I spent the front part of last weekend in New Jersey … but it wasn’t a “fun” trip. I went to honor a friend and support his family.

Ron Rippey died Aug. 26 at the age of 70 … an amazing accomplishment since he was born with an atrial septal defect — a hole in the wall between the two upper chambers of the heart. At 21, he became one of the first patients to have open heart surgery in the United States and later that year I met him as an 18 year old “phone guy” in the Sports Department at the now defunct Paterson News. Between phone calls, I learned all the gritty details of his operation, a conversation that always replayed itself whenever he went for his annual checkups.

He told me — and anybody else who was within earshot — when he turned 25, “You know, the doctors didn’t think I’d make it this long.” I heard the same speech at 30, 40 and beyond. Yet here he was at age 70 before nature caught up with him.

We worked together for seven years before my wanderlust kicked in, but we remained friends. As I looked at him softly sleeping in his casket Friday night, I remembered his early words to me, “Don’t be afraid to take a chance.”

Our families grew together as well. He and Arlene married in 1967 — the Friday after Thanksgiving because there weren’t any high school football games to cover. Karen and I married Aug. 31, 1968, largely because there were no high school football games to cover. Ron and Arlene were godparents for our kids, and I was godparent to his daughter Kelly. Karen and Arlene were friends, often spelling each other from maternal duties for some respite time. They understood each other as sports writer widows. They talked during the day and during the night while Ron and I plied our trade with 1 a.m. deadlines.

Ron and Arlene had two children, Ron Jr., who was about the same age as my son, Joe Jr., and Kelly, who is about the same age as my daughter Deanna. I went on to have three more … Scott, Nicolle and Jonathan. And the common theme whenever we talked was our families … what they were doing … how they were growing. We followed their children growing up; they followed our children growing up. We shared in their accomplishments and fears. And we all relished grandparenting.

Ron was somewhat of a mentor to me. I remember a time when I received a phone call from two coaches five minutes apart with absolutely different takes on the coverage of their game. That might need some explanation.

Back then, I primarily wrote for the Paterson News, but we all also wrote stories for Suburban Trends, a weekly, and Dorfman Press, which supplied local high school stories for the Star Ledger and Herald News. I wrote primarily as Joe Siccardi, but was known as Joe Casey at Trends and Emerson Boozer {the names of our cats at the time} for Dorfman.

One particular Saturday football afternoon, the two top teams in the Skyline Conference squared off, Pequannock and Sparta. It was a real barn burner, and I don’t remember the score, but there was a defensive penalty — a player didn’t have his mouthguard in — that all but decided the game. And I wrote three stories with three different leads.

The Sparta coach called me at The News to tell me how much he appreciated the coverage of the game, unlike that idiot at Trends who must not have even been at the game. Feeling pretty good after the conversation, I answered the phone a couple minutes later to hear the Pequannock coach tear into me for the horrible coverage of the game. He told me I should read Casey’s story in the Trends. He got it right.

Ron noticed the perplexed look on my face after I hung up and asked me what was wrong. I told him the story and he laughed. “Welcome to the club, kid. When both sides tell you you were wrong, you know you got it right.”

Nothing bothered him.

Ron had an analytical mind. There wasn’t a statistic he didn’t know. There weren’t circumstances he didn’t remember. I also had an analytical, statistical mind so Ron and I led the way with high school power rankings and an annual Paterson News Tennis Tournament. We had so many “discussions” and could each debate why a particular teams deserved to be ranked above another or why a particular player should be seeded. In the end, we both compromised.

That drive led to an avocation for Ron … horse race handicapping. He did quite well, winning the 2006 National Handicapping Tournament — and $250,000 — and earlier in August a tournament hosted at the Wynn Resort and Casino in Las Vegas. He was the Star-Ledger’s horse racing handicapper –and regarded as one of the best in his trade.

Even in the early days, he had a respectful relationship at the track. He taught me how to read the Daily Racing Form — especially the footnotes. He knew not only a horse’s performance record, but where and when he raced, his stamina, his pedigree, weather conditions, jockey tendencies and trainer techniques. And this was well before the days of calculators and computers.

If his horse didn’t win, he would explain what went wrong — and file that information into his memory bank — and why the horse should have won.

It was the same with golf, tennis, football, baseball, basketball and any other sport.

First and foremost, however, was he was a gentle man {with an A personality} and a family man. There wasn’t anything he wouldn’t do for his family. He bragged about his kids and grandkids every chance he had.

He and Arlene also opened their home to Healing The Children, an organization that helps children from around the world receive medical care. Children from the Dominican Republic, Colombia and Panama would stay with the Rippeys while undergoing treatment. Kelly, now a trauma surgeon at Hackensack University Medical Center, said she was partly motivated to go into medicine after coming to know the children who came into their home.

When you get to be my age and you attend a funeral of a friend or family member, your mind naturally starts to wander. Who’s next? Will it be me? What will people say at my funeral? What’s my legacy?

Family values was Ron’s legacy … his most important legacy. The rest was just icing on the cake. He wasn’t afraid to take a chance.

Well done, good and faithful servant. You’ve crossed the finish line.

THOUGHT TO REMEMBER: To think we’re going to live a life without challenges is unrealistic, so rather than avoid challenges I think we should embrace them.

About wisdomfromafather

I'm just an ordinary guy walking along the journey of life.
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6 Responses to RIP Rip

  1. It sounds like he was very inspiring- we all should have people like him in our lives! *(trills)*

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  3. Jolene Rose says:

    Your words remind me of the hymn “Take It to the Lord in Prayer.” Thank you for this encouraging reminder of where we can find true relief.

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