Inside the church was hot and crowded. A few people fanned themselves with prayer booklets. The bride and groom stepped to the altar. This was last weekend, Joe Maiorana’s wedding. All his college friends were in the wedding party. Bill Ryan. Dave Maine. And, of course, Kurt Dobronski. Kurt had flown in from Phoenix. “It was the first time,” Bill remembers, “that all four of us were together in tuxedos.”
They had joked about that, how weird they looked, since back at Central Michigan it was always jeans and sweats and football gear. Tuxedos? Well. This was six years later. Football was a scrapbook now. They had jobs and tax returns and house payments and Bill was already married and Dave was engaged and Kurt, well, you know, sooner or later. “Let’s take a picture,” their wives and girlfriends had said back at the house, and someone got the camera, and, in their tuxedos, because they couldn’t resist, the guys grabbed at one another and stuck their tongues out and mugged for the lens.
Friendship. At the reception afterward, they sat together, out on a patio, and had food and drinks and talked about the college days. They had been doing it all week. At the bachelor party. At the rehearsal dinner. At the hotel the night before. Reminiscing. “Like old men, right?” says Bill. “I mean, we’re only 28.”
That night they danced. They ate cake. They drank champagne. A guy with a video camera came around and gave Kurt the microphone and he made a little speech for Joe, his college roommate and newly married best friend: “I hope when you’re 50,” he said, looking into the lens, “you’ll look back at this tape and remember all the good times we had when we were 20.”
It was a nice thing to do, but then, Kurt was always doing things like that. Joe Maiorana thought about that as he watched the tape Thursday night. He rewound it and watched it again. And then he went to sleep. And the next morning, he met Bill and Dave and they drove quietly to the church to serve as pallbearers at Kurt’s funeral.
This is a story about death in an instant, and friendships that last forever. Kurt Dobronksi was a life that touched another life that touched another and another, and in the horribly gray week that followed one of the worst air crashes in U.S. history, all those lives were pulled tighter, like shoelaces, one big tug that they will never forget.
I was watching TV Sunday night when they broke in,” recalls Bill Ryan, 28,
“they said there was a crash at the Detroit airport and then they said the flight was going to Phoenix and that’s when I got nervous. At the wedding so many people had asked Kurt when he was leaving for home and he said Sunday night.
“I said to my wife, ‘Oh my god, I think Kurt was on that plane, I know he was going on Northwest. For a while they weren’t saying if there were any survivors. We sat there for an hour, not knowing anything . . . “
This much Bill Ryan felt he knew: It couldn’t be Kurt. Kurt was too, well, too healthy, too much in shape. He was a football player back at CMU where they had all become friends, a defensive end who would make all-conference twice. How many nights had he spent in Kurt and Joe’s room? How many times had they gotten together on a their so-called “Wilderness Weekend” up north, where they hung around and hunted and laughed until their sides hurt?
On Friday night, two nights before the crash, Kurt and Bill had slept in the same hotel room after a big dinner with Joe and his fiance and their families. “We stayed out late, and when I wake up Saturday, the first thing I see is Kurt doing sit-ups. Fifty sit-ups! At like, 8 in the morning!”
This was not the kind of guy who dies. This was Kurt, who was always grinning and never complaining and who was doing so well in his business in Arizona. Everybody loved Kurt. ” ‘No way it happened to him,’ I kept saying. He was so together. We had just spent the best weekend of our lives and then .
. . well, there’s just no way.”
“He was too much of a friend to die.”
Dave Maine was watching television that same night. He heard the announcement that Northwest Flight 255, bound for Phoenix and Orange County, Calif., had crashed moments after takeoff. He saw films of the wreckage, of the flames licking off the I-94 highway. “My gut said no, Kurt wasn’t on it. But it kept gnawing at me.”
What do you do in such a moment? Like Bill, Dave immediately focused on the recent mental pictures: the bachelor party, the rehearsal, the wedding, because these were real images, images of life, these were familiar and right and comforting. Dave and Kurt and Joe had played on the same football team together, they had celebrated two Mid-American Conference championships together, they would meet Bill at the campus Burger King at 2 a.m. all those late college nights to laugh about girls and coaches and people they knew.
Dave had graduated first. He was a year older. He saw how time and responsibility can chew at the fiber of friendship. But Kurt never let that happen. He kept up. He called. Even after he had graduated and moved out to Arizona. Dave had visited him there a number of times, had slept in his house.
“I forgot my tennis shoes once, he just took a pair out of his closet and said, ‘Here, keep ’em.’ “
Dave had fallen in love, and on a recent visit with Kurt, he told him he was planning to marry. “I said, ‘You wanna put on a tux next June?’ And Kurt said, ‘Heck, yeah.’ He was happy if you were happy. That’s the kind of guy he was.”
So there was a wedding to go to next June. He couldn’t die. Dave thought about the time when Kurt tried out for the Dallas Cowboys, and when that didn’t work out, how he tried the Arizona Outlaws of the USFL. “He was writing George Allen all the time, just asking for a look. I told him to quit, he had a nice (real estate) business growing out there. But he wouldn’t quit. He wouldn’t quit anything. He was very determined. Very driven.”
People like that don’t die. Wasn’t that the thought of so many loved ones when the horror of last Sunday night spread across the airwaves? What do you do win at such a terrible moment? Dave Maine did what was instinctive. He called Kurt’s parent’s house.
“Kurt?” he said, hopefully, when a male voice answered the phone.
“No,” answered Kurt’s brother. “That was Kurt’s plane. There were no survivors. I gotta go . . .
Is there ever a friendship like the one with your college roommate? What a time! Grownup bodies without the grownup responsibilities. Parties and late night talks and beer and late night talks and girls and late night talks.
For five years, Kurt Dobronski and Joe Maiorana shared the same room, shared a bunk bed, walked around Joe’s pile of clothes in the middle of the floor (“We called it ‘The Pile,’ ” says Bill. “It was so big we used to sleep on it.”) They had grown up near one another in Detroit, they had heard of one another through the high school athletic grapevine. After two weeks of freshman football practice at Central Michigan, they decided to room together. They were as close as you can get without sharing blood.
So telling Joe was going to be the hardest thing. He was on his honeymoon with his new wife; they had just reached Hawaii, the island of Kawai. Because of the busy produce business in which he works, these two weeks were to be the most time Joe and his new wife ever spent together. They had enjoyed one day of island fun when the phone rang.
It doesn’t seem fair, a guy on his honeymoon.
It isn’t fair.
“I thought somebody had broken into my house or something,” says Joe, of the call, in a soft voice that is still choked with grief. “Big deal. That wouldn’t have mattered.
“Then he (Bill, who phoned) said it was a plane crash. My god. What pops into your head? People die in plane crashes.”
He sighs. You need only to talk to Joe Maiorana for five minutes to know this was more than your average friendship. This was one of those rare meshes, a sharing of a soul, two guys who could live together for five years and never have a fight, never have an argument. They would leave for the summer, come back and pick up the instant where they had left off. Their best memories were always snapshots that included the two of them: the first game they started together, the showers after winning, the trip to California, the trip a few years ago to Florida, the championship rings they both got for the 1979 season.
“Have you ever had a friend that you just didn’t have to say anything to? He just knew? That’s how we were. When he got hurt freshman year and couldn’t play, I was there for him. I got hurt the next year and couldn’t play. He was there for me. When we got out of school, I remember that first summer, thinking how weird it was not to be going back in September to our room. We had been together so much.”
When he hung up the phone, Joe went for a short walk. Then he came back, and began making calls to get back home as quickly as possible. He and his wife had these reservations for eight months. Thousands of dollars would be lost. It never entered his mind. “It’s what a decent human being does. When your best friend dies, you go back, no matter what. There was never a question. he came to my wedding . . .
He pauses, the words strained. “I just feel like, I wish I hadn’t invited him . . . “
On the plane trip back from Hawaii, Joe and his wife had to stop in Honolulu, Los Angeles, Minneapolis and Detroit. All on Northwest airlines, which had offered to pay for the fare, even though a last-minute mistake on the airline’s part caused the couple to miss their first flight.
The journey home took nearly 24 hours. The takeoffs were the hardest part. “I kept looking out the window as we lifted off,” says Joe, “I tried to visualize what Kurt saw. My God. It must have been terrible. He’s a smart guy. He had to realize what was going on. He had to face the terror of knowing he was going to die. That’s what bothers me the most. That’s what I can’t accept. It just isn’t fair . . . “
Is isn’t fair. Kurt Dobronski was a 6-foot-2, curly-haired, always grinning young man who, by all accounts, never spent a day pretending he was something he was not. Quiet. Confident. Loving. You can ask people from work, school, the neighborhood. They come up with the same words. During the last week of his life, he visited CMU, he was crazy about his old school, saw his old coach, Herb Deromedi, and he even worked out with the freshman football players. “He told me he had a lot of equipment and football souvenirs at home but what he really missed was just getting into the simple gray sweats and working out,” says Deromedi, “so I gave him a pair.”
Before he left, Kurt made sure to take a young player to lunch, a kid who had gone to Edsel Ford, Kurt’s old high school, and was now playing for Central. Nobody asked him to do it. He did it anyway.
“He had just gotten to where things were going well for him in his business and his personal life,” says Joe. “I just don’t want to accept that he’s gone. I just can’t accept it . . . “
Of course not. You cannot afford to lose a friend like Kurt Dobronski.
So where is the rhyme and reason for this? Where is the sensible chord? “I know people say this is part of God’s plan,” says Deromedi, who recruited Kurt out of high school, “but I don’t believe that. God did not plan this. Not this kind of tragedy.”
You need only have seen the films of the wreckage of Flight 255, of the flames, of the makeshift morgue that was set up in an airplane hangar, to realize where those words come from.
Isn’t it crazy? Without a plane, Kurt Dobronksi never would have made it in for the wedding. He would never have been there for the bachelor party, for the visit with his old college coach, for the time with his family, his brothers, his sister, the kid from his old high school. For his fiance, Cheryl Kolakowski, whom he’d been dating since their freshman year.
Isn’t it crazy? Without a plane.
These are the times we live in. “Miracle and wonder,” goes a popular song. Long distance. Computers.
The last time Kurt, Bill, Dave and Joe were alone together was the limousine ride to wedding. It may be their fondest memory. They were so happy, so giddy, so mischievous. And they were so late. Joe was nervous. He was tapping his hand without realizing it on Bill’s shoulders.
“You can still back out,” Kurt teased.
“Yeah,” said Dave, “We can take this limo right now and go to the airport.”
“We’ll go to Vegas.”
“To the airport.”
Inside the church was hot and crowded. A few people fanned themselves with prayer booklets. The silver casket was adorned with flowers and two photos of Kurt, one a picture of his handsome face, the other a college football shot. The room was packed with relatives and friends and ex-football players and coaches, some of whom stood outside and watched through the open doors, having just come from practice, still in their shorts and sneakers.
The preacher spoke about life and death. The soloist sang “Somewhere,” a popular song that contains the lines: “It helps to know, we both are sleeping,
‘neath the same blue sky.”
When the service was over, the pallbearers carried the casket outside. There were eight of them, including Bill, Dave and Joe. They looked straight ahead, into the coming rain. They appeared too young for this duty. But nobody was very young anymore.
The real grief of a tragedy like this comes not when the plane crashes to earth, but when reality does. Tonight and tomorrow night and all the tomorrows that follow will contain a dull ache for Kurt Dobronski’s family and his loved ones, and for his friends. There will be no church then, full of supporters. No newspaper stories. No one they can see about the sadness. Except perhaps each other.
“We had one of our best weeks ever together that last week,” says Dave, who will be married next year. “I keep thinking about that. I want to see that picture we took in our tuxedos. I’d really like to have that . . . “
“You know, for some reason,” says Bill, with his child on his lap, “when were at the wedding I just grabbed Joe around and told him I loved him. I had never done that with any of the guys before. You know, to tell a guy you love him. But it was such a neat evening, and Joe was just making the rounds, and I just said it. I’m glad I did, too . . .”
“I was so concerned for Kurt’s family,” says Joe, who has a honeymoon to finish, someday, some way. “When I went up to them, I couldn’t believe they were worried about how I was feeling. I’m so insignificant compared to what they’re going through. They said they’d like to see more of me, to make sure I stay in contact. I’m going to . . . “
Where is the rhyme? Where is the reason? Perhaps only in this: the appreciation of what we have today, right now, before something sudden and horrible takes it away. There was a moment when these four young men danced and drank and felt like they would all live forever. But that was last week. And last week was a very long time ago. CUTLINE: Kurt Dobronski Joe Maiorana Kurt Dobronski, Dave Maine and Bill Ryan pose at Joe Maiorana’s wedding last weekend, the first time they had all been together in tuxedos.