This is a photo of me and my friend Patrick O'Brien just over a year ago. We were hiking across the balds at Roan Mountain, talking about life, our careers at a local newspaper, and (as usual) deep philosophical discussions over a 25-year friendship.
On Saturday morning, October 2nd, at 7.50 am, I read the text message repeatedly: "Patrick passed away last night - I thought you would want to know."
This message was from his employer and friend, Bret Jacomet. We all crossed paths over many years working at newspapers, and they were some of the best of times.
A few hours earlier, well before I got the text, my friends and I were at the rooftop bar at the Bristol Hotel and spouted off a challenge question, "Quick...best rooftop experience ever?"
I knew the answer right away. It was the Summer of 2015, and I was with Patrick atop the Rio in Las Vegas.
The question I posed to my friends on the rooftop was lost in the night's banter. However, the memory was a night to remember as Patrick, Eric Koop, and I was living large on what would be our "Hangover" night in Vegas.
I remember silver Patron, a romp through the night, and a patient group of colleagues who waited for our arrival the following day as we were late to our meeting.
Over the years, this memory was one of many we shared, such as our love of newspapers and how we would work together to frame a digital future for our companies.
Patrick had started as a photographer, became a graphic designer, started programming in the early days of the Internet, and our paths crossed in 2000 - just as the Internet was taking off.
Our employer at the time seemed to pit us both against each other.
We were curious, and we were competitive. Patrick was intelligent, and most often, we found ourselves diving from art to mysticism and back into media before laughing at some irreverent memory we shared during the high times of working in the industry.
Patrick's photograph is from a Roan Mountain hike in October 2020. We both had finally given up on a competitive coop between each other. We decided to go hiking on the mountain on one of his recent trips to Tennessee. I told him Roan was probably one of the most amazing places in Tennessee, and he had to see it.
I picked him up at an AirB&B he rented near Gray, TN. He had moved from bougie hotels to cheap rooms to save on his expense budget.
That morning, we walked up the three balds of Roan Mountain into a thick mist of fog and clouds. Along the way, we talked about the past and the future, and the closer we got into the clouds, the more we realized changes were coming soon.
As we came down from the mountain, the fog cleared and gave way to the most colorful autumn day in East Tennessee. We took advantage of the sunshine and made our way to Watauga Lake.
On this bright autumn day next to the incandescent blue waters of Watauga Lake, I locked my keys in the car at 7 pm on a Sunday. Fortunately, AAA was on the way, so we filled the time watching the sunset on the lake.
We capped off the evening with dinner at the Captain's Table as they closed their doors that night for the winter season.
This photo is forever locked in a hashtag under #sixriversmedia. A few months later, after more than 38 years of employment, our age, salaries, and expertise no longer had any value to their new leadership. We were both laid off abruptly and talked many times as we worked toward new ventures.
Like a lot of our colleagues, we had to re-invite ourselves. Patrick was well on his way too. Many photos of him with his grandchildren surfaced on social media, and his new job with the Tyler Newspapers was one of promise.
Patrick had made good friends, and former colleagues quickly absorbed his talent and strengths. More important, though, I think about our conversations on the mountain.
Patrick's desire at the time was to grow closer to those he loved. He spoke of his family, and we both had regrets as we absorbed ourselves into the work, but we both were eager to be better humans. We could easily drift off into a mystical no-mans-land of cosmology and theology. Still, at the end of the day - he was a great soul with a brilliant mind, a kind heart, and curiosity that made life better for those around him.
It's unusual to look back on these digital footprints now. A photo like this will always be my best memory of our friendship.
Patrick's sudden departure still affects me to this day. We have no choice but to keep moving forward among the living until we all find our way through the same door. It's the great irony of life because the grief will always be there for the loss. I miss my friend. He was a rock star, and his dedication to his craft, his mischievous nature, and persistent curiosity will continue to inspire me as I move forward without him.
Godspeed, Patrick. I'm sure you are exploring the mysteries we were always digressing into from the cosmos and beyond. Your curiosity and the intersection of friendship will always be my best memories of our time together.
Now you know.