They’ve Been Friends for 60 Years—They’ve Figured Out What Most Men Don’t

From a Wall Street Journal story by Clare Ansberry headlined “Man, Their Bond Has Lasted a Long Time”:

Lew Wilcox and Bobby Rohrbach Jr. met in the summer of 1962, riding their bikes together in a small southern Ohio town.

These days, every Saturday, one picks the other up and they go out for breakfast, run errands and talk about families, home repairs and how the world is changing. If one can’t remember a place or name, the other can fill in because they so often lived the same story. They didn’t outgrow the other or leave the other behind and still live within about 5 miles of their childhood homes.

“I have a lot of friends but there’s something special about our friendship,” says Lew, 75, of his friend, Bobby, 73.

Good friends are good for us. They help us get through bad times, listen when we need them and offer advice. A lack of someone you can confide in can lead to loneliness and isolation, which have been labeled a public health threat, on par with smoking and obesity.

Yet as important as they are, people have fewer close friendships than they once did.

Four in 10 Americans say they don’t have a best friend at all, up from 25% in 1990. The best-friend gap is more pronounced for men, who typically have fewer close friends than women do. The percentage of men without any close friends jumped fivefold to 15% in 2021 from 3% in 1990, according to the May 2021 American Perspectives Survey.

“We were taught for generations to focus on work, family and productivity. Don’t share what is really going on inside with other men,” says Michael Addis, a professor of psychology at Clark University and director of the Research Group on Men’s Well-Being.

Time together deepens bonds. Becoming a best friend takes 300 hours of togetherness, one study reported. Those fortunate enough to have friends through the decades develop a common history that fresh friendships often don’t.

Creating Chemistry

Together, Lew and Bobby went through the awkward teen years, early parenthood, illness and loss. Both had heart surgery and joked about matching scars on their chest. Both lost parents.

When Lew’s younger brother died, Bobby offered to drive down to Nashville, Tenn., with him to pick up his brother’s remains. Bobby fell off a roof seven years ago and was flown by helicopter to the hospital. Lew jumped in his car and met Bobby’s wife at the emergency room.

Times like those underscore the fragility of life and can strengthen ties, says Dr. Anisha Patel-Dunn, osteopathic physician and chief medical officer at LifeStance Health, a provider of mental-healthcare services. “You hold on to those people you’re afraid of losing and cherish them more,” says Patel-Dunn.

There’s chemistry involved, say those who research the science of friendship. People are naturally drawn to certain people because they share the same interests, spend time in the same place and see the world in a similar way.

Lew and Bobby grew up in working-class families, went to church on Sundays and lived in nearly identical prefabricated ranch homes, each with side doors leading into the kitchen. Neither liked school or played organized sports.

“We were both kind of geeky,” says Bobby, who weighed 110 pounds when he enlisted in the Army. His family nicknamed him Slats.

As kids, they watched Saturday morning cartoons at Bobby’s house because Lew’s parents, who were conservative evangelicals, didn’t want a TV in their home. As teens, they cruised the local root beer stands, went to drive-in movies, and volunteered for the local ambulance service. After high school, they planned to drive across the country and circled places on a map they wanted to visit—Mount Rushmore, Las Vegas, the Grand Canyon and the Grand Ole Opry.

“He messed it up by getting married and I got drafted,” says Bobby, who served in Germany during the Vietnam War, repairing radios.

Lew, who had a medical deferment, recorded messages on a reel-to-reel tape recorder and mailed them overseas to Bobby. “I would just jabber, tell him what was going on at home and at work, with the family,” says Lew. Bobby sent tapes back describing Oktoberfest.

A few years ago, they took a shorter version of their high school dream road trip. They drove through the Smoky Mountains, fished for trout, and made it to the Grand Ole Opry. Lew’s brother, who worked in the music business, got them backstage passes.

“They had the time of their lives,” says Bobby’s wife, Barbara, who admires their friendship and is grateful for it. “They absolutely trust each other and know neither one would betray the other.”

The Last Stage

Lew and Bobby eventually pursued the same career, becoming police officers, and at one point worked together, Lew as chief at the local township and Bobby his deputy. Their jobs could be intense but they could talk to each other about heart-wrenching child-assault cases and haunting images of bodies at crime scenes. “You carry those things inside you somewhere,” says Lew. “It’s nice to be able to talk to him about it.”

Bobby is more laid back and optimistic. Lew is more intense. They argue about where to go to breakfast and whether a project will take two hours or two days, but don’t stay mad. They are direct with each other.

“We can say you’re acting stupid or you need to see the doctor,” says Bobby.

One thing they agreed never to discuss is religion. Lew, raised in an evangelical church, attends weekly services. Bobby, raised Mormon, hasn’t gone in about 30 years. “We had a good thing going. I didn’t want religion to get in the way,” says Lew.

Aging is the latest stage they are sharing. They talk about getting old and dying, Lew asking Bobby halfjoking who he’s going to pick on when Lew is gone.

“That’s the scariest thing we deal with—something happening to each other,” says Bobby, who grins and adds, “I guess we have to go out at the same time.”

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