My Best Friend

by Randy Cassingham
Boulder, Colorado, USA

My Best Friend

I met my friend Jerry Olivieri at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. We were of like mind and interests, and both enjoyed deep conversation — Jerry was opinionated, and so am I, so we had plenty to talk about!

A brilliant and uncompromising engineer, one of Jerry’s strengths was keeping humans in the loop — it’s relatively easy to design a machine, but harder to design it well to help people, not get in their way. He applied that to the space program as a whole. He would tell his colleagues, “Our job is not to make the incredible possible. Our job is to make the impossible credible.” These kinds of tidbits helped people remember the big picture. We’re not tossing spacecraft up to make them fly, we’re making them fly to bring us knowledge and understanding. He took those visions to Orbital Sciences Corp. when he left JPL.

But humans have their weaknesses: Jerry was diagnosed with leukemia. When he had his bone marrow transplant, he knew he’d be in isolation for weeks, so he took a laptop with him to communicate with the outside world, including his friend in Colorado. We also chatted on the phone, and he readily admitted to me he was scared. And that was Jerry too: no manly pretense, just cut to the chase, tell me what’s on his mind, and let me work to cheer him up.

The support went both ways. He gave me encouragement and advice when I left JPL to pursue my calling to write and publish humanity’s stories. When I started HeroicStories, it became his goal to write one for me. But that wasn’t his only support: he was one of the first to subscribe to it on the Internet, and from his hospital bed he wrote me what he thought of it. Even here, the engineer in him was showing clearly: “HeroicStories is simply great. People don’t seem to realize that the magnitude of heroism is the difference between what you have and what someone is willing to give you in a time of need. The actual per unit value of the commodity is unimportant. That’s why people sometimes don’t fully accept that their personal contribution may have been unusually important to others.” Even in the hospital, in pain, perhaps clouded by drugs, Jerry realized that what made the stories powerful wasn’t that someone had saved a life or given up something precious, but rather that a small gift of time, or effort, or self can have profound, long-lasting effects on others.

And that sums up Jerry’s impact on the people who knew him. Friendship wasn’t an effort to him, but it was precious indeed, and he had profound, long-lasting effects on us.

Jerry’s system rejected his bone marrow transplant, and he died October 23, 1999, with his wife Valerie by his side. He was 37. Days later, it as my great privilege to give his eulogy, and proclaim my life is better because I knew Jerry Olivieri.

Originally published as HeroicStories #79 on Nov 2, 1999
Available in The Best of HeroicStories, Volume 1.

9 thoughts on “My Best Friend”

  1. Wow and WOW … loved this heartwarming story about Jerry. At age 37 he was mature beyond his years. Thank-you so much for sharing his wise insights and a slice of his intelligent character with us readers.

  2. This is one of the best websites in the entire internet. It is that proverbial “small candle of light in the vast darkness (specifically, the political hate messages ) found on the internet. Like story #79, the small things people do to help someone else can be very important.
    But unfortunately, it is the real purpose of the news media (paper/electronic) to SELL advertising by catching “eyeballs”. The “only way” claimed by news people is the theme “If it bleeds, it leads” philosophy. That apparently satisfies our “base” human instincts…………we are not that far removed from the animals…so I like to tap on to this “station” along with watching some olde Burns and Allen/Jack Benny Youtube reruns……….

  3. Thank you for sharing this story of your wonderful friend. Though his life on this earth was short, his light still shines so bright.

  4. You are a hero for starting Heroic Stories, too. It is an oasis in the desert of modern media. There are also some very astute comments here from kindred spirits. Thanks…

    • We republished as it was in the original, so … not sure.

      Update: I checked with Randy, the “anonymous” attribution was an error. Fixed. 🙂


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