As the New Year approaches, and I look back over my life this past year, I feel good and rich-because I count all the things I have that money could not buy. Most important of these things was genuine friendship.

It started last spring when Wardell Diggs invited me to his home for the Drake Relays and to meet with old friends-Bill from New York, Fred from South Dakota, Joe from New Jersey, and Neely from Chicago.

The Drake Relays is an annual track and field event held in Des Moines, Iowa.

As I was driving to Des Moines, my mind filled with so many images and memories of those men. When I had traveled by car to Iowa from Chicago in 1958, I was a scared teenager who didn’t know anyone who attended college. I was fearful I might not make it, that my classmates were smarter than I was, and that their interests were different.

At Upper Iowa University (UIU). I met a group of guys who were not unlike me. They too did not come from a background of privilege. They were financially struggling young men who wanted an opportunity. We shared a love of the same music and had similar dreams. Now, going back, I was filled with excitement to hear how their lives had turned out. We last saw each other as young, aspiring men who looked ahead to marriage, our first jobs, graduate school, children, and buying cars and houses. Now we came together as “old men.”

And as we did, old nicknames surfaced-“Norton,” “Arab,” “Big Daddy,” Diggs.” Bill didn’t have a nickname. He was always a model for the rest of us. We looked up to him because of his scholarship, his organized lifestyle and his accomplishments. We always saw him as “Dr. Daniels” with a Ph.D. in history. As young men, alcohol was always a feature at gatherings, but now it was not important. We hadn’t become prudish, but it was not a feature of being together. Food was aplenty, and we may have all gained weight.

There was no “breaking the ice.” We immediately slipped back into conversations of years earlier and “pimping” one another-using humor to poke fun at and illustrate our shortcomings and foibles.

We recalled stories of the past, of villains in college, particularly in administration. But we celebrated the great names that touched our lives as mentors and teachers. We felt fortunate to have met these people because they had impacted our lives significantly.

We were older, perhaps different, because of our life’s heartaches and experiences. But we were also the same. Bill remained the scholar with a quick wit and a dry sense of humor who was always one step ahead of us. His current thoughts on national politics are fresh and insightful.

Wardell was “King.” He hasn’t gained a pound of fat in the past 40 years-his metabolism is to be envied. He eats well, but remains lean. Dr. Diggs (doctorate in psychology) is the guy who brings people together. It is a trait he had from childhood. He can talk you into doing something you were sure you didn’t want to do. He is a caretaker also. If you are in need, he would be there to help. These are good men, men who can be called “authentic friends.” I have known some men and women who have lived a lifetime without one good friend. They have never known the joy of laughing till you cry in the company of a friend, of hearing someone close give you honest feedback about your shortcomings, of someone who made you better than you would have been if you had not met them. For me, I have been blessed because of friendships.

That Drake weekend was emotionally intoxicating. I laughed to the point of crying, and some of this was because I was the brunt of the joke.

I thank my friends for the gifts they gave me as a young man, gifts that have lasted me these past 40 years. Most important was their affirmation of me as a person.

And like my present friends-Dr. Deplores, Chris, Liz, Kim, Gloria A. Jernigan, Connie Dubose, Pam and Noble, and Gwen and Gene-I am thankful for their importance in my life.