I first met Mel Suplee in 1966. I had transferred to a job at the Defense Personnel Support Center in South Philadelphia (known as the Quartermasters to most of you) buying medical supplies for the military. Mel was a tall, lean guy with a long face, whose only interest in clothing seemed to be utilitarian at best. Lyndon Johnson was President. Most of us still believed in The Vietnam War.
In those days when I still bathed in the afterglow of Kennedy’s Camelot, conservatives were mostly referred to as reactionaries. Mel was a proud conservative. He was an intellectual when the Right still embraced intellectuals. His bible was William Buckley’s National Review.
I was a Kennedy liberal when liberal wasn’t a dirty word. My bible was The New Republic. Forming a fast friendship with Mel Suplee seemed about as unlikely as getting a civil rights bill through Congress. Sometimes the unlikely meets the improbable and something beautiful emerges. He and I became friends – friends disagreeing on many of the issues of the day, but friends nevertheless. And the Civil Rights Bill was passed with support from Republican Senator Everett McKinley Dirksen of Illinois.
One of the things Mel and I did agree on was civil rights. He was the most fair-minded person I came to know. Not a prejudiced bone in his body, but one who could cut through a lot of the B.S. that surrounds political correctness (though it wasn’t called such at the time). He was the most well-informed person I knew. You could argue politics with Mel, but you had better have had your facts straight.
It’s a wonder we were able to avoid getting fired because we’d get into these deep political discussions at work and forget about the time. Friends would tease us about being kind of an office version of Point-Counterpoint. Soon we were trading copies of The New Republic and The National Review. Mel would return my copy of former with passages underlined to signify points for discussion.
A case in point about Mel’s honesty. Sometimes, honesty can be brutal, but friends are able to be brutally honest with one another and still remain friends. Mel had gotten a promotion as a supervisor in the Clothing and Textiles area developing the implementation of a new automated system. I applied for a vacancy on his team, but he didn’t hire me. Our friendship was not affected.
By the time Mel retired, I was one of the speakers at his luncheon. I mentioned that by that time, we agreed more than disagreed on issues. I guess I thought I had converted him to liberalism, and Mel likely believed that I had become much more conservative. We were both right. The key to our friendship was respect for one another’s views when we disagreed. When Mel decided to run as a Republican for Mayor in Bellmawr, New Jersey, I donated to his campaign and tried to rally support for him among my friends who lived in the town. Mel lost. Defeat didn’t deter him in what back then was a Democratic stronghold. He ran unsuccessfully several more times for office, including a run against then-popular Congressman Rob Andrews. He was Don Quixote tilting at windmills. Didn’t bother him. Mel enjoyed playing the fictitious Spaniard.
I missed Mel terribly at work (oddly our friendship had never extended to our meeting socially outside the office). He got a job with Jefferson Hospital in Center City while I remained working for the Government. We began meeting periodically for lunch, both of us starved for our old political discussions. He was still a conservative Republican and I a liberal Democrat.
George W. Bush was now the President. I had momentarily defected from the Democrats to vote for his father when George H. W. Bush ran against Michael Dukakis, but had quickly returned to the folds of the Democratic Party. Mel had remained faithful to the Republicans through the Watergate travails of Richard Nixon, the Ronald Reagan years and on afterward. Our entry into the Iraq War was in its early stages, a point when it looked as if American shock and awe would win the day. Believed in the existence of weapons of mass destruction. Believed nothing bad could come from ridding the world of Saddam Hussein. And then I fell out of love with the war. Became disillusioned when we couldn’t find any weapons of mass destruction. Believed we had been mistaken at best or, at worst, been deliberately deceived.
Mel didn’t understand my reaction. He thought I had gone “wobbly” on the war, in his words. For the first time in my life, I was furious with him, although I didn’t express my anger, choosing instead to sit on it and let it fester.
One night, I was sitting at a Phillies game when I noticed that Mel and his wife were seated about 10 rows in front of me. He never saw me and I didn’t bother to say “hello.” It was about a month later when I received notice that Mel had died suddenly from an aneurysm in his abdomen.
Some nights, I still think of that last time I saw Mel. I see him at that game talking to his wife and me just sitting there stewing in my anger. And a sense of loss overwhelms me. ■