Josh Friedman: requiem for a nerd with a heart of gold

josh friedman
Josh Friedman. Photo by Sharon Simon Katz

My friend Josh died this weekend. I’d like to tell you a little bit about who he was, which is also a little bit about who I am, since we were friends for nearly 50 years.

I met Josh when the teacher introduced him as the new student to our third-grade class. I was fascinated, because I had never heard of another kid named Josh. (By the 80s one in every thousand American babies was named Joshua, but this was the mid-60s and we Joshes were rare.) Josh and I became inseparable, partly because of our shared interest in science.

My father was a chemist and his father engineered radiosondes, devices attached to weather balloons that radioed data about conditions in the clouds. So we came by our geekiness naturally. Each month we would await the new issue of Scientific American and turn instantly to the Mathematical Games column by Martin Gardner. We made hexaflexagons and tormented our friends and teachers. One time Gardner suggested some cool things to do with Moebius strips. All nerds know that you can cut one in half and end up with a double-twist strip instead of two loops. But we cut one in thirds, and then cut the resulting strip in half again and ended up with a mass of knotted spaghetti, which we fit neatly into an envelope and sent to Martin Gardner. We never heard back but we were hooked.

Being a nerd kid in 2015 is cool. But this was the 60s. Dressing in mod clothes was cool. Saying “far out” was cool. Being into science and math was not cool. Nobody had heard of Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. But Josh and I didn’t care. We just loved the stuff and impressed nobody but each other and our parents and the science teachers.

josh friedman explorers
Explorer Scout meeting

In junior high school we amused ourselves at lunch by playing “Racetrack,” a game based on the laws of physics that you played with a pencil on graph paper. We formed an Explorer Scouts troop dedicated to data processing and made art out of holes in punched cards. We were in the chorus together, the only two junior high school boys willing to admit we were tenors rather than pretending to be basses.

Josh Friedman junior high
Josh and Josh, terrors of the science lab

We also tormented the science teacher, Mr. Selgrath. We broke more glassware than any other students. We did an independent study project to determine which liquids would make the best thermometers. We partially filled a piece of glass tubing, closed at the bottom and open at the top, with the test liquid. Then we placed it in an ice water bath over a burner and marked how the level of the test liquid changed as the temperature rose. We knew regular thermometers often had alcohol in them, so we tried alcohol as a test liquid. The experiment was working great until the water bath reached about 80 C. We were surprised to see the level of the alcohol jump up, then down, then up again. Nobody had told us that alcohol boils at 80 C. The boiling alcohol squirted out the top of the tube, rained down on the burner, and set the lab on fire. Mr. Selgrath was not pleased.

josh friedman star trek
Josh Friedman in 1978.

By high school, we ended up surrounded by a clique of other nerds. We discovered girls. I wasn’t bad looking, with a mop of curly hair, but Josh was sort of goofy with pink skin, blond hair, and big teeth. (My orthodontist used to get business by showing his before-and-after pictures of Josh, because before he got braces his buck teeth were terrifying. His mother used to have a big picture of him, complete with those teeth, in a special spot right over the piano.) Our great social activity was (I am not making this up) to get four, eight, or twelve of us together and play bridge.

There was a really nice and beautiful girl in our group with long, straight, dark hair. I was in love with her, but she ended up with Josh. I knew my love for Josh was going to last a lot longer than my infatuation with the girl, so I stepped aside. I had the 70s ‘fro, but Josh was such a sweet, loving, nice guy and she saw something special there. They’ve remained friends over all these years.

Josh and I went off to different colleges and graduate schools. I ended up at MIT where I washed out of the math Ph. D. program; Josh got masters degrees in physics and computer science at Johns Hopkins. I got married; he was my best man. I got a job at a software company called Software Arts in the suburbs of Boston. He was engaged to a girl who was living in Boston so I persuaded Software Arts to hire him for the summer.

We went on double dates and it started to become clear to me that he was in trouble. I really didn’t like his fiancee. Worse, she was really treating him badly and Josh was too good natured to realize he was in trouble. One day at lunch I took him outside and talked to him at a picnic table. “Josh,” I said, “I worry that what I am about to say will end our friendship, but I just have to tell you, I think you are going to be very unhappy with this girl you’re with.” Josh got a funny look on his face. Then he said “I’ve been worried about that, too.” Eventually, the girl was gone, but our friendship was stronger than ever.

josh friedman amy friedman
Josh Friedman with Amy Friedman

There was also a young woman named Amy at Software Arts. She and Josh became friends. Josh went back to Baltimore. One day, late, after most people had gone home, Amy, who I didn’t know well, came rushing down the hall into my office. “Help me, I’m getting this message and I don’t know what to do,” she said. Josh had dialed into the Software Arts minicomputer and was sending Amy a text message on her terminal. I showed her how to respond.

I didn’t realize it, but Amy and Josh were soon having an epic love affair by text message. Now, this was the early 80s, and there was no commercial Internet. There was no such thing as “texting” or “IMing.” This was all happening on dumb terminals and IBM PCs with 1200 baud modems. Josh had used the Software Arts password for a dial-up network called Tymnet. About 4 months later, somebody noticed that the Tymnet bills were about $3,000 higher than normal, and puzzled out that most of that traffic was coming from Baltimore. That was the end of the text-based romance, but by then, Amy and Josh were on a path to something more permanent.

josh and josh
A couple of good friends at the start of our careers

Josh moved to Boston and married Amy. I was his best man and the witness for the ketubah, which is the Jewish traditional marriage contract.

Eventually, I got divorced. I was very upset, but Josh was no help at all, because while he loved me dearly, he was just too nice a guy to understand my anger.

One night, Josh sang in a performance at Harvard. (Josh had and endless collection of hobbies, from singing to playing piano and recorder to archery and scuba diving.) A bunch of his friends, including me, met afterwards at the Wursthaus in the heart of Harvard Square.

One of Amy’s college friends, Kimberley, was in the group. I was just emerging from the pathetic funk after my divorce and decided I really liked Kimberley. I called Amy up and demanded Kimberley’s phone number and an explanation on why she hadn’t introduced me earlier. Eventually, we got married, Josh was my best man again. Our marriage is still a wonderful thing 25+ years later. I hadn’t realized that by bringing Josh to Boston where he could meet Amy, I was setting in motion the chain of events and connections that would bring me my life’s companion.

Amy and Josh have two great daughters who are adults now. Josh got coding jobs with a robotics company and then Digital Equipment Corporation. Josh was one of those incredibly loyal guys who would work late, work weekends, do whatever the company asked, and never quit or look for a better job. (I know, because I tried to get him to look, but he never would.) He survived at least three rounds of layoffs at Digital (which got bought by Compaq, which got bought by HP) before they bounced him out. He ended up tending the huge computer systems that drug researchers use at Pfizer.

josh friedman keyboard
Josh Friedman at the keyboard in a hospital in March of 2015

When Josh got lymphoma three years ago, he was true to form. He took a nerdy interest in everything associated with the treatments, which eventually included a procedure that intentionally burned out his whole immune system and replaced it with new cells — a treatment he went through twice. The whole time he was upbeat and optimistic, indulging his musical hobbies in the hospital. Once he got home, he got back to working for Pfizer remotely, because with his vulnerable immune system, he couldn’t go into the office.

I know I don’t really know Josh as well as I could — we somehow didn’t spend that much time together as adults even though we only lived an hour apart. His daughters and theater friends have had a completely different experience of Josh that I was never really a part of. But every time we did spend time together, that bond we’d formed so many years ago was still there. Josh gave love generously to everyone he lived with, worked with, and performed with because that’s who he was. As long as he was producing, he was happy. I know there are people who will have a wry smile when I die, but nobody feels that way about Josh. Everybody who knew Josh knew what an incredibly smart, incredibly nice guy he was. He was just a force for light in the world.

Josh was only 57 when he died, a month younger than I am. I’d known and loved him for 49 years. His death shows that there’s no justice in the universe. But now that everybody loves nerds, I’m just sad that we had to lose one of the really good ones.

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    1. Hi Seth, I just heard the bad news tonight. I feel a deep sadness. I am so sorry for your loss. Your brother was my first true friend. I always had a special place for him in my heart. The world has lost a bright light. Eric

  1. Thank you for writing and sharing this beautiful post about your friend. I am sorry for your loss.

    I didn’t know Josh. I don’t know you or his family. But your clear, honest writing about him and your relationship struck an emotional chord. It inspires me to keep striving to be a more direct, honest communicator about things that matter.

    I stumbled upon your blog last month the way I discover many things I enjoy these days: without looking for it. (Open-mindedness helps, too.) In a social media post, an old acquaintance shared your “10 tips on how to write shorter” chart, which I adore. I thanked her, subscribed to your blog, and look forward to your forthcoming book.

    I’ll thank her again. And you. Thank you.

  2. JOSH, WHat a great tribute to such a great friend. I have known Josh for years through our theater group. But I learned so much about him through your blog. Thank ypu again

  3. Josh, I’m very sorry for the loss of your friend. He was clearly kind, caring, and smart. Your friendship with him seems like one for the ages. My thoughts are with you.


  4. Such a wonderfully written, heartfelt blogpost. I agree with Rick…I know Josh and his family through the theater world and I learned so much more about him through your post. Your thoughtful words and deep friendship are a blessing to Josh’s family and friends. Thank you for sharing!

  5. What a lovely and gorgeously written tribute to Josh. I knew him through the theater community and really appreciate this peek into his earlier years. He was such a beautiful soul with never an unkind word to say. Thank you so much for sharing this.

  6. Thank you so much for sharing this very eloquent tribute to your dear friend. I am sure that Josh would be proud and that your words will bring comfort to his family, and to all those who knew and loved him.
    You have helped to immortalize both Josh and your friendship; I can’t think of a nicer posthumous gift!

  7. Josh I learned so much about Josh from your piece. This is Nan, Amy’s college roommate. I admire your ability to recall and articulate all of these memorable experiences at such a difficult time. Thank you and Kimberly for being such good friends of the family!

  8. Someone once asked a friend, “Why does God take such a nice person like Josh?” The answer was “Who would you rather have in your company, some grumpy old curmudgeon or someone like Josh?” Of course the answer is Josh.

    Cancer is an equal opportunity destroyer. Josh ran out of time waiting for the right cure to be discovered for his type of cancer. We pray that God and Josh give the researchers an Ah Ha moment to discover better treatments and cures.

    Thank you for sharing your time with Josh.

  9. Josh, Thank you so much for posting this memoir of my cousin Josh We celebrate his life, even as we mourn his untimely passing .

  10. Thanks, Josh. He was one of my first good friends when we lived next door to each other. True to form, he is the one who first taught me about exponents in math. I remember watching him make stained glass spiders and butterflies and going with him door-to-door to sell them for $1.50 or $2 if we were lucky.
    He was the other kid in the neighborhood who didn’t learn to ride a bicycle until much later childhood. He taught me how to use his stilts. We played tennis when it was almost 100° in the summer and in the winter when we had to sweep snow off the courts.
    I miss him already!

  11. Josh, I am so sorry for your loss. Believe me when I say that although I have never met you, I do know exactly how you feel. Betsy, my best friend since college, died suddenly nearly two years ago. You just can’t replace that kind of friend. Be gentle with yourself and take time to grieve, so you can move ahead.

  12. Well said, Josh B. (and no bullshit!)

    Amy tried to tell my wife that she was getting the last of the good one’s but I thought Amy already had the best one. We will all miss you, Josh.

    Thank you for being my friend and, by convoluted family trees, cousin.

  13. Josh, I have a brother named Josh (he’s almost 50) and you’re right…there aren’t many of that era with such a special name. You gave your friend the ultimate gift–a poignantly beautiful send-off through your gift with words. Thank you for sharing and for letting the world know what a kind and true person Josh was!

  14. What a beautiful tribute. I will always remember Josh as one of the nicest people in our class. He was always kind and considerate and just so sweet. I was so glad to find him on Facebook and reconnect in some small way. I’m very sorry for your loss, Josh. A friendship like the one you both shared is so special. I hope your memories bring you smiles and a happy heart as time goes on. Take care.

  15. Wow so beautiful it brought on the tears. I only wish I had lived closer to Josh. I am so very sad 😓😂his cousin Jennifer

  16. That was beautiful. Seth, I’m so sorry for your loss. I had no idea. You know Josh and I met way back at Sandy Run. Was always the nicest guy. My condolences to your family and friends.

  17. I join all others in saying what a beautiful and well-written piece this is. I remember Josh as being so naturally happy, so nice and so innocent, that he didn’t even realize he was being picked on or toyed with the few times I observed it in our teenage years in school. In his world where everything has beauty, is found to be fascinating and worthy of study and understanding, it seemed like it was beyond his comprehension that anybody would bother to make fun of him. He took it all in stride then moved on to the next moment. Josh was generous with his time and knowledge. There’s much more that can be said about such a fine person as this and in anything I’ve written, I’m not “Joshing” you- an expression he taught me and explained the origin of to me in Seventh Grade. I find I sometimes still use that expression to this day, archaic as it may be. May all readers of your post find inspiration for living and loving from having known Josh Friedman.