Losing friends another tough part of getting old

There are stubborn and unwelcome facts about getting older. The gray hairs that weren’t there the day before. The injuries from doing sports that come easier and are harder to shake off. And your friends die.

This summer, I’ve said farewell to two dear friends who shaped my life in their own unique ways. Both were named Robert. And though they never met, the interwoven threads of their friendships can never be unraveled.

In early July, Robb Hanrahan, a veteran TV news anchor and longtime host of “Face the State” on CBS-21 in Harrisburg, was the first to leave. Just 60, he already had survived a near-fatal heart attack, and he’d left the news business in 2021 to spend more time with family.

Our last meeting, at the Capital-Star’s office, was maybe 20% work and 80% catching up on life, our families and our hopes for the future. I was struck – and this stays with me – about how happy and fulfilled he’d seemed after leaving the news business behind.

We laughed, as we so often did about experiences on-set. I was lucky enough to be a panelist on “Face the State” for most of the 10 years that Hanrahan was at the helm. I learned a lot from him, both as a journalist and as a friend. He was always there for a tip. A passionate student of politics, he always had an insight to share on the issues of the day. By the time I’d left the CBS-21 studio, I’d invariably come away knowing something I didn’t know before I’d arrived.

As is so often the case, our friendship at the office expanded to one outside the office. On Sundays, we’d gather with our wives and kids to watch football. Hanrahan always had an acoustic guitar on hand, and we’d play together.

Which brings me to the other Robert, Bobby Sutliff, who lost a battle with cancer last week. Music binds me to him as it did to Hanrahan.

Like a lot of college radio kids who came of age in the middle to late 1980s, I was a big fan of The Windbreakers, a jangly guitar band that sprang from the same lush turf in the southeastern United States that gave us R.E.M, the B-52s, and a host of adored, but less commercially well-known combos.

Sutliff fronted the band with his childhood friend, guitarist Tim Lee. Like any good band, there was a creative push-pull. Sutliff, the thoughtful quiet one, was a devotee of sweet Beatles-y melodies and could coax magic from his guitar. Lee, dryly funny, played swampy southern riffs. Sometimes they would make each other crazy. But their love and mutual respect was palpable.

They say you’re not supposed to meet your heroes. But years later, thanks to the miracle of the internet, and a chat group devoted to the southern new wave scene, I did. And we all became friends.

Lee and I wrote together and played a bunch of gigs over the years. Sutliff and I traded home recording secrets. We all shared a record label, the now sadly defunct Paisley Pop Label, from Portland, Ore. The bands all played and toured together and slept on each other’s couches. So when I called Sutliff some years later and asked him to add a guitar part to a record I was working on, he generously said yes. And he took a good song and made it great.

Last week, just days after learning that Sutliff was fighting cancer, I woke up to the news that he’d left us. Within hours, friends reached out to friends, and through tears, we laughed at our shared memories. Facebook timelines filled up with tributes and Sutliff’s indelible guitar riffs.

The two Roberts touched and changed my life, and the lives of so many others. We get older. Circles tighten. Friends leave us. And I can’t do much better than repeat my friend Tim’s admonition: “Y’all talk to your friends. Hug your loved ones.”

I know I will tonight.

A political journalist, John L. Micek is editor-in-chief of The Pennsylvania Capital-Star in Harrisburg, Pa. Email him at jmicek@penncapital-star.com