Bryan Newstrom was born in May of 1963, the third son (after Steve and Jeff), of Chuck and Madaline Newstrom. He grew up with a little sister too; Jane Ann was born a few years later. Bryan was my best friend during the formative years of my adolescence, from 5th through 9th Grades. He was a great kid. I learned a lot from him that I still live by.
Universally loved by all who knew him, Bryan was the guy that all the guys wanted to be like and the guy that all the cheerleaders wanted to be with. He was the backup quarterback on a good football team. He was on the A-Squad basketball team. He was a terrific first baseman. And I was one of his two best friends.
My closest friends during elementary school depended upon which class we were in each year. Kids that were on the ball-teams together were friends no matter what, but you didn’t always get to see them that much if you were in a different class. Each grade had at least two groups of kids in different classes that were together all day. Each year, you just naturally bonded with the kids that you shared your time with each day. I was fortunate, as a 5th and 6th Grader, to be in Bryan’s class. We had spent the summer after 4th grade, playing on the Tulsa City Championship winning, Waite Phillips Pilots baseball team. We also won the District Championship, held in Spiro, Oklahoma before losing out in our first game at the State Tournament. We finished that season with a record of 36-2-1, after the loss at State. That was the summer of my father’s cancer.
Fifth grade was a tough year for me, given that my father died in October. My friends at school had no more idea how to act around me than I knew how to react to a death in the immediate family. We muddled through. School and sports would become a means to get on with living. Only they weren’t the same. Over the coming years, I would learn what it was to sit on benches, not playing in games, because other kid’s dads were there to advocate for them. It was a tough lesson.
I remember the first time I ever sat on the bench during a tournament. After the fifth grade school baseball season, our team had combined with another South Tulsa team for a tournament. Bryan and I shared the indignity of being the “odd” kids out. The other school’s Coach’s son was the first baseman. I played different positions, like a modern utility player, but couldn’t crack the lineup. I remembered crying at not getting to play. Bryan took it stoically. He wouldn’t give our coach the satisfaction of seeing him cry. Screw him. I appreciated Bryan’s resolve.
After finishing elementary school (6th grade), about 80% of Waite Phillips kids went to Thomas Edison Junior High School. The other 20% went to Eli Whitney Junior High. I was among the 80%. Bryan was in the 20%. During 7th Grade we didn’t see much of each other. We did occasionally spend the night with each other though. Somewhere about that time, my Mom had been introduced to Ken Petty. They began dating. Ken lived a few miles from where Bryan and his family lived.
My 7th Grade Year at Edison Junior High wasn’t a high point for me. It was the first year that I ever failed a class. My last hour geometry class, third quarter, was one that I just wouldn’t do my homework in. I also had discovered that I could outsmart the school nurse. I went in to see her after lunch, complaining of a stomach ache. She would have me call my mom. I would dial information and talk as if it was my mom. Then I’d say she was on her way. And I would leave. I would take 2-3 hours to travel the 2 ½ miles home, stopping at Git N’ Go for a soda along the way. And then I’d arrive home at normal time, with no math homework to do.
Upon finding out that my mother intended to indeed remarry, in the summer of 1976, I was ecstatic. Living with Ken would enable me to go to school with Bryan again. I was going to go to Whitney Junior High. Bryan was as popular as anybody at Whitney. I had been a nobody at Edison. And I was Bryan’s friend.
Eighth grade was a great year for me. We were coming up on 14 years old, with older siblings that were just driving. We seemed to have it made. Whitney Jr. High was a renaissance for me. Bryan’s credibility gave me instant cred. I was a good athlete and some of the girls liked me. My grades improved with my newfound status.
Ninth grade was even better than eighth. We were the oldest kids in the school, we were peaking, at least as much as you can before beginning high school (which was grades 10-12 at the time in Oklahoma). We were having the time of our lives.
That is, until Bryan was killed. Bryan’s death changed all of us. I took his passing worse than I did my own father’s. With my dad, we had six months of withering, anticipating. With Bryan, it was total shock.
February 26th, 1978. It was a Sunday morning, I had spent the night with my cousin Skip, at my Aunt Brenda’s house, which coincidentally had been the house that I grew up in, that my dad had died in. It was the house that we had just moved out of, to move in with my new step-father. About 9:30 that morning we got the phone call. My mom called to tell us that Madaline had called. Bryan had been killed earlier in the morning.
We were later to learn about the accident. Bryan had been staying the night with his other best friend, Joey Reidy. Joey was also one of the stars of the Waite Phillips Pilots teams of a few years prior. They had been hanging out that night with some of Joey’s neighbors/friends. One of them was 16 and had a driver’s license and a car. At some point in the middle of the night, they piled into a station wagon, going somewhere. Driving south on Lewis Street in south Tulsa, in the middle of the night, the driver fell asleep and drifted across the center-lines, hitting a north-bound vehicle head-on. Bryan, sitting in the front passenger seat, was not wearing a seatbelt (it was still commonplace then). He was thrown into the windshield. His skull broke the windshield. Bryan died at the scene. No one else in the car was even injured.
Bryan’s death was the death of my innocence. No longer would I ever believe that life is fair. Life can be cruel, painful, ugly, and unpredictable. You don’t know how long you’ve got. You can’t take anything for granted.
I couldn’t have known it at the time, but a good part at the core of who I am, is derived from my time as Bryan’s best friend. From him, I learned that all it takes to change one’s fortune, is a well-timed endorsement from the right person. An easy smile and a positive approach can win a whole-bunch of naysayers. Being in the light of a brightly shining celestial being lends some radiance to everyone. I was blessed to have been able to share in Bryan Newstrom’s light.
I remember Bryan introducing me to Kansas-the band. To this day, I know of only two other people as faithfully into Kansas as I have been (Bud Watson and Joni Nelson-you know who you are). In the early days of component stereos, Bryan’s brother Jeff had the brand-new Leftoverture album on vinyl. This was when vinyl was the only format. And Bryan’s brother Steve had a killer stereo. I remember being terrified that Jeff or Steve one would come in and bust us for playing the album or using the stereo equipment. Looking back on it, I think that Bryan’s brothers probably wouldn’t have minded. They all seemed to get along, no matter that they lived in fairly tight quarters. Growing up as one of four kids makes for some giving and taking. Hearing Carry On Wayward Son on a great stereo sucked me in. I was born a Kansas fan at that moment. Leftoverture supplanted Fleetwood Mac’s Rumors as my favorite album. Bryan’s enthusiasm had swayed me.
The final two fun things that Bryan and I did together, in the weeks prior to his death, were seeing Kansas in concert and seeing the movie Rocky in the theater. On January 8th, 1978, Bryan, Robbie Keil, and myself went to see Kansas at the Tulsa Fairgrounds Pavilion. We had general admission tickets and were gathered early, outside the doors, so we could get good seats on the floor in front of the stage. The crowd built to a small mob, and eventually started pushing as a group at the still-locked glass doors. One of them broke. The gate guards/staff had no choice but open the doors before more of them got broken. We rushed in with the rest of the kids. We ended up about four rows from the stage, on the left side of the floor, directly in front of stage right, where Steve Walsh’s keyboards would be set up.
Kansas was spectacular. It was the Point of Know Return tour. They were in their prime. They were the only band on earth which had a gong, a xylophone, chimes, a full-time violinist, etc. It all worked. We knew after that night that we would be Kansas fans for the rest of our lives. They had great songs on their records…and they played them even better live. Some bands could do magic in the studio, but not deliver the goods live. Forever afterward, those bands fell short of my Kansas-based expectations.
Seeing Rocky was our other final event. Three or four weeks after the Kansas concert, Bryan called to see if I wanted to go to a movie. I wanted to see something else (the name of which now no longer fires within the memory banks), Bryan wanted to see Rocky. We saw Rocky. As cliché as the franchise may have become later, the original Rocky movie was Stallone’s masterpiece. It paved the way for all of his other successes. We came out of the theater pumped up. Rocky was the story of the American Dream, achieved against the odds. Rocky gave hope to guys like us from Tulsa.
Bryan died a few months before the end of our ninth grade year. He was about six months shy of beginning High School at Nathan Hale High School. I recently saw the Nathan Hale Alumni Website. The class of 81’ page is a prominent, proud piece of that site. Among the architects of that page, keeping Hale memories alive, is one Joey Reidy, our fellow Waite Phillips Pilot. Joey and his wife Rhonda Upton, high school sweethearts that became a strong marriage, appear to be the nucleus of a small group that still meets regularly. Prominent on the Class of ’81 page, is the Memorial’s page, acknowledging those classmates that have passed on. Among these photos is the same pic of Bryan that I have kept on my wall since 1978. Joey and I weren’t ever really close friends, but we know we shared a profound bond over the years. We went to college together for a few years in Tahlequah. Joey tried out for and almost made the baseball team our freshman year. I was one of three freshman to make it. Joey was cut in the last cut. I enjoyed seeing his enthusiasm and energy up close over that semester and I think we shared a mutual admiration of sorts. We certainly knew that Bryan was forever our common bond. We both knew how good a friend that Bryan was; we both loved him like the brother that each of us didn’t have. It does my heart good knowing that Joey had a part in keeping Bryan’s spirit alive. This is my own effort at giving Bryan a worthy tribute. JDPF