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Theodore Derby, Another ODD Fellow
There's a toy box in a corner of my office that reminds me of Theodore Derby. Sometimes, when my daughter was small, she would come up to my office, take a toy out, and play with it for a while. When she got bored, she would take out another toy and play with that one for a while until she got bored with it, too.
Eventually, she would get tired of the whole scene and leave the office, while the toys she had deserted would now be scattered all over the floor. If I had been a strict parent, which I was not, I would have told her that she could not leave until she had put all her toys away. Sometimes, I did, but not very often. The truth is that I liked to have her visit, and I didn't want her to identify those visits with my nagging. I rationalized it by telling myself that when I went to parties, the host had to clean up after me. Whatever.
Putting the toys back in the box was when I thought about Theodore Derby. I went to an all-boy high school. Every year we had a variety show. We were not an easy audience. We sixteen hundred boys were a sea of perpetual motion: bumping shoulders, scratching heads and crotches, cracking knuckles, shifting weight from one butt cheek to the other, belching, burping, and . . . worse.
The year I saw Theodore Derby perform, the first few acts of the variety show were the usual fare: a group from the band played a musical number, a few guys re-created a scene from some play, and a quartet sang ' Oklahoma .' Then Mr. Dremond from the drama department announced: 'Theodore Derby will now sing a song he has written himself called, 'Love Looks So Much Like You.''
Most of the guys were probably thinking like me: What kind of moron sings a love song in front of sixteen hundred morons like us? Theodore's first words walked out slowly wrapped in a low, lazy velvet. Then, gradually, they lyrically strolled into a tenor's stride. 'Maybe you're not the only girl for me. But when I look at love, yours is the only face I see.'
As Theodore Derby continued to sing, every guy in the audience began thinking about the girl he had just fallen in love with or the one he was about to. Theodore Derby's voice plummeted to barely a whisper as he sang the last words of his song. 'Until my life is through, every beautiful song I hear will draw within my heart a memory of you.' Each of us sixteen hundred guys instinctively stood and applauded. Theodore Derby took a few bows, but he seemed neither surprised nor elated by the response. The next morning at the bus stop, I told Theodore Derby,
'With that voice, you're going to be a star.'
'What are you talking about?' he asked.
' Derby , you sing better than most people who make a living at it. Said Theodore Derby, 'Oh, I couldn't see myself spending all my time singing. I think that would be a rather hollow existence.' 'Hollow? Think of the fame, the money, the women . . .'
But Theodore Derby wasn't thinking about any of that. He was flipping through his geometry book and talking about a quiz we had to take that morning. I would know Theodore Derby, though not well, for the rest of his life. But only after it was over would I even come close to understanding him. In a world where people are admired for living and pursuing a straight line to the top, his was a life of twists and turns that seemingly went nowhere.
In his junior year, he went out for the football team, became the starting quarterback, and led the team to its best record ever. In the spring, as a member of the track team, he set three conference records. At the same time, he was winning a national award for his science project.
But in senior year, Theodore Derby didn't even go out for the football team. The coach, some of the faculty, and most of the students called him a quitter, many to his face. But it didn't seem to bother Theodore Derby. He also didn't run track again, but no one seemed to care much about that. Instead, Theodore Derby spent the year rebuilding a car in his garage, studying the Thai language, working part-time in a fast food restaurant, and pulling straight A's in subjects as diverse as physics and wood shop.
Theodore Derby was a popular fellow. Guys liked to hang out with him. Girls wanted to date him. At some parties he was the center of attention, while at others he would stand along the sidelines and just observe. At one party, he brought along a guitar and played it quite badly. But he had such fun trying that everyone else had fun watching him do it. He received a dozen scholarships to college but joined the Navy instead. When he got out, he worked his way through college doing a variety of part-time jobs.
After graduating, Theodore Derby started a computer company, made a lot of money, sold the company, and then quietly gave most of the money away. He drove a delivery truck for a few months, went back to school where he got a medic's degree and went to work in a hospital.
He got married, had a couple of kids, stayed home, and took care of them while his wife went to work. Theodore Derby had just established a camp for mentally disabled children when, one evening, he went to bed, had an aneurysm in his sleep, and died.
After the wake, I went out for coffee with Terry Coinston, a guy I knew from high school. Terry, I discovered, was one of Theodore Derby's closest friends. 'Theodore was a nice guy,' I said in an obligatory tone, 'but he just couldn't stick to anything. He had so much talent in so many ways, he could have really gone somewhere.'
'Are you saying the guy was a failure?' asked Coinston with more than a slight edge of annoyance in his voice.
'Well . . . no.' Coinston smiled. 'He used to annoy the hell out of me too, until I realized that he wasn't like you or me or most of the world. He didn't want to 'Go somewhere.' He had no desire to get a degree so he could get a job and then get a promotion and make lots of money so he could buy a bigger house so he could entertain the right people and get another promotion so he could buy a bigger house. Wherever he was at the moment, that's where he wanted to be.'
'I know . . .' I tried to interrupt.
Coinston interrupted back. 'What motivates most of us meant nothing to him. He didn't care about money or other people's opinions of him. 'For him, life was a toy box. He'd play with whatever he was doing and when he got bored, he'd go back into the toy box, take out something else, and play with that. Theodore Derby was never going anywhere. He was already there.'
I don't know why, but I just wouldn't shut up. 'But honestly, what did he ever accomplish?'
'Well,' said Coinston, 'he was the perfect Theodore Derby.'
©2007. John R. Powers. All rights reserved. Reprinted from Odditude: Finding the Passion for Who You Are and What You Do. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means, without the written permission of the publisher. Publisher: Health Communications, Inc., 3201 SW 15th Street , Deerfield Beach , FL 33442.