About Steve Novak, Plus Other Special People and Things

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September 30th, 2021

After my freshman year at SIUE, in which I was incorrectly slotted into a roommate situation with three inebriated degenerates who kept me up all night and ate my food, our head baseball coach Roy Lee got the situation cleared up by my sophomore year. I would be rooming with three of the most remarkable, unique, and wonderful guys who ever attended the school. All three were fellow baseball players. All three were special guys I have never forgotten and never will. I wrote about them extensively in my book “Bats, Balls, & Burnouts” but felt the urge to explain them maybe just a little bit more here on the blog today. Perhaps you thought I was using “artistic license” to inflate their stories in the book. I was not.

There was Tom Hill, from Findlay, Ohio, with whom I shared a bedroom. Easily the smartest guy in the bunch, and one of the smartest who strolled the hallways and grounds of our beautiful campus in Edwardsville, Illinois.

Tom was a genius in multiple ways. Doesn’t it always seem like some guys are super “book smart” but not adept at the arts or the ways of the world? And others can create magic with their hands but couldn’t get through the first chapter of an english literature book? Tom did it all. He graduated early with a double major in two highly technical fields, like calculus and engineering or something like that. He built things from raw materials, including the unparalleled pair of Bose 901 stereo speakers he built for me. He could create pencil drawings of Corvettes that were so super-realistic you’d swear you were holding a photo in your hands. And, he rebuilt and customized actual Corvettes. Plus, he was a fine ballplayer but the game seemed to be the least of his interests. One incredibly unique guy.

Kent “Cornpone” Wells, a country boy from Flora, Illinois, was one of the most popular players on the team, thanks to his down-home attitude and his charming country accent. He was smart, but you wouldn’t necessarily know it. He seemed soft like a teddy bear, but he was a bulldog. And he was funny, often without even realizing it.

He was charming, and caring, and a great roommate who always looked out for us and everyone around him. At the time, none of us knew the acronym OCD or what it stood for, but Cornpone had that too. His closet and desk, at the apartment, nearly became tourist attractions. Everything exactly in its place. Every hanger the same distance apart. Every pair of pants hanging the exact same way and lined up along the cuffs. Every pencil arranged by length in the top drawer. Was ‘Pone unique? He defined the term.

And then there was Steve Novak, from Michigan City, Indiana. Steve and Cornpone shared the other bedroom, and were practically joined at the hip. Cornpone was not as “simple” as he seemed, but he also wasn’t exactly worldly, so Steve looked out for him. Steve looked out for everyone.

He was a model roomie and a great friend. He was smart and he took school seriously (as we all did) but he had fun. He was caring in a mature way well beyond his years. He practically adopted a waif of an Indonesian student named Tedja, taking care of him, making sure he was warm in the winter, feeding him, and making dinner for him. He looked after Tedja like a son, and the rest of us followed suit. I mean, if “Nove” showed that kind of love, it must be right. We learned a lot from Steve. Always.

Steve also made a cinnamon crumb cake that made the local ladies at the Edwardsville bakery jealous. He was mature, but a goofball. He was serious, but hilarious. He was a perfect roomie.

During our disastrous senior season, when the wheels came off a team that had gone to two consecutive NCAA Div. II World Series, Steve was the unfortunate poster child for the disaster. Against University of Missouri – St. Louis, on their rocky infield, he took a hard smash off the nose while playing first base. It about obliterated his face and he, to this day, still can’t breathe quite right. It was awful. It encapsulated our demise as seniors. If you don’t think seeing (and hearing) something like that happening to your friend and roomie will tear you apart and ruin everything, you don’t know us. The worst part was, we couldn’t help him. His sinuses were packed with gauze, his face was a mess, and he was in great pain for a long time. All we could do was try to keep his spirits up.

The “masked man” was an extraordinary roomie and he’s still a great friend

When he was finally cleared to play again, he had to do so with a cumbersome plastic shield on his face, as if that thing was going to totally protect him if another awful “bad hop” smash were to come his way. He was miserable.

When the depressing season ended, the Detroit Tigers stepped up. They offered Steve and me identical contracts. The money was minimal, but that wasn’t the point. It was a chance to play pro ball. It was a chance to live the dream.

I clearly remember calling Steve, who was home by the time the contracts arrived, to celebrate not only our contracts but our chance to keep playing together, this time in the pros. He sounded odd.

Finally he said, “I’m not going to do it. I’m over it. I’m over being hurt, and away from home, and riding buses. I just don’t love it anymore and I’m done.”

I tried my best to talk him out of that decision, but he wouldn’t waiver. He was done. I’d be heading off to Bristol, Tennessee and then Paintsville, Kentucky by myself.

Steve would’ve done very well there. He was a confident and methodical hitter. He had a very short swing and waited on the ball very well. He hardly ever got fooled. He was a terrific fielder at first base (despite the bad bounce UMSL’s rocky infield inflicted upon him) who gave every infielder the confidence to just fire it over there. If Nove could reach it, he’d catch it.

Steve later admitted to me that he regretted that decision. As he put it, “I should’ve just looked at it as a summer job. I always had one of those during college. I mean, the contract wouldn’t pay much more than working at Sears so it was just a summer job. I should’ve done it, if only for the experience of being a pro.”

But, Steve had bigger things on his horizon. He quickly landed a job in the men’s apparel business, working for Jaymar-Ruby. He rose through the ranks, moved around a lot as he got promoted, and finally was transferred back to his hometown of Michigan City. It was a profitable move for a guy who had worked so hard. He’d lived in Glendale, Burbank, and Corona, California and when he sold the final house out there he had the buying power to purchase just about anything he wanted back home. He had earned that.

Later, he’d lead a successful golf apparel company called Tehama. Its owner was Clint Eastwood. My former roomie had earned every accomplishment along the way.

SIUE golf tourney. Oscar, John, Lance, Steve, and Scott Brown

Recently, while I was on Kauai, SIUE held its annual golf tournament to benefit the athletic department. I wish I could have been there. Steve, who now works for Ahead, a company that makes sports apparel and embroidered hats, whipped up some special lids for the baseball contingent. Although I wasn’t there, he was kind enough to send a couple to me. They had a photo taken that is a total “keeper” in my mind. Some of the best friends, and best people, I’ve ever known are in this shot.

Far left is James “Oscar” Noffke, well known to most of you as a key member of our annual reunion group. Also a former roomie of mine of the highest order. Next to him is a special man. That’s John Ricker, our late friend Radar’s son. Then my longtime roomie and best friend Lance McCord in the blue shirt. Next to him is a smiling Steve Novak. Handsome as ever. You’d never know a baseball once rearranged his face. Finally, on the far right is Scott Brown. That’s another story.

“Downtown” Scotty Brown played with me on the semipro Sauget Wizards. He did not attend SIUE and I never roomed with him. I believe he went to Illinois State. I had long forgotten that Scott and Steve are cousins! What a small world.

Scott is another class act and wonderful person. We were great friends on the Wizards, and Scott was always going out of his way to do nice things. Unexpectedly nice things. He’s such a good man. He was also a helluva good pitcher. He pitched the last three innings of our historic win over the USA National Team at their stadium in Tennessee, and not long after that outing the Pittsburgh Pirates signed him. He is now the head coach at Vianney High School in suburban St. Louis. Yet another truly unique person I’ve had the good fortune to know.

Of course Steve would think to send me a couple of hats. That’s him in a nutshell

Amazing to see those two momentous times of my athletic and personal life merged in one photo. My buddies and roomies from SIUE and my teammate and friend from the Wizards, along with the amazing son of our dearly departed friend. John is doing great. He’s a very unique and wonderful man.

Of all these guys and groups, whether it be teammates, roommates, or friends, I always considered myself the luckiest of the bunch. I was just a nondescript schlub who went to school and played ball. I didn’t build speakers or Corvettes. I didn’t adopt a lost Indonesian guy to show him how things worked in America. I didn’t do much of anything other than go to class and play ball. I partied with the rest of them, and we all were proud of the fact we could close down Spanky’s in Edwardsville, then go home to have another beer, and still be bright-eyed and ready at our 8:00 am class the next morning. Ah, youth. Such an ability to bounce back.

We were responsible, smart, and talented. All that. But more importantly we were good people and we cared for each other. We were brothers, and we still are. And dammit, we all did OK in life, didn’t we!

Steve Novak, ladies and gentleman. Still married to his high-school sweetheart Linda, who has magically not aged a day since I met her in college. Father, grandfather, and successful executive. Friend. That last one is important.

Now I’ll finish up with a new other notes.

When I booked my big trip to Kauai, one of the first things Barbara said was “You need to go up to Poipu and find that jewelry shop where we got your titanium and crushed pearl ring. Get yourself another one!”

We got the first one after Barbara and her sister Kitty were shopping at the Poipu center and happened upon it. As you may recall, my original gold wedding band had to be cut off thanks to my fat fingers. The titanium ring with inlaid crushed black pearl had me at “look at this one.”

My weight has been fluctuating lately, but mostly I’ve succeeded in getting the number to be lower. When I checked in at a medical appointment this week, the nurse said “201” after I stood on the scale. I said “No way. That’s not right.” So I stood on it again and she said “Yep, 201. Is that too high or too low?”

I told her I had only weighed in with a number that started with a 1 (199) one time in the last 35 years. I’ve been over 200 all that time, and often way over. 218 to 222 was the area I seemed to be saddled with.

That all changed when I had to spend five days in the hospital and came out of that eating better. On Kauai, I walked every day. To hear 201 stunned me.

With that in mind, the first titanium ring was getting to be pretty loose. My mission was to find the store and find another ring to go with it.

Thankfully, the store had survived COVID (at least to this point) and was still open. I found another titanium ring but this one had two inlay bands. One is Hawaiian koa wood and the other is the same crushed black pearl. I love it. I’m wearing it right now.

New ring, same great memories of where it came from and what it means.

It will always remind me of Kauai, and my now 24-year marriage to Barbara. I look at it this way: We’ve been married long enough and gone through enough for me to now need a third ring. I’m proud to wear it. It’s gorgeous.

As for that medical appointment that brought to light the 201-pound weight, it was my last one scheduled for a while. It was an endoscopic ultrasound, and that entails (get this) inserting a tube down the back of my throat and sending it into my stomach for a look around. It had an ultrasound device on the end of it, and even had little snippers in case they saw anything suspicious that they’d want to take a better look at.

If that sounds awful, I suspect it would’ve been if I’d been awake. I’ve gotten used to being put under lately, and find it quite amazing. I mean, feel the IV burn for a sec and then open your eyes in the recovery room. It’s magic. And my throat only hurt a little. All in all, way better than that tube they stuck up my nose and down my throat for four days in the hospital. Way better.

As I shook off the grogginess, the doctor finally came in and told us what they’d found. More importantly, he told us what they hadn’t found. The thing (a growth or cyst or something) on my pancreas had been about 4cm long when I was in the hospital. It was only 1.5cm long now. It’s going away by itself, thanks to better eating and less drinking. They didn’t even use the snippers.

The doctor said “This is all good. Just keep it up and in 10 or 12 weeks we’ll schedule you for another CT scan to see how it’s going. For now, we don’t have to do anything invasive. Just keep taking care of yourself.”

That would be, in my book, very good news. Barbara was extraordinarily relieved. She’d been very worried but consciously not showing it. I had admitted to her beforehand that the procedure itself didn’t worry me, it was the results I was worried about. While she was exhaling and grabbing my hand, I was still a bit groggy when the doctor reported in and to me it was like “OK, sounds great. I’m hungry.” The fact I weighed 201 probably ties into it all. That means I’m taking better care of myself and the body heals itself.

Finally, a word or 20 about another very special guy baseball brought into my life. On Facebook, I’m friends with a dude who goes by the moniker Therron Louis Harper. To me he’s Terry Harper. Or “Harp” for short. We played together, and lived together, on the Medford A’s in 1979.

I knew Harp was a different and interesting guy back then. Very thoughtful and intellectually curious. He looked at life with a maturity most of my teammates didn’t share. On the A’s we had a strange mix of personalities. Some of them acted as if they were boys dressed up as men in green, gold, and white. They were goofballs. Frankly, I didn’t socialize with most of them. The group I was closest to was much more like me. We liked to have fun, but we knew what we were doing and we respected the game. We took it seriously.

Medford ’79. Another instance of meeting and living with incredible guys. L-R it’s Alto, me, Harp, and Slats

And, much like 1978 had been a disaster for Steve Novak, in terms of a huge injury, 1979 was that year for me. The Louisville Slugger to my face and teeth cut my season and my career short. But Harp was one of the shining beacons that year. Our core group, when we all lived at the radio guy’s house, included Dan Randle, Oscar Burnett, Shaun Lacey, Pete “Slats” Slattery, and then Terry, Mike “Alto” Altobelli, and me. Many of us slept on the floor, but we all got along and were pretty like-minded. Terry was at a different level, and I really respected that.

Put it this way. Like I said, some of the guys on that team acted about 12 years old. As a group, we all lived in a house and slept on the floor but we supported each other and pulled for each other. When I was hurt and then recovering, they all looked out for me and helped me.

I knew Terry was smart. Until now, as we’ve gotten to know each other all over again, I didn’t know how smart or how talented he was.

He went to Pepperdine and majored in Linguistics. He’s a high school teacher now, but nearing retirement and he’s looking for the next great thing to do. He reads this blog (hey dude!) and my stuff and asked if we could talk about it.

We spent close to 45 minutes on the phone, talking about blogging, writing in general, and books. He’s a deep thinker who goes for walks and senses themes and ideas pop into his head as he ambles down any given path. He should really write those down or record them on his phone.

He sees himself writing essays, about life lessons and goals and achieving not just dreams but realities. I was so impressed to hear it all. He asked cogent questions and listened to my responses. We took it deeper and deeper, and in the end all I could say was “Terry, you have to do this. Write. Just write. Practice. And call me anytime you’re lost or wondering what to do next. It will always be a pleasure to talk with you about this, or about anything roomie.”

He said, “Those were great days and great memories of that summer.”

I said, “Well, probably better for you. You actually got a bedroom and a bed and I slept on the floor.” Not to mention the stitches in my face and two broken teeth.

Terry Harper is a really good man. See what gifts baseball has given me! People from all over, and all walks of life. Personalities as endlessly different as snowflakes. Friends and brothers.

You can lose your fortune, or lose your health, or lose everything. But no one can ever take these friendships and memories away from you if you continue to nurture them and keep them alive.

I’m no good at doing that with plants or flowers. I think I’m pretty good at it with people. I treasure my friends.

This has been a fun one to write, and I learned a lot as I did it. It struck me, again, just how valuable so many people from my past have been to me and how they remain that way. And we’re just scratching the surface.

Take care of yourselves, and take care of your friends. They are assets that can’t be replaced.

As always, there’s a “Like” button at the bottom of this. Feel free to click on that if you wish.

See you next week. Be good. Be kind. Be caring. Heck, just being nice is a good start. I look back and realize I always have surrounded myself with nice people. They are much better to be around than negative, angry, and rude types.

Bob Wilber