I don’t even want to tell you how old this photograph is. The picture was taken of my friend Andy and me shortly after my career as a television journalist began. He taught me how to play the game of chess.
Allow me to take you back to a time when there were no cell phones, no Facebook, no Starbucks, and no email.
That’s when I met a man named Andy.
I had just started my first paying job in television news working for a local network affiliate in Binghamton, New York. I lived in an apartment building in Johnson City, a village just outside the city limits.
I knew no one other than my work colleagues. My girlfriend (who would later become my wife) lived nearly an hour away. I was a recent college graduate with the good fortune to land a great job just one week after getting my diploma from Syracuse University.
The advice from a professor at my junior college (Herkimer College) was to get to know the community as quickly as possible. For eight hours a day, I met the government officials who we interviewed for most of the stories that aired on the station newscasts.
After work, I walked around town trying to get the lay of the land and meet the people who were my audience.
That’s when I met Andy. He was an elderly man who I would see crossing the street at a moderately busy intersection between my apartment and where he lived.
He did not use a cane. He just slowly and steadily made his way across the street.
At first, I greeted him with a smile. I saw him taking a walk just about every day. Later encounters would be met with a wave and a small bit of conversation.
Soon, it seemed like I kept running into him. He always had something to say.
“Nice weather we’ve been having?”
“The roads are busy today.”
“Boy, there sure is a lot of traffic.”
It wasn’t long before he took an important first step and introduced himself.
“I’m Andy, my friend. What’s your name?”
I introduced myself and started a friendship that would last the entire time I worked in the Southern Tier region of New York State. Soon, I would not just pass by on my daily walks. I’d take a few moments to walk with him. After all, I reasoned, someone should be with him as he tried to cross the busy street.
“Want to play checkers?”
That question caught me by surprise. Do I want to play checkers? I ran his question back through my head. Without giving it much thought, I said yes.
That began a weekly visit to where Andy stayed with his daughter and son-in-law at their home just a few blocks from where I lived. Andy would greet me at the door and point me to a card table with two chairs.
On that table was a checker board with the pieces ready for the first game. Every week, we’d play for a couple of hours, and then shake hands at the end of the last game before leaving. I think his daughter was relieved that her dad wasn’t out for a walk as darkness set in.
To paraphrase an often used line about competition, our weekly games were really not about the checkers. Our visits were about bonding as friends. I told him how I was preparing to propose to my girlfriend.
He told me about how much he regarded the writings of Norman Vincent Peale who expounded the power of positive thinking. I’d share a story about a news interview I had done that week.
He would tell the story about the founder of the Endicott-Johnson Shoe Company. We had pleasant conversations over the checkerboard.
Within a few weeks, Andy asked me if I wanted to learn the game of chess. For about a month, he’d walk me through the basic moves, share some strategy, and consistently beat me game after game.
He never relented in his competitiveness while at the same time helping me to understand how the successful player gets to that place. His simple advice: “Always be thinking of the next move, the move after that, and the move after that one.”
I’ll never forget the night I finally beat him fair and square. As he offered his hand in congratulations, I never saw a bigger smile from a more proud teacher. After that night, we generally split the number of games won, with a slight edge going to him.
When my television station decided to do a promotional campaign on the members of the news team, thirty-second commercials were produced showing each news personality doing something fun.
News Director Mark Williams was featured preparing a campfire while out in the wilderness with his recreational vehicle. My commercial featured Andy and me playing chess. As we played our game, the announcer spoke, “When he’s not working on a story for the newscast, Steve is spending time with his friends and neighbors.”
I got married a year later and was moved to a night shift at work. Our games were now played in the afternoon before my shift started. Within a few weeks, Andy’s daughter made the difficult decision to move him to a nursing home. I then paid my weekly visits to his new address right up until I left Binghamton for a new job in Huntsville, Alabama.
On that last afternoon, we played chess, we both knew a special time was coming to an end.
We parted with a handshake, and this time, a hug.
He told me he thought of me like I was a son. I thanked him for taking that important first step of introducing himself to me.
I left with tears in my eyes and gratitude for having this important first friend as I started my professional life. As I left his room that afternoon, I knew that I would probably never see him again.
From my new home in the heart of the deep south, I wrote him a letter and a Christmas card. I wasn’t really surprised that I did not get a response.
Several years later, I visited Binghamton and dropped by Andy’s daughter’s home. She wasn’t in, but her husband told me how Andy had passed away peacefully in his sleep a couple of years after I left the community.
Andy’s daughter sent me a letter shortly after that visit to fill in some of the details, and to thank me for being his friend. She told me how he often spoke of our weekly chess games and that he truly cherished the time we’d spent talking to one another while carefully watching our game board.
We were planning our next move, and the move after that, and the move after that one.
Steve Newvine lives in Merced. His book Growing Up, Upstate shares stories about his friends and family members from the time he was a boy in Port Leyden, New York