It just looks like an old picture. Eight young men captured in their prime.
But it was and is so much more. That photograph is a testament to bonds of friendship so powerful they have lasted more than 50 years and are still going strong.
The photo shows a group of teenage boys, dubbed "the Fellas," who were about to graduate from Baton Rouge High School. Best friends since seventh grade at Westdale Junior High School, they spent the summer between their junior and senior years at the old Acadian Club. As summer vacation came to a close, they posed for the photo.
Fast forward 53 years. Tim Alford, Adrian D'Armond, Mike Glisson, John Gould, Butch Helveston, Rick Johnson, Rick Sandefer and David Stokes have all celebrated their 70th birthdays. And though most no longer call Baton Rouge home, they gathered here over the holidays and recreated the photo — exposed abs and all — at their alma mater. D'Armond wasn't able to make it for the picture.
Alford came in from Kearney, Nebraska, where he's a surgical physician's assistant. A cheerleader in high school, he's the comedian of the group, say his friends who spent this picture-taking session laughing over his stories of beach excursions, speeding tickets that magically disappeared and girls.
"We were sort of drawn to one another through sports and social events and realized relatively quickly that we all had a great deal in common and shared mutual interest in many things — mostly girls," said Alford. "We all liked to dance, Adrian being the best, as his mother was a professional dancer at some point in her life. We counseled and consoled one another through difficult relationships, but fancied ourselves as the heartbreakers and not generally the heartbreakees, as it were.
"In comparing the pictures from 1963 and 2016, two things jumped out at me," he said. "Where did 53 years of my life go, and what am I doing in the body of this 70-year-old guy? I’m having trouble coming up with a good answer to either question."
After graduating from LSU, Alford was drafted but didn't get sent to Vietnam; Sandefer did. He was the only member of the group to go. At the end of his tour, he attended law school at LSU, eventually moving to Lafayette to practice. Now he's retired and living on his boat in Biloxi, Mississippi.
"The fact that each of us has kept this photo for over 50 years says something about the significance of our bond," said Sandefer. "I can look at any individual in that group and recall times and places which frame the rites of passage from adolescence to whatever that next stage of development is called. And, yes, it's undeniably a wish to go back to a simpler time when we thought the world was our oyster and we regaled in its liquor to the last drop."
Stokes, a retired dentist who lives in Seattle, said the group "has been inseparable since Westdale and all through LSU. We were in each others' weddings. … Tim and I were friends in elementary school, and I have great memories of 'sleepovers' at his home."
After graduating from LSU, Stokes and Johnson left Baton Rouge to attend graduate school. Separated by thousands of miles, they remained close. "I find myself on occasion describing him as the brother I never had," said Stokes, who was the Bulldogs' star quarterback and an all star in track. "We cycled with a group across the United States in the summer of '97 to celebrate our 50th birthdays — an unforgettable seven-week experience made even better with a close friend."
Johnson, who was student body president and Mr. Baton Rouge High School, is a member of the Baton Rouge High Hall of Fame.
"After LSU, we scattered with only three remaining in Baton Rouge, but the finest essence of comradeship always remained," said Johnson, a retired professor and former director of the University of Georgia's Studies Abroad, Italy, who came in from Athens, Georgia.
He says his brother, Clay, once summed up the original photo.
"That photograph you all have mounted in your homes is more than an image; it’s a contract!" Clay Johnson told his brother.
The contract has endured and only strengthened over the years. For Johnson and Helveston, it's an even deeper connection.
"My parents died when I was young," explained Helveston, who still calls Baton Rouge home. "Rickey's family took me in, and I was treated like a son and brother. That can never be repaid, nor would it be expected."
Helveston's name may sound familiar. He was a star athlete at Baton Rouge High, where his dad, "Big Butch" coached, and he coached there, too, and at Episcopal High. He also is a BRHS Hall of Famer.
Glisson, the former senior class president, also coached at his alma mater prior to serving as the principal at St. James Episcopal Day School. Today, Glisson owns a local real estate company.
"You can imagine the trials and tribulations that have occurred among eight friends and their families during the 53-plus years that we've known each other," said Glisson. "Knowing that you always have someone there through the good times and bad, that you could call and would come at the drop of a hat is special and means a lot. I know I never had or ever will have better friends. … Our friendship will never die."
Gould, a professor at Union College in Barbourville, Kentucky, echoed that sentiment.
"The 'Fellas' are my brothers and in some ways closer, since we chose to be trusting and supportive rather than just being obligated by kinship," he explained. "These guys accept each other's faults, love each other's strengths, help each other grow. Smart, funny, athletic and big hearted … different aspects of one great entity. Different interests and other friends come and go, but 'the Fellas' remain the core of my being."
"Our final get-together at Mike's home was a bit emotional for some of us, knowing it may be the last time we're all together," Stokes said. "Old friendships are really special and, as I have discovered, rare."