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By Russ Smith | Posted 5/5/2004

Twenty-five years ago this week I received a long, handwritten letter from the distraught mother of one of my closest friends. Mark had been missing for two weeks, she explained, and was it possible that he'd left untold troubles behind at the family home in Houston and sought refuge in Baltimore?

I've made more difficult phone calls in subsequent years, but at 23, telling this lovely mother of six that no, her son hadn't traveled north, was heartbreaking. She wept softly and said there was "a disturbing note" Mark's sister had found, and they expected the worst. A week later, she called my office and said that he'd been found on the outskirts of Austin, a suicide with a single bullet in his head. I was at a loss for words, other than genuine but unsatisfactory expressions of sympathy, and just let her speak for more than an hour. Mark and I had corresponded frequently, and in a letter from a month earlier he'd complained about unbearable headaches, a malady I diagnosed as stress from the rigors of law school.

Maybe he'd found out that his 24-year-old body was riddled with cancer; perhaps there were nagging demons torturing him that I was unaware of. In any case, I never did find out the reason this brilliant, imaginative young friend of mine decided to kill himself.

Mark Reuter and I were freshman roommates at Johns Hopkins University, arriving at the campus within an hour of each other in September of 1973, and hit it off immediately. This in itself was unusual, since the odds of actually liking the person you had to share a cubicle with for the next year--Hopkins, at least back then, was notorious for its bare-bones accommodations--defied the odds. That you'd become best friends was like winning the lottery.

He was a longhaired hippie from (to me) exotic Texas, who played guitar, wore cowboy boots, was well-versed in Rimbaud, Wordsworth, and Dickens, shared my hobby of collecting Bob Dylan bootlegs, and loved to drink beer and smoke pot. Not much to complain about, although I did think his adherence to Catholicism was a bit odd--not that he went to mass every morning--but chalked that up to the Jesuit high school he attended.

In 1973, Houston wasn't yet the country's fourth-largest city and, as I'd find out in a trip there six months later, was hardly cosmopolitan. Here's an example: That first day of school, I introduced Mark to my longtime buddy from Huntington, N.Y., Howie Nadjari, who'd also decided to attend Hopkins. We hung out for a few hours, did some bong hits, and later that evening, as Mark and I took a long walk to deserted downtown Baltimore, he told me the following, in a slight Texan accent. "You know, Howie's a pretty cool guy." Yes he is, I replied, as cool as they come. Mark continued, "And he's the first Jew I've ever met."

My jaw dropped, not in disapproval, but utter shock. I'd grown up on Long Island, after all, and had attended far more bar mitzvahs than baptisms. How strange, I thought, and after a month or so, when our friendship endured, we hitched a ride from a JHU senior up to Manhattan and stayed with a friend of mine at Barnard College. Once in the city, Mark was a bundle of wonder, tracing Dylan's roots in the Village, marveling at a raucous street fair, and trying Chinese food for the first time.

In the spring, we drove from Baltimore to Houston in three days--getting tossed out of a motel in Memphis because of our long hair and jeans--and made a stop at one his school friends at a small college in Alabama. Gerry was a great guy--I was the first Northerner he'd met--and the first thing he said was, "Roots, you wouldn't believe the chicks here. They're so ready to ball, they give you the rubber!" That took me aback, as did meeting Mark's best friend in Houston, a smart teenager who skipped college because he'd knocked up his girlfriend, got married, and worked on a high-rise construction project.

Mark left Hopkins after freshman year, transferring to the more affordable University of Houston, but we met up twice a year during college, taking trips to Mexico, as well as Austin and San Antonio.

I remember once, during a meal at a Charles Village Harley's sub shop, Mark speculating that one day he guessed he'd be fat and bald, like his father, with a bunch of kids, earning his living as a public defender in the South. He'd be 49 now, and I've yet to reconcile, and probably never will, his mystifying act of self-destruction.

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