Sharon Randall: A friend who made me happy

Published 12:00 am Friday, January 13, 2012

How will you be remembered? What do you want people to say about you when you’re gone?
I recently lost a longtime friend, a man with a larger-than-life personality and a heart, soul and mind to match.
I met Byron Donzis more than 25 years ago through my friend, Martha, who was working as his assistant. I liked him from the start. Their relationship was clearly professional, but it was no surprise some years later when Martha called to say they were getting married. My only question was, what took so long?
Martha and I had been friends since we were 8 years old. We had gone to the same college. She’d been a bridesmaid in my wedding. I loved her like a sister, wanted nothing for her but the best. That is what she found in Byron, and he found in her — their one best match.
Much has been written about Byron. He was an inventor, an entrepreneur, the most creative, innovative thinker and doer I ever rode a mule with. (That would be his prized Kawasaki.)
Others could tell you about his accomplishments; his invention of the flak jacket, a protective vest widely used in the NFL; his work with the Sunshine Kids Foundation, helping fulfill wishes of children battling cancer; all the fortunes he made or lost; all the dreams he dreamed, big and small, to make the world a better place.
But those are not the things I’ll remember him for. I will tell you two stories, maybe three.
Once, on my way to visit Martha and Byron at their home in the Texas Hill Country, I got as far as San Antonio, before I heard that the Guadalupe River had flooded and turned their ranch into an island prison.
When I called to say I was going back to California, Byron wouldn’t hear of it. He knew how much Martha and I were looking forward to the visit.
“Girl,” he said, “give me 15 minutes and I’ll call you back.”
Fifteen minutes later, he called back with a plan. Next thing I knew, I was in a helicopter the size of a phone booth, flying over floodwaters and landing in a soggy orchard — where I spotted Martha and Byron waving flashlights in the rain.
During that visit, Byron mentioned a memorial service he’d attended for a friend.
“People talked a lot about the things he did,” he said. “I just wanted to hear somebody say he had made them happy.”
Years later, when they heard I had lost my job, Byron and Martha called right away.
“We’re not going to let you lose your health insurance,” Byron said. “We’re going to cover it for you.”
I couldn’t allow them to do that. But I will never forget they offered. Sometimes, just the offer of kindness is enough.
One last story. Four years ago, after Byron was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, he and Martha moved back to Landrum, S.C., where she and I grew up, to be closer to her family.
I visited them there whenever I was in town, dreading each time to see the steady, relentless decline in Byron’s health. But there were always little sparks of shining clarity — like pieces of a broken mirror reflecting bits of the same brilliance, same wit, same chuckle in his laugh, same light in his eyes — the same old one-of-a-kind Byron.
In August, the last time I was in Landrum, I’d promised to stop by to see him, but had to fly back sooner than expected.
I thought of that promise last week when Martha called to tell me that Byron had suffered a stroke and died.
There’s a lot I could say about him, but I will just say this:
He was smart, he was funny and he was good.
He loved life and his wife, his dogs and his cats, figuring stuff out and lively conversation.
And, yes, he made a lot of people happy — including me.
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Contact Sharon Randall at