In honor of a friend and his hands-on genius

Published 4:58 pm Friday, April 17, 2020

We used to hang out at his house, Waylon and I.

We were high school classmates and friends, who lived only a block apart for most of our high school years.

When I think of him, several things come immediately to mind. The first is him lifting his head from where he’d propped it on his folded arms on a classroom desk. It seemed no matter what was said to him, he seemed surprised and had a look on his face that would make you think he had no clue where he was.

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You could say something to him about it and he’d flush red and start laughing.

His dirty blonde hair, one drooping eyelid and big goofy smile summed up his “look” and I can’t help but smile thinking of him.

Our many hours spent together usually involved listening to vinyl records of Def Leppard or the Man in Black, or — of course — his namesake, Waylon Jennings.

We’d play checkers or cards, or walk in the woods by the Chunky River, shoot fireworks on the river bank. Whatever we did, we always enjoyed it. There was never a feeling of needing to one-up one another (though we did) or prove something or even try to come up with something “exciting” to do.

It was just fun hanging out and talking about whatever came to mind.

Usually, when a column starts out like this, the reader anticipates that the words are a tribute of memory for someone who has died. While this is a tribute of sorts, it’s not for a death. As far as I know, Waylon is still alive as I write this.

But I haven’t gotten to see or talk to him in a couple of years.

Waylon doesn’t “do” social media or much of technology. It’s just not his thing. The business where he worked for many years is no longer there. Last I heard he was working on his own farm.

I can get in touch with him through his younger brother, who is on Facebook, and I have at times. But what I miss is sitting with my friend nearby and talking.

I hope to do that again before long. I’ll get in touch with him and drink coffee or something with him on a porch somewhere and reminisce about the good ol’ days.

It’s times like these, amid social distancing and widespread changes across the world, that many of us have realized just how much we miss others when we can’t interact as we once did.

I thought of my friend earlier today when talking with a coworker. We were discussing how someone could struggle in a classroom setting — performing poorly or just having to put in more effort — and display brilliance in another area. Or vice versa.

I thought of Waylon and how he sometimes struggled in the classroom. It wasn’t due to diminished intelligence, but probably came more from his pronounced shyness and embarrassment over his lazy eye. He had nothing to be embarrassed about, but you know how people can be toward anyone who doesn’t look or act just like them.

Such foolishness is the basis of racism and fear of others, and has sparked the fire and fanned the flames of many a war. But back to Waylon.

If you had a lawnmower or chainsaw that wouldn’t run or had issues, Waylon could spend a little bit of time with it and it would purr or roar like it was meant to do. Waylon’s gift was evident when it came to mechanics.

We spend too much time pegging people into holes that don’t fit because we’re trying to measure their abilities by scales that shouldn’t be applied to them.

Often attributed to Albert Einstein, a popular comment on measuring genius goes like this:

“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”

That’s a shame. I have more than one academic degree and I love to study and teach. I did well on academic tests, usually. Another friend is a gifted teacher and has taught for decades. But she performed poorly on timed academic tests. It was the wrong method to judge her abilities.

And we certainly apply this method to many people in life — judging them by the wrong measurement when the only thing that really matters is them doing the best they can with their abilities and gifts.

This wasn’t where I was originally going with this column, but it’s true.

Where was I going? Well, after the conversation about displaying brilliance, I heard an old Def Leppard song and thought of Waylon once again.

Miss ya, my friend, and looking forward to laughing with you once again soon.

Brett Campbell can be reached at