Omaha lost a quiet icon last weekend, a rock of the wine industry for more than thirty years here in our city, a library full of knowledge and a fount of generosity and kindness. To call Dave Deao “my” friend seems somehow inappropriate, because he was known to so many people, and I’m certain all of us would gladly take ownership of his friendship. He was my friend, but he was a friend to so many more — as evidenced by the sheer volume of those of us who arrived Wednesday at Mary Our Queen to bid him farewell.
As I look back over this past week, it’s difficult to fathom the speed with which things moved. The week before, Jerry called to tell me he had spoken to Joe, and that Dave was in the hospital. He mentioned the name of a barely-pronounceable bacteria, but the next day when I spoke to Joe, it sounded as if things were getting better. I texted Dave a few days after that, and his wife, Ellen, responded but said that he was doing well and on the mend. Then Sunday morning, as I was sitting at breakfast in Kansas City with some friends, my phone buzzed. I’m not sure why I looked, but I did. “A Roman-Catholic priest is calling me on a Sunday morning!” I quipped as I saw the name of my friend Father Leffler pop up on the screen, but out of courtesy and a lack of recognition I didn’t take the call. By the time Sonja and I had loaded the kids in the car, I saw that he had called twice more, as had two friends from the Napa Valley, both winemakers. “Shit,” I thought to myself, returning my priest-friend’s phone call.
“Mark,” said Father Leffler, “Have you head about Dave?”
Upon the query being posed, almost unintentionally, I proceeded to try to talk over the Father. I told him that yes, of course, we had spoken. He’s in the hospital. But I’ve texted with Ellen, I proceeded, and he’s getting better. Everyone says he’s getting better… It was as if I though not allowing my friend to deliver the news would somehow prevent it from being true. Father Leffler, whose name is Taylor, waited patiently for me to run out of things to say. When I did, he simply said in his compassionate, priestly baritone: “Mark, Dave passed away last night.” I repeated his words to Sonja, who was in the passenger seat, while the kids sat in the back, unaware that the man who had held them and greeted them and adored them most Saturday afternoons would no longer be available to them in the future. We sat in silence for some time, I thanked Taylor, then let him get back to his other responsibilities.
Dave Deao was a gentleman, a person who was easy to like and who seemed to like almost everyone; those he didn’t comprised a very short list of very worthy candidates. He was refined, soft-spoken, and amiable. An eye-smiler, I think everyone I know was drawn to him because of his kindness. He was gentle yet strong, and seemed even a few weeks prior to be in the best of health, having just turned sixty-four, as together he, I, and a crew of friends put on the 29th annual VinNEBRASKA event. Taylor, whom I had introduced to Dave a few years prior, attended and sat at Dave’s table.
Sunday night, back in Omaha, I was pouring myself some whiskey and trying not to bounce off of the walls when my phone buzzed. I was at the bar in our basement, but Sonja glanced at it. I didn’t care to answer but then Sonja said “Mark, it’s Stu.” I set down my bottle and moved to grab the phone.
Stu Smith is many things, including a father, a winemaker, an agriculturalist, an auctioneer, and a damn fine human being, but that night he was calling as a mutual friend of Dave’s. We spoke for about fifteen minutes; for me it was catharsis. “It’s so strange,” Stu said. “You step outside and you see people going about their daily lives still — it’s as if they don’t understand how much the world just changed.”
The rest of the week, friends, winemakers, and people I barely knew called, texted, or emailed to inquire about Dave. My birthday came and went all but unnoticed for my hectic routines, and the next day two friends covered my A3 Senior English so I could pick up Sonja and together we could go say goodbye to Dave.
The funeral was, well, Roman-Catholic, simplistic in its predictability yet beautiful for its liturgical traditions and the somber opportunity to hug and smile at those members of my friend’s family with whom I have become close over years of knowing him. “How are you?” I asked twice, cutting myself off to apologize for the stupid question, then being reassured that it wasn’t. Their bravery and strength was a testament to the imprint this steady man’s presence had left in their lives. Taylor offered communion, and I sat and prayed and joined in singing songs that somehow managed to take on new meaning. Afterward, we stepped out into the great wet world, the rain just having stopped, a numinous quality hanging in the air that was impossible not to appreciate. Sonja and I held hands and walked to our car.
That night I stopped by Dave’s shop, The Winery, where the great Nils Venge — the first winemaker ever to make a 100 point wine in America, was there to help promote his wines. I helped him set up and had him sign a bottle to my grad students that night. One by one and two by two, most of Dave’s regulars with whom I was familiar entered the shop and grabbed a glass. Some were still teary, others smiling. “I keep expecting him to come around the corner,” remarked one, and I understood exactly what he meant. I stayed as long as I could, then took the bottle of wine Nils had signed to my class and shared it with a crew of appreciative graduate students. I told them where it came from and why it was important, and we spent the first hour of class relaxing, picking at a cheeseball, drinking the wine from plastic Champagne flutes I found in the cabinet, and appreciating all that life has to offer.
Omaha lost one of her greatest citizens a week ago today. A gentleman and a fount of knowledge, Dave may be best remembered for his generosity and for his eye smiles. I know I’ll never set foot in The Winery without thinking of this kind, soft-spoken gentleman, though I suspect I will continue to remember my friend with far greater frequency than that. As long as the mortality rate in our species remains at a hundred percent, losses like this one remind me to cherish the time I have, to read stories to my children, to hug my wife, to drink good wine, and to do my best to be the sort of person who will be, when it comes time to say a few words, remembered as a gentleman, kind and generous. Thank you for being a role model, Dave. You will be missed.