Farewell to an old and dear friend, a man I loved.
Hershel Garvin Sawyer Jr., of Mystic, doctor of dental surgery, retired Navy commander, child of West Virginia mining country and Kentucky, master of Scrabble, connoisseur of Kentucky bourbons, particularly Old Weller, cunning and agile squash player (hardball era), furniture maker, buttermilk biscuit baker, purveyor of pound after pound of peanut brittle every sufficiently cold December, avowed atheist with a devotion to music and Shakespeare, and as loyal as anyone — spouse, child, grandchild, patient and buddy — would ever know, died in early March at age 85.
Our friendship was spawned by chance on the squash courts at Connecticut College more than three decades ago and survived more than a few bumps and bruises in that confined space, whatever injuries incurred usually becalmed with a bourbon or two afterwards.
Once, just before Easter, HG, as he was known, invited me to join him on a journey to Kentucky and West Virginia, ostensibly to pick up a load of seasoned persimmon wood in a Kentucky hamlet called Summer Shade.
We visited with some of his clan in Louisville, Glasgow and Edmonton. Among those we lunched with in Louisville was Jean Sawyer, the mother of his first cousins Diane Sawyer, the broadcast journalist, and her sister Linda, who had a home at Fenwick in Old Saybook. Their father and HG’s father were brothers.
We also spent a day at Berea College, where he went to school and where he met and later married Barbara Weaver of Goshen, Ind.
We then drove into the early spring of McDowell County in West Virginia, near the infamous Mingo County, home to the bloody coal mining wars depicted in the John Sayles film “Matewan.”
We walked around the virtual ghost town of Jenkinjones, where HG lived as a child and where his father was comptroller for the Pocahontas Fuel Co., which mined countless tons of coal. As remote as Jenkinjones was, HG liked to tell a story about the father of Paul and Marty Kline, two brothers who were dentists here and friends of his. Their father, a traveling clothes salesman, never made it to Jenkinjones, but did find his way to a hinterland town nearby.
Our most memorable stop was on a Sunday morning up a holler in Jolo, W.Va., where HG had been told there was a Pentecostal “snake church.” It was called the Church of the Lord Jesus, mounted on cinder blocks, and where, during a service dominated by white gospel — hard-driving rhythm and blues — a few adult members handled copperheads and rattlesnakes as others drank strychnine and writhed on the floor talking in tongues.
The pastor, Dewey Lee Chafin, welcomed us, called us “brothers from the North” and invited us to sit in rear seats to observe. Chafin, a tall, white-haired man afflicted with black lung disease, told us he had been bitten more than 150 times and that, four years earlier, his sister was bitten and died.
As Chafin explained, the church abided by what was preached in Mark 16: 17-18: “In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues. They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly things, it shall not hurt them.”
HG was a gregarious man and also somewhat of a shy man. Once a patient assumed the position in his dental chair, on the second floor of a building along Thames Street in Groton, a block or two from Electric Boat and in view of where the Sub Tender Fulton, the posting that brought him here, was stationed in New London, he was ever the raconteur and conversationalist.
One of his patients was the late Sigmund Strochlitz, who survived Auschwitz and owned a successful car dealership in New London. HG would say he was ever amazed that Strochlitz, for all the horror of his youth, never lost his faith in God. HG and Barbara often were guests for Shabbat dinner in the Strochlitz home.
Assigned here aboard the Fulton, he and Barbara settled in Mystic, where they raised three children and HG tended to his tomatoes and, besides his biscuits and peanut brittle, was rightfully proud of his baked stuffed shellfish hor d’oeuvres. Barbara, every bit his match at Scrabble, worked as a reference librarian at the Groton Public Library.
HG retired from the Navy in 1983, and practiced dentistry until 2013. These last years, for this man with so keen a mind, were slowly taken by Alzheimer’s.
In his obituary, published on March 14 in The Day, there is this: “Patients could count on an earful of classical music and his thoughts on the state of the world. They could also count on him to come in at a moment’s notice.”
In my experience, both statements were absolutely true.
And one other from our long friendship. We simply could count on him.
Steven Slosberg lives in Stonington and was a longtime reporter and columnist. He may be reached at email@example.com.