Dear Carrboro: Ode to an old friend…

From the 1963 Chapel Hill High School yearbook, the Hillife, Gouger’s sense of humor comes through in labels he applied to this photo of fellow “Banshees Three” singer, Davey McConnell, left, and himself, at right.
(Photo by Jock Lauterer, CHHS ‘63)

By Jock Lauterer
Carrboro Commons Adviser

When my childhood chum Johnny Gouger laughed, it was no delicate matter.

No, not Gouger. When something struck him as funny, which was more often than not, he would cut loose with a trilling soprano cackle, a rooster’s crow of joy, a peal of merriment that went on much too long and much too loud for most public settings.

I am sure that his distinctive yelping laughter was well known at Elmo’s Diner in Carrboro, where he dearly loved his huevos rancheros.

At his funeral last week in the Old Chapel Hill Cemetery — the last place on earth you would expect to find a good laugh — many of us celebrating the life of John Sifford Gouger found ourselves chuckling at the memory of this latter-day Mark Twain.

His sister Judy, whose laugh is similar but more polite, told me that Johnny was “telling West Virginia jokes on his last good day” at UNC Hospitals.

That would be my buddy Gouger.

When you lose a friend who you’ve known since the first grade, it stops you in your tracks. Memories flash like a slide show. That day in the second grade when his father died suddenly. Johnny was called from Mrs. Saunders’ room, and just before he returned, our tiny, silver-crowned teacher told us in a tone so serious that none of us ever forgot the moment: “We must all be very kind to Johnny.”

And then there he was, framed in the doorway, arms hanging limp by his sides, ashen-faced, made paler by his white-blond hair, a stunned blank look on his 7-year-old face.

So we were kind to him. In fact, I believe our class adopted Johnny from that day forward. Because none of us had ever experienced such a grievous loss, he became a person of special concern.

That this intelligent and sensitive child could survive such a summary loss must also be due to the strength of his remarkable mother, Jessie Gouger, everyone’s favorite third grade teacher at Chapel Hill Elementary School, who died three springs ago at the age of 92. I should know; growing up, I spent a lot of time in their homey house on Mason Farm Road.

Forgiving to a fault, “Miz Gouger” allowed our high school folk-era band, “The Banshees Three,” to hold regular practices in her kitchen. The group included me on guitar, Davey McConnell on banjo and Johnny on the washer-dryer. (For the uninitiated, this common household appliance possesses often-overlooked percussive qualities.) On other occasions, our “drummer” resorted to kitchen pots and pans.

But even before our singing days, Johnny and I were linked by another common bond: In the sixth grade, both of us were in love with Paula Sturdivant, the raven-haired man-slayer who broke BOTH of our 11-year-old hearts, telling me in particular, “Jock, I can’t go with you. Archie Kelly is cuter.”

Johnny would go on to develop a fine sense for the absurd, and I can only imagine that when drafted after college, his appreciation for the zany was heightened. This sweet and gentle soul was quite possibly the single most ill-suited recruit ever to wear a U.S. uniform. What happened in those years, I can’t say. And frankly, it’s none of my beeswax. All I know is that for many years after he lived at home with his mom, occasionally bagging groceries and taking in odd jobs. In later years, when he began to find his footing again, he tutored home-schooled kids.

Never married but always faithful to his friends, he purely doted on my children. “Uncle” would have been the proper term of endearment for the man who never failed to press me for the latest news about my kids.

When a brain tumor required surgery, he met it with his characteristic Monty Python sense of humor. To people asking difficult questions, he would famously respond, “How should I know? I’ve had brain surgery!”

In his last years, he found comfort in the Chapel Hill Bible Church, fellowship with the other town characters at Merritt’s Store and a sense of purpose in tutoring.

Speaking eloquently at his funeral, the former University Baptist Church Pastor Gene Jester showed a jar from Merritt’s Store jokes that Johnny had written for peoples’ amusement. Standing there amid the funeral trappings beside the open grave, Jester read several of Johnny Gouger’s jokes aloud.

They were all terrible.

We all laughed anyway.

And when former tutoring student Robert Britt fiddled “Amazing Grace,” our laughter stilled, our eyes bright with tears.

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