When your best friend makes you a better person, it makes for a good story


Special to the Star

SAN DIEGO — Fifteen years ago this week, I lost my best friend.

And yet the memory of this special young man — who was also my college roommate — remains a blessing. He is always on my mind, and his spirit at my side.

In his final years, we had drifted apart. There is no good excuse. You get busy with life, consumed with work.

You take for granted that friends will always be there. Until, one day, they’re not.

Lately, I think about him because of things big and small — our upcoming 30th college reunion, Pete Buttigieg’s presidential bid, the start of baseball season.

The first thing you must know about Joseph Henry Cice is that his most impressive credential was not his bachelor’s degree in government from Harvard or his master’s degree in social work and health administration from San Diego State University. It was his “Ph.D.” in human relationships.

My father calls it “people power.” Political observers look at Bill Clinton and George W. Bush and speak of “emotional intelligence.”

Some people have social skills that are off the charts. Psychologists label these folks “extroverts” and say they get re-charged by being around other people. They’re always engaged and looking out for others.

That was Joe.

My friend ignored the parental directive: “Don’t talk to strangers.” He’d stroll up to people he didn’t know with a big smile, look them in the eye, and say: “Hi, I’m Joe. What’s your name?”

At 18, when I met him, he thought that he might someday run for office. Later, he toyed with the idea of running campaigns and helping elect others.

Finally, when he moved to California after college, he found his calling: social work. He helped young people make better choices.

Harvard, where Joe and I met, is full of people who take themselves too seriously.

Joe took his friendships, causes and beliefs seriously — but never himself. How could he with his goofy trademark line: “Get me psyched!”

He loved Bobby Kennedy. We probably logged more hours poring over exhibits, films and documents in the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum than we did studying in our campus libraries.

My friend also loved the New York Yankees, Peter Gabriel, the film “Harold and Maude,” campaign buttons, playing catch on the Charles River and anything covered in chocolate.

Most of all, he loved his friends and family. As the youngest of three sons born to an Italian American father and Irish American mother, and raised in the idyllic town of Ridgefield, Connecticut, Joe knew what it was like to strive for attention and try to make his own way.

Observant, curious and fearless, he would have been a great journalist.

And like many in my tribe, his instincts were to run toward chaos, pain and conflict. Other people look away when they see a homeless man. Joe would approach the guy, ask about his family, and buy him a sandwich.

In our sophomore year, he trusted me enough to make me one of the first people to whom he “came out.” Today, I see flashes of him in the bright and charismatic Buttigieg.

I wonder what my friend would make of the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, who is seeking to become the nation’s first openly gay president. He’d probably be helping run the campaign.

Before graduation, Joe spent a year in Sweden and fell in love with the place. Near the end of his life, I would learn, he traveled several times to Russia and had begun the process of adopting a Russian teenager with a troubled past.

It was his tendency to run toward pain that brought Joe to Lakeside, California, a working-class town of just over 22,000 people located about 20 miles northeast of San Diego.

There, he worked on drug and violence prevention as the social services coordinator for the Lakeside Union School District.

The community — which is more than two-thirds white — has been plagued by racial violence perpetuated by white supremacists against Latinos and African Americans.

That story was told in an award-winning 2003 documentary for public television, in which Joe participated.

He did so much for the entire Lakeside community that local officials named the local teen community center after him.

On May 9, 2004, Joe was killed when — according to the highway patrol — his car swerved off an interstate, hit a boulder and caught fire. He was just 37.

Thank you, my friend. You enriched my life and made me a better person. How I wish you could meet my wife and kids. I think about you every time my son and I play catch — and I smile. I miss you.

Ruben Navarrette’s email address is ruben@rubennavarrette.com. His daily podcast, “Navarrette Nation,” is available through every podcast app.