as our bicycles could take us. There was not a place in Howard County we did not ride our 20-inch bicycles with banana seats and sissy bars. We spent lots of time at the west side Dairy Queen and nearly every little league park in the city.

Once in a moment of temporary insanity, he convinced me we should ride our bikes from his house near Lafayette Park Elementary School to his granddad’s house in Russiaville. At about the halfway point I was exhausted and wanted to quit, and I remember him motivating and encouraging me, saying we would ride at my pace and take all the breaks I needed. We eventually safely made it. The feeling of achievement that day was overwhelming. After spending a few hours with his grandparents, his grandfather drove us and our bikes home in the back of the Stout & Son hearse. I was probably the happiest hearse rider of all time.

A few summers in a row, I spent more nights at his house than my own. One night when he and I and his brother, Marty, were wrestling, Jeff tossed Marty on the floor, and his eye got severely injured from a toy on the ground. Apparently, I panicked and unknowingly ran outside screaming, “Please don’t kill Jeff. It was an accident.”

After his parents calmed me down, we went to the emergency room where they mended Marty. Thankfully he made a full recovery, but the memory lived on, and we revisited that story many times over the years.

One of my most lucid memories of Jeff is the friend he was to me after my father died in an accident in 1976. While several of my friends were super supportive of me during this time, Jeff provided comfort to me in ways that carried over to his future career. Although I can’t recite his exact words, I do remember the comfort and support that emanated from him to me. He even convinced his YMCA basketball coach, Chuck Woolley, to offer me a roster spot without even trying out.

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As we continued to grow up and time marched forward, our visits became less regular, in part because he started his funeral career while still a teenager. Jeff worked at the Russiaville funeral home for his granddad while he was in high school. He usually wore black polyester slacks that I swear were his grandfather’s, black scuffed-up wingtips, and a white collared “church shirt” nearly every day. The ensemble was completed by the prominently-displayed beeper he wore on his belt. Whenever the beeper went off in class, he quietly would tell the teacher he had a body to pick up and needed to go. Although this behavior was certainly odd for a 16-year-old, no one in school kidded him. He already was known as one of the nicest students at Kokomo High School.

When I returned to town after law school, Jeff invited me to play in a golf scramble with him. Another member of the team was his cousin and my soon-to-be wife, Hope. After Hope and I were married, he told me that it was a set up from the beginning; he thought we had a lot in common. That became the rekindling point of our friendship, no longer children but now adults trying to make in the world in an adult way.

As all who ever met Jeff professionally knew, he was a natural-born funeral director. His genes, experience, and overall love of people made him a true blessing to the thousands of families he helped during their time of need. He continued to be my lifelong friend and really helped me start a successful law practice. He referred several wrongful death and estate cases to me. People listened to Jeff’s recommendations, and I owe Jeff a huge debt of gratitude for all he did for me and my law practice.

He was my first real corporate client after law school. I represented him and his businesses for nearly 30 years and enjoyed almost every moment. He was notorious for canceling appointments at the last minute so he could be with a family that needed help.

Upon completion of settling a wrongful death case that Jeff had referred to me about 20 years ago, as a gesture of gratitude for all he continued to do for me, I bought him a Mike Schmidt framed baseball card. He was so happy to receive it. We both then immediately began recalling all the childhood joy we had provided each other.

We continued to provide each other joy later in our adult lives, though not all moments could be home runs. This past summer, while doing some corporate work, I misplaced a historical document that belonged to Stout & Son. I felt sick about it. I looked everywhere to no avail. I drove to Russiaville to apologize to Jeff in person and told him I would do what he thought was necessary to make it right. We talked for a while, some of it serious, and then he said something along the lines of, “I hope the paperwork gets found, but I value your friendship and advice far more than the paper. It’s OK; don’t worry about it.”

As I stood up to leave his office, I promised I would continue to look for the document (it eventually was found), and I noticed the Mick Schmidt baseball card displayed on a shelf behind his desk. I told him how many good memories that brought back to me. He walked out from behind his desk and told me that it was one of his most beloved treasures, and then he gave me one of the famous Jeff Stout bear hugs.

Then, for just an instant, we were both 8 years old again, playing baseball at the park behind his house, and nothing else mattered at that moment other than our lifelong friendship.