One of my oldest friends died recently. He had been bedridden for over three months and spent the last month of his life in a rehab facility in Syracuse, NY, far from friends and family. Michael and I had stayed in touch since our four years together attending Bishop Turner High School in our hometown of Buffalo. I drove up to see him a few days before he passed, and I’m very glad that I did.
Like me, Michael came from a working-class family living on the East Side of Buffalo. Michael’s home was in a neighborhood that was being rapidly integrated by the mid-1960’s and he was one of the only people I knew who had African American friends. Michael was among the smartest students in our class of about 250 adolescent males. We shared a wide range of interests from sports to music, movies, and live theater. By our junior year, we’d become part of a group of like-minded guys who spent much of our out-of-school time with our favorite teacher, Fr. Claude Bicheler. Fr. Claude was a major influence on our lives, encouraging us to read and study deeply, and to open our cultural horizons to classical music, Broadway shows, and a wide range of liberal Catholic literature. He was my English teacher for all four years of high school and was instrumental in helping me learn how to write. He was also a first-class theater director and producer, widely respected in the community for his quality productions of Broadway musicals and other dramas. Fr. Claude gave Michael a lot of individual attention in his quest to become an actor.
Michael first got my attention when I saw him on stage in our freshman year, acting the part of a town drunk, Simon Stinson, in Thornton Wilder’s beloved play “Our Town”. It was one of the first live plays I’d ever seen and I was deeply affected by it. And I was fully captivated by Michael’s rendition of Simon Stinson, both funny and poignant.
Michael was well over 6 feet tall and was an aggressive basketball center. Basketball was my favorite sport back then and Michael and I played on several intramural teams and eventually formed a team that played in some city leagues. But where Michael really excelled was in the classroom, especially in math and science classes.
Michael was temperamentally different than me. I was pretty much a conformist and made sure I never stepped out of line enough to be sent to “jug” – a uniquely Catholic after-school punishment where offenders had to kneel on the floor with their hands above their heads. Michael had a morning paper route which caused him to be frequently late for school – an automatic “jug” offense. I shuddered whenever I walked by the jug room and saw Michael in there. Curiously, he didn’t seem to mind it much.
Michael’s easy fraternizing with African American guys at school was another admirable difference. I remember one summer when he invited me to meet him near his home for playground basketball. I was wary of his neighborhood but curious enough to bicycle over there and participate in some intense games with other of our Turner classmates. After the game, our similarly lanky classmate, Jonathan Wilson, invited us to his nearby home for Kool-Aid. It was the first time I’d entered an African American home, and we were all greeted warmly by his mother and sibs. I rode back home on my bike that afternoon with a newly found ease and appreciation for a “ghetto” area of Buffalo that I had previously feared and disdained. A sidenote: I attended the 50th reunion of my Turner High class in 2017 and ran into Jonathan Wilson, who had a distinguished career as an actor and director and was currently an esteemed drama professor.
As our senior year approached, Michael and I were both intent on college. Michael got our class’s highest marks on the State Regents exam, earning him reduced tuition at any in-state school. He chose Ithaca College for its fine theater program. I opted for Fordham in the Bronx. Michael and I were close friends with another Turner classmate, Stephen Polniaszek, who was attending the drama school at NYU in Greenwich Village. I remember some fun visits Michael made down to “the City” to share weekends together, mostly attending off-beat plays and concerts that the Village offered in plenty.
I remember being taken aback when Michael said he was dropping out of college before the end of his freshman year. He moved in with a friend in Queens and found a job at a midtown Manhattan bookstore. I remember visiting him in Queens one weekend and asking why he had opted out of Ithaca College. He said he couldn’t relate much to the social scene there, and that New York had the kind of energy he wanted to be nearby.
The Vietnam War was still going strong while we were in NYC in the late 1960’s. Michael had lost his deferment after dropping out of college and he was quickly called up. He was strongly against the war, as was I and Steve and most of our friends. Michael applied for and got conscientious objector status after returning to Buffalo. He was assigned to alternate service at a Veterans Hospital in Albany, NY.
I remember stopping to visit Michael in Albany on many of my bus rides home from New York City to Buffalo. I admired how he had adapted so easily to his new life there, finding an apartment, and making a number of compatible friendships. Within a year or two, he had met a woman who would soon become his wife. I remember many warm visits to Michael’s and Suzanne’s home in Albany.
Michael and I stayed in touch for all the years thereafter. We would meet for reunions with our friend Stephen in NYC every few years, often attending plays or concerts together. Michael had a wide range of musical tastes from rock to jazz to folk to classical, and he attended many live concerts and music festivals over the years, frequently alerting me to younger artists who were making their way up. He and Suzanne attended my wedding in Bethesda, MD in 1988, and my wife Andrea became friends with them as well.
A few years ago, Michael, Stephen and I reunited in Buffalo to attend the funeral of a mutual friend. A year later, Andrea and I met Michael in NYC to attend a memorable performance of the musical “Avenue Q”. Michael and I continued to communicate by email, text or phone at least monthly. He regularly sent us a music CD as a Christmas present.
Michael’s physical condition became problematic about five years ago, mostly owing to acute lower back issues that made walking difficult. He and Suzanne downsized to a 2-bedroom condominium in Schenectady when he turned 70 and Andrea and I visited Suzanne and Michael there a few times on our annual trips up to the Lake George area. On a couple of occasions, Michael and Suzanne visited us at Lake Vanare where we attended an annual family reunion. Michael visited me in Maryland a few years ago and I remember attending a fabulous production of Sondheim’s “Sunday in the Park with George” with him at Arlington’s Signature Theatre.
Michael’s back condition continued to deteriorate last year, and he decided to have surgery with a respected orthopedic surgeon in Syracuse, NY. The surgery was postponed after he contracted covid, and was finally performed in two stages on Dec. 6 and 7. Unfortunately, though the back surgery was successful, Michael suffered an acute case of ileus, in which the bowels stop functioning. He was unable to take any food or water for months and he got weaker and weaker and continuously bed ridden. Then Suzanne took ill herself and had to be hospitalized. She returned home to Schenectady to recover while Michael was assigned to a rehab hospital in Syracuse, three hours’ drive from home.
With Suzanne’s approval and direction, I decided to drive up to see Michael last week and am very glad I did. Although he could hardly speak, we were able to communicate by eye contact and physical touch. One of his few utterances was “How’s Andrea?” I stayed overnight in Syracuse to have a little more time with my friend. Two days later he was taken to the ER with lung congestion, and he died on Saturday morning. I received Suzanne’s text announcing his death just as I was returning to my home in Rockville, MD.
Michael Krempa was a valued friend, a generous soul, and a genuinely gentle and tolerant human being, through and through. Andrea and I are mourning his loss, while being relieved that his physical travails have finally come to an end. Our hearts go out to his devoted spouse and to his sister and brothers and many close friends at this difficult time.
John Bayerl, 3/13/2023