This year, during the hottest May I can remember, I'd like to memorialize the coolest person I've ever known - Bea Drutz.
When I say "cool," I don't mean it in the sense of someone who wears the latest fashions, knows the trendiest restaurants and spouts whatever rhetoric is in vogue with the In Crowd at the moment.
No, Bea's cool was the real thing. She was someone who was competent, and not merely at work but at life.
Bea and Joe Drutz’s headstone
(Photo — Bob Seidenstein)
Bea could tell the difference between anything and Shineola, was immune to phoniness of any ilk, and saw people for who they truly were, not for how they wanted to be seen. This was probably because Bea knew exactly who she was and had no pretenses herself.
Ever since my childhood, I knew who Bea was, but I never really knew her till I started writing for the Enterprise. At first, I stopped in the office once a week to drop off my column and in the process started chatting with Bea. It didn't take me long to realize that decades at the paper had given her a fail-safe sense of good writing, so I asked her if she'd give my stuff a once-over before I submitted it to the editor. She always did it gladly and thoroughly.
One example of her critical skill that took place more than 10 years ago, but I remember as if it happened yesterday:
"Here," she said, pointing at the page, "you've written, 'I looked all around the room.'"
"Yeah, so?" I said.
"Why 'ALL around the room'?" she said. "Isn't 'around the room' the same thing?"
Of course it was. And while deleting a one-word redundancy seems inconsequential, it is only to sloppy writers.
After a while, I found myself stopping in the paper at least twice a week, then three times, and sometimes more than that. But it had nothing to do with my column; it had to do with shmoozing with Bea.
By any measure, she was a delight to talk with - sharp, quick, sweet, funny, with a flawless memory and a keen sense of detail. Because Bea grew up here, we talked a lot about the town's past - about buildings and businesses long gone; about the colorful characters, also long gone; about this, about that. I can remember almost no specifics of our conversations, which is a clear sign of how unimportant the subjects were, as compared to the company.
At some point in our relationship, I started calling her Toots. Don't know how or why, only that I did. And the next thing I knew, she started calling me Toots as well, and after she did, I don't recall either of us calling each other by our real names anymore.
Bea was far more than just a pleasant conversationalist. She was also a person of great loyalty, devoted to her family, who in turn were devoted to her. Furthermore, she was deeply religious, in its best sense, in that it wasn't apparent she was religious at all. She never talked holier than thou, nor did she act it. It was simply a part of her, something she lived, rather than wore or promoted.
Bea's religiousness - like Bea - had a charm all its own. Catch this: Her husband Joe was born Jewish, and I'd always assumed he'd converted to marry Bea. As it turned out, he hadn't. Instead, he remained Jewish, but raised his children Catholic. When Bea told me this, she also told me he was once voted St. Bernard's Man of the Year, something we both found delightful, though I don't know if for the same reasons.
What best symbolizes Bea's lovely sense of religion is the gravestone she and Joe share. On it is a cross, with a Star of David in the middle - which Bea herself designed. It's in St. Bernard's Cemetery, on that little hill in the center, and whenever I pay my respects, I do it with a smile.
I know no matter how much I write about Bea, the words will never be enough to tell the place she occupied in my life and how much she meant to me, so I'll spare imposing my futile labors on you. Instead, I'll tell you two things that explain my feelings far better than words.
One is, there are five people's photos on my refrigerator, and one of them is Bea's.
The other is that since she's been gone, I've never called anyone else Toots.