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Posted: June 13, 2010 12:01 a.m.

Good friends, girl friends

Once upon a time, from 1980-88, a man I regard as one of the four greatest to serve as President of The United States of America inhabited the White House. Ronald Wilson Reagan, former actor, figuratively rode into Washington, D.C. on a white horse right out of his old Western movies and led America back from the brink of economic oblivion, skyrocketing inflation, staggering unemployment and Jimmy Carter’s attempt to downsize our Navy to under 200 ships.

Reagan appeared just in the nick of time. Critics branded his supply-side, trickle-down, corporate tax-cutting approach to money management as "Reagan-omics." It would never work, the experts said.

Well, it worked. America embarked on the greatest economic expansion in modern history. Along the way Reagan out-spent the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, causing that entity’s eventual collapse and thus ending and winning The Cold War.

Mr. Reagan knew a thing or two about successful management, indeed. He enjoyed a remarkable ability to delegate responsibility - and then to get out of the way. Although poor decisions made by subordinates stung upon occasion, Reagan’s management system worked - and worked well.

One great move was Reagan’s choice to chair the National Endowment for the Humanities: Lynne Cheney. On Cheney’s watch the NEH sponsored Summer Seminars for School Teachers; teachers immersed themselves in subject matter of their own choosing and were taught by world-class scholars, thus becoming reinvigorated.

Sadly, the NEH seminars are no more. But before their elimination, I studied the essays of Michel de Montaigne at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington, hoping to discover why it was that French philosopher Blaise Pascal regarded Montaigne with contempt.

Montaigne’s life was quite interesting. One of his quotes piqued my interest that summer of 1994, and I’ve never been able to let it go.

"A good friend is so rare," wrote Montaigne, "as to only come along every 600 years."

It took me a while to totally absorb that sentiment. My first inclination was that Montaigne didn’t know what he was talking about. I mean, we all have friends, don’t we?

But finally I realized that Montaigne was, indeed, talking about a rarity. Not just a friend, but a good friend. The good friend is one with whom you’ve shared an epiphany, celebrated a triumph or two and, most probably, suffered through a loss or tragedy. The good friend knows your faults but loves you anyway.

And that exceptionally rare trait — the willingness to befriend without condition and to love with one’s whole heart the imperfect person, warts and all — that was what Montaigne was talking about.

How fortunate are those of us who have a good friend. This weekend my wife enjoyed a reunion with seven girl friends who’ve known each other since grade school but whom, due to circumstances of life, had grown apart. Shortly after the 21st Century dawned one invited the others to visit her rustic cabin in Virginia; upon arrival these grown women, who had not seen each other for decades, were apparently overcome with adolescent behavior so remarkable that they decided upon annual summer reunions.

Subsequent rendezvous have occurred from Muscle Shoals, Ala., to Boone, NC, Portland, Ore. and, this weekend, Juliette, Ga.

Identities must be protected here. But joining Louise down where "Fried Green Tomatoes" was filmed are Carol, Jackie, Marsha, Kathy, Rueshelle, Sharon and Patsy. And whereas there isn’t a lot to tear up in Juliette, you never know. Pictures exist of a river rafting excursion in North Carolina, and of a pristine beach setting in Oregon, but despite my years of subtle efforts, "what happens at girl friend reunions...stays at girl friend reunions."

So, before she left Friday, I asked my wife what makes girl friend reunions any more unique than, say, men gathering annually at a favorite hunting lodge.

Louise talked to me about friendship. And love. The eight girls participated in athletics, music or the arts, grew up in the same neighborhoods. There were sleepovers back in the 1960’s, pleasant memories from which allow them to pick up where they left off.

There’s lots of giggling. Laughing until your side hurts so bad you can’t breathe. Pillow fights. Dancing to "oldies" music. And a tiara the girls pass frequently to whomever qualifies as "Diva of the Moment."

These good friends have shared life together, even while parted. All married, some divorced, they raised families, loved and lost. And through it all, memories and affection for their good friends endured.

Last summer two of the girls couldn’t get to Oregon. So the others fashioned life-sized cutouts bearing pictures of their faces and included them in group pictures everywhere they went.

Good friends, indeed, possess a love so rare as to only come along every 600 years, yet abide throughout eternity.

Nat Harwell is a long-time resident of Newton County. His columns appear regularly on Sundays.

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