David Stairs

Steve Zdep is dead, that much is certain. He passed away on November 6th, 2020 from causes not revealed in his obituary.

The author in more innocent times

I hadn’t seen or heard about Steve Zdep for over 50 years. My high school best friend Bernie Flanagan told me Steve had died in a 2020 holiday greeting. Last year was supposed to have been our 50th high school reunion but, like everything else, it was postponed due to Covid-19. I remember my Father attending his 50th reunion in 1985. I thought at the time, “This is crazy.” It seemed even crazier when mine rolled around. “No way I’m going out on the links with a bunch of old duffers,” I thought, mostly because I don’t play golf, but also because high school was not exactly the highlight of my life.

I attended Christian Brothers Academy, CBA to those who know it. A Catholic preparatory school in Syracuse, New York, CBA was opened in 1900 by the teaching Brothers of Saint Jean-Baptiste de la Salle. These days it’s co-ed, but when I attended it was all male. We were the 70th graduating class. On graduation night at the Onondaga County War Memorial 175 of us were onstage in white dinner jackets with red carnation boutonnières. We looked pretty smart. CBA was a competitive place, athletically and academically. My classmates went to Ivy League schools: John Wu to Yale, Mike Tyo to MIT, Charlie Burzalow to Columbia. I had a different trajectory. From attending a school with no art curriculum, I intended to go to art school, and, after a couple years at SUNY Oneonta I transferred to RISD, the closest I ever got to the Ivy League.

My CBA classmates went into the professions. They became lawyers, doctors, and university lecturers. Steve Zdep became a dentist after attending Georgetown. I assume he was a good dentist, since he also taught dentistry. But as I said, that was after my time. I knew Steve in a different capacity. You see, Steve Zdep played trombone, and so did I. We played together in high school for a year, before I tired of marching in the cold and being yelled at by our dictatorial band director. But Steve and I went back even further, to grammar school. We also played in the Saint Margaret’s grammar and middle school band. In fact, that’s where my horn ended up, after my Mom pestered me about donating it to the parish for years. I remember Steve as a mediocre trombone player. I don’t mean this as a criticism; I was no better. We both blatted our way through Pomp and Circumstance each year at graduation. But Steve was such a laid back, easy going kid, it wasn’t possible to be mad at him when he flubbed.

For me the most salient event regarding Steve at Saint Margaret’s School was not the band. Years earlier Steve and I had been in the same kindergarten class, Helen Maloney’s downstairs half-day afternoon session. I was a big cry baby. At first I cried every day, wouldn’t let go of my Mother. We all recognized our seats by the little gummed label animal stickers on the backs of our chairs. Mine was a deer. I don’t know what Steve’s was.

The social event of the 1957 school year in kindergarten was Steve Zdep’s fifth birthday party. Steve’s Mother Edy made sure of that. I remember it mainly because he was the only kid who celebrated his birthday in school that year. There was a big chocolate sheet cake. I don’t remember any presents, in fact, I don’t remember much else about the event other than the cake. After kindergarten Steve and I were still classmates, but never in the same home room again. That’s how it went— separated at cake.

Now that Steve Zdep is dead, the world will never be quite the same. Of course, this is true for every human life. With each passing year the obituaries roll in as more and more of the people I grew up with slide down death’s trombone, like in a funeral march from Tremé, to join Steve in the Great Hereafter. It’s not that I object to death, railing against the inequities of human mortality. I know what’s coming and I assume it ain’t gonna be fun. But I do recognize that there is some sort of balance in the universe. I know this because of Steve Zdep. He may have been a middling trombonist, but he was a good dentist, proven by the fact that his son, Steven R. Zdep, is also a dentist. Just as my kids, Maya, Chris, and Luco, are all in Art and Design. What goes around.

So, I’ve survived my trombone-playing kindergarten-birthday-party-celebrating former-grammar-and-high-school-non-home-room-classmate. One can only hope for a legacy half as good.

David Stairs is the founding editor of the Design-Altruism-Project.

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