By Lisa Ludwig:
Neil Garvey was my friend. I feel so honored to be able to be able to say that. Many many people are proud to be able to say that Neil was their friend as well.
A few weeks ago, as I sat at his funeral, I could not help but look around, see the room overflowing with people, and think what an exceptional man he was, how truly loved he was, and by so many. I thought of his beautiful, caring family, and of Neil’s remarkable ability to make anyone feel special, even those for whom he didn’t particularly care for. Neil had a gift.
Actually, Neil had many gifts. He was a man of many dimensions. As many spoke at his funeral, I listened to their words and agreed with every single one: magnanimous, brilliant, kindhearted, hilarious, captivating, fascinating, beautiful, jovial, witty, trustworthy, and friend. Oh yes, “friend.” Most of all, friend!
When Newell asked me to write something for Buffalo Rising about Neil (after all he was a theater writer for Buffalo Rising), I have to admit I was surprised. Why me? First off, I’m not a writer, and my feelings have never translated easily into words and sentences. Second, I was sure there must be many another friends or family members who knew Neil far better than I. But as I stated above, to be with Neil was to feel as if you were his best friend and the most important person in his life.
And so, if I may borrow some words of wisdom that Neil bestowed upon his beloved nephew, Michael, years ago, “Just sit down and write. Be honest. The words will come to you.”
I will try.
I was lucky enough to have many opportunities to share the stage with Mr. Garvey over the years — and share the stage he did. He was such a giving actor, always listening, always reacting, always there to give you a smile or to cheer you on.
One of my favorite memories of being on stage with Neil was when we appeared together in a production of ‘Witness For the Prosecution’ at the Kavinoky Theatre. His performance would earn him an Artie Award. Neil played a lawyer (of course) and had an enormous number of lines to learn. During rehearsals, I remember him leaving pages of his script strewn among the many prop papers on the set. This continued into performances. “My security blanket,” he would say with a wink. Then one night, during a performance, I looked on with alarm as his hefty sheaf of a security blanket fell to the floor and pages scattered everywhere. Neil didn’t even flinch. It turns out that he never actually needed those pages and had never actually used them. They were just there as a back up, to give him an extra boost of confidence and support. Those pages were there for Neil, in just the same way that he was always there for each of us, for me personally, for so many dear friends. Neil was our security blanket, always there in case we needed him.
In addition to being the perfect lawyer – in real life and on the stage — Neil had a knack for playing clergymen. I mean, come on, he was the perfect Shakespearean priest! From Friar Lawrence to Cardinal Pandolf, no one could play a holy man like Neil. When I stopped to visit Neil’s amazing mother, Marie, to drop off a memorial picture collage from SDP, she noticed the many pictures of Neil dressed as a priest. She recalled that Neil liked to dress up like that even as a little boy. Once she asked him if he wanted to be a priest when he grew up. Without missing a beat little Neil said “Oh no! I want to be the pope!” Even as a child, he had that Neil Garvey spirit and wit.
I might not have had lunch with Neil once a week or have talked to him on the phone every day, but I always knew that he was close enough to reach if I needed him. We all did. Whether you needed legal advice, a shoulder to cry on, a place to stay, an ear to listen, someone to share a moment of joy, a character actor for a role in a play, or a joke for a speech, Neil was your man.
And when it came to Shakespeare in Delaware Park (SDP), Neil was my hero! He was everyone’s Shakespeare hero. For many years, Neil was the one who helped make sure SDP would keep afloat and be here for years and years to come.
Years ago, when I was offered the managing director’s job at SDP, I was apprehensive, but Neil urged me to take the position. I knew how important SDP was to him, so if he had faith in me, that was just the nudge I needed.
Neil had a memory like a steel trap. Whenever I did not know a SDP fact, who would I call? Neil. He would either know the answer, or he would know where to find it.
Neil was always there to help with SDP’s annual fundraiser, “The Fabulous Feast.” Whenever he was in town, he would attend the event and play the role of “the Cardinal,” giving his personal blessing before the meal, and telling his ever-hilarious political satire “News of the Kingdom,” throughout the festivities. Neil had such a quick wit! Even when he wasn’t in town to perform at the event, he would write things for us to use at the festivities.
Who will we call now? “The Feast” is just around the corner, and a few days ago, I caught myself picking up the phone to call Neil. That was the moment when the reality of his death finally sunk in. My friend wasn’t there to help me. He will never be there any more. I felt such a strange and lingering sadness, a feeling of emptiness, of deep and profound loss.
I will miss my friend. I will miss his smile. I will miss his laugh. I will miss his wit. I will miss his wisdom. I will miss his guidance. I will miss my security blanket.
But when I feel sad that I have lost him, I take comfort recalling Shakespeare’s words from Richard II, “I count myself in nothing else so happy, as in a soul remembering my good friend.” And then I smile again.
Thank you Neil for bringing such happiness to all our lives!