George was not an ordinary friend; he was sometimes like a father, sometimes like a brother; he gave praise when I needed it, and took me over his knee when that was appropriate. You could not ask for a better friend, nor want one, nor need one.
I met Hedges at Lincoln University, our alma mater, where he was two years ahead of me. I didn’t get to know him until I pledged the same fraternity, Omega Psi Phi, and as I look back, I might not have made it had it not been for George; he taught me more about brotherhood than any other single brother.
We roomed together one summer which is when we connected. Both of us were beer drinkers on a campus where wine and whisky were the preferred beverages, and over the years we taste tested our share of a wide variety of lagers, ales and pilsners. I laugh as I recall us being so broke at times that we resorted to buying beer so cheap that the pop tops broke off when we went to open the cans.
George inspired me early on. As a senior, he was already a father and worked three campus jobs to support his wife and son. I was so honored when he and Portia named me godfather of Little George.
After graduating, George took a job in the business office at Lincoln, and while he always maintained his professionalism, he also found time to commiserate with those who had been his fellow students. I chuckle when I recall the night a snow storm was brewing and I convinced Hedges to drive to the nearby town to purchase two cases of wine. We got back to campus ahead of the storm which quickly made the roads impassable. That night, George watched as I doubled the price and sold the bottles to fellow students. Needless to say, we made a killing.
In the days before pay-per-view, often the only resort to following major boxing events was to get a round-by-round account via radio. I recall sitting during a power outage in pitch darkness in George’s house, glued to a transistor radio on October 30, 1974, listening to the “Rumble in the Jungle,” as Mohammed Ali took on George Foreman in Kinshasa, Zaire. Round by round, Hedges and I got accounts of Ali lying against the ropes, taking a pummeling from Forman, but were shocked and amazed when the eighth round report came through that Ali had regained the heavyweight championship via knockout; the “rope-a-dope” was born.
I later became godfather to George and Portia’s second son, Sheldon, again honored that they had such trust in me.
George moved around over the years, taking a series of college administration jobs in Rochester, Miami, Washington, DC and Charlotte before settling down a few years back as the chief financial officer at Cranbrook Schools, a prestigious private school near Detroit.
It was not long after that move that George’s heart started to give out. There was a history of heart problems in his family and Hedges would not escape the trend. I flew to visit him when he was getting a shunt installed to open clogging valves, but it wasn’t enough as he eventually underwent a bypass and later a heart transplant.
Hedges lived on borrowed time after that, but never complained. Forced by health reasons to retire, he became a volunteer, rising in the Rotarians to hold several key offices in his chapter. I would kid him from time to time when he would end a conversation saying he had to go to work. “George, you ain’t got no job,” I would say, and he would respond, “I probably work harder now than when I had a regular job.” I think staying involved, giving back, was his way of saying thanks for the extra time he got on Earth.
Hedges was a huge basketball fan, and, along with me, a diehard Philadelphia 76ers fan after the team acquired Julius “Dr. J” Erving. We had partial season tickets for several years and anguished over the team’s failure to capture a championship. That ended in 1983 with a sweep of the Lakers in The Finals. George called me crying tears of joy, exclaiming, “We won, we finally won!,” as we rejoiced together.
I remember going to the NBA All-Star Game in Denver one year with our good friend Willie King. I used to get tickets to the event every year from the NBA and this one year, not long before the heart transplant, Hedges asked if he could go, saying it might be his only chance. We had a blast and to my knowledge he never attended another, which makes the memory even more special; that I could give him that experience and share it with him.
I last saw George in February when we attended the 100th anniversary of our fraternity chapter at Lincoln. True to his nature, Hedges invited me to share his hotel room, knowing I was short on funds. He looked great and was so full of energy and brotherhood.
We had time to reflect on the long and glorious friendship we had, and how special we were in the lives of each other. And, as we both enjoyed the fraternity of our brothers, some we had not seen in 30 or 40 years, we accepted that many of them we would never see again. Little did I know we would lose George in a few months.
I last connected with him a couple of weeks before he died. He had just returned from a trip to Australia on Rotarian business and we exchanged messages on Facebook as we frequently did. And then he was gone.
I had wanted to attend his services in Michigan, but for a variety of reasons just couldn’t. I know he would understand.
As I think of him now, I remember our last night together, in tuxedos, singing our fraternity hymn for the last time together, the tears welling in my eyes:
“Through days of joy or years of pain;
To serve thee e’er will be our aim;
And when we say our last goodbye;
We’ll love Omega Psi Phi”
Love and miss you Hedges; your friendship was – and will always be – essential to my soul.