Same Time Next Year

“The yearly gathering guarantees that, no matter what, the three of us see each other at least once a year. And you keep those bonds of friendship going.”

It’s probably no coincidence that the 38-year friendship between John Culley ’69 and Rick Campbell ’69 began with their mutual interest in a ritual. The two Phi Gam pledge brothers met walking to St. John’s Episcopal Church during freshman orientation week at the College in the fall of 1965.

Sixteen years later, Campbell was best man at John’s marriage to his wife, Betty. Culley was Campbell’s best man when Rick married Carol a few years later.

But a less formalized ritual has signaled their friendship’s priority as more worldly concerns have pressed against it. Every Labor Day weekend since 1972, Campbell, Culley, pledge brother Bill Mabin ’69, and their families have gathered at Campbell’s cabin on Lake Michigan near South Haven. Pledge brother Jim Early and his family also attended for many years. Culley and Campbell’s wives attended the gatherings when they were still girlfriends, and their children have grown up knowing the annual gathering was as much a sure bet as Christmas morning.

The annual get-together began not long after Campbell returned in 1971 from a stint in the Army. Needing a place to stay while he looked for work, he moved into Culley’s one-bedroom apartment on Washington Street in Crawfordsville.

Mabin had also returned from the Army and was working as sports information director at Wabash. He and his wife, Angela, invited Culley and Campbell to their house for dinner and bridge one evening. The game became a weekly event.

A job for Campbell in Indianapolis broke up the game, but not the friendship. When Culley traveled on business throughout the state, he’d often call Campbell and the two would meet for dinner. And at the end of the summer of 1972, Campbell invited Culley to spend Labor Day at his family’s cabin—the first of 30 years of such gatherings. The weekend at the cabin became a retreat from the cares of the world, a time to reinvigorate their friendships, and the chance to build an extended family.

“The yearly gathering guarantees that, no matter what, the three of us see each other at least once a year. And you keep those bonds of friendship going,” Culley says. “We’ve also had the privilege of watching each other’s children grow up and getting to know them.

“When our daughter, Andrea, was in college at Kenyon, her first visitors were Rick and Carol Campbell. And when Jim Early’s son, Nathan, was a student at Wabash he’d drop by our house to do his wash. We’d known him since he was nine years old, and we knew that when he finally felt comfortable enough to invite himself over for dinner, we’d been accepted as his “other” parents,” Culley says.

“We’ve shared the wonderful experiences of kids’ growing up, and we’ve gone through the tragedies, too,” Culley adds.
The Mabins, Culleys, and Campbells got together last fall for a new twist on their annual assembly. The friends spent a week together in a villa on a vineyard in Tuscany, Italy—the first time they’d traveled together. With Mabin and Campbell interested in wines, the Culleys wanting to spend time in museums, and the other two women psyched to shop, there was plenty of potential for disagreement.

“But we got along famously,” Culley says, and the families are contemplating another European vacation.

Culley’s fondest memory of the trip isn’t the delicious wine they drank, the art they saw, the beautiful countryside they wandered, or even the lazy mornings they spent at the villa brewing three pots of coffee at a time (the pots were very small!) and sharing breakfast.

Culley is most animated when he recalls Campbell driving the group to a town on the Italian Riviera and trying to negotiate the narrow road and switchbacks with the seven-passenger van with a manual transmission that they’d rented.

“Rick had to back and fill to get around each of these turns; there’s a construction zone ahead, there’s traffic behind us, we’re all exhausted from the previous night’s transatlantic flight—it was a very stressful situation,” Culley recalls. “But it was so ridiculous that all we could do was laugh. And by the time we got halfway down, Rick was laughing so hard there were tears streaming down his face.

“That’s just the kind of trip it was—we were laughing all the time with friends in a new country. Maybe that just comes when you like people, and you know them so well, that you can laugh together about all sorts of things.

“Maybe we were tired, too. But there was joy in the mix. There was a lot of that.”