Like many people in the Washington D.C. area, I’m a transplant. I came here in 1997 after four years on the border with Mexico, via California and Peru. A friend from the University of Texas at El Paso, Manny Campbell, told me to contact his friend as soon as I arrived. “David Stemper is a close friend from anthropology grad school in Wisconsin,” Manny told me. “He’s fluent in Spanish, married to a lovely Colombian woman named Gloria, and is muy buena onda.”
Indeed, soon after arriving I called David and Gloria, and they became my first friends outside of work in D.C. (aside from a high school friend). David and I quaffed beers at a quiet pub on M street in Georgetown that has since given way to a noisy college hangout, and watched Indie films at the now-defunct Foundry theater by the C & O canal. We watched Latin American films and several Akira Kurosawa flicks at the American Film Institute, which has long moved out of the Kennedy Center. It was always a treat to enjoy David’s sharp insights, his keen wit and occasionally ribald humor, and Gloria’s warm company and friendly presence.
One evening David dragged to a birthday party at Havana Village, a Cuban-themed restaurant with salsa dancing in Adams Morgan. I was reluctant – heck, I hadn’t been invited – but he convinced me. The party was for Ken Dermota, another gringo married to a Colombiana. Ken turned out to be an impressive guy – like David, he was well read, whip-smart, and perfectly bilingual.
David, Ken and I quickly became close friends. Over beers Ken would tell us about the time he interviewed Pablo Escobar, David would talk about his latest surfing adventure, and I’d throw in an anecdote about reporting from the border. David’s favorite hangout was Buffalo Billiards, just off DuPont Circle. David was quite the pool shark, and he always gave the perfect advice on where to strike the cue ball for the best shot. David and Ken would sometimes stand outside the pool hall and puff on thick cigars. We were the Three Amigos, the Tres Mosqueteros, the three partying compadres.
That blissful second youth of partying and late-night graduate level bull sessions of course couldn’t last forever. I met at lovely woman at work, fell madly in love, and knew that it was time to settle down. David and Ken were among the first to meet Kate – I got their seal of approval – and David and Gloria were at my wedding in October 2001 (Ken and his wife Beatriz Elena were abroad at the time).
Kate and I moved to the suburbs of northern Virginia, yet despite the distance, work obligations, and the task of raising one – two – and then three kids, the Stempers and the Dermotas remained an important part of our lives. We’d see Gloria and David four or five times a year, either at one of Ken’s parties, at a barbecue in my backyard, or a museum with the kids. Whenever I could break free, I’d meet David for lunch or coffee downtown before going into work.
David did the spadework to keep our friendship going. He’d call when we had been out of touch for a while, and send e-mail messages so loaded with praise for our job as parents that sometimes I felt embarrassed. He was also great at over-the-top honorifics: I was the “ilustre periodista” or “escritor ilustre” in his messages, aside from being a “padre de dos princesas y un joven apuesto.” His praise was both tongue-in-cheek and entertaining, while at the same time warm and sincere. Manny Campbell once remarked on David’s work on maintaining friendships – he said David was like a bulldog that would not let go. Now I realize how precious and unique that was.
When Ken was diagnosed with a brain tumor, David immediately jumped to help. It was David who drove Ken to the hospital when Beatriz Elena was out of town, David who sat at Ken’s bedside at the hospital, and David who showed up at Ken’s home to make sure he was taking his medicine. David did a Herculean job during the early stages of Ken’s disease and played a key role helping Beatriz Elena keep her home together. I’ll never forget Ken’s words: “If you’re ever in the hospital, you want Stemper by your side,” he once told me.
But a brain tumor is an especially treacherous form of cancer. Not only does it weaken your body, it can change your personality. As Ken’s health deteriorated he began to display uncharacteristic flashes of anger. It peaked at a hardware store when Ken blew his top because the clerk couldn’t come up with the widget he was looking for. David stepped in, stopped the clerk from calling the cops and escorted Ken out when he was about to knock the kid’s head off. Ken took this as the ultimate insult and told David that he never wanted to see him again. Sadly, Ken never came to his senses, and David was forever banished from Ken’s life. I somehow managed to stay on Ken’s good side up to his final day, but I felt that I was never able to do all the work that David did for Ken.
After Kate and I visited Ken on his hospital death bed, more than a year after the hardware store incident, we went straight to see David and Gloria. It was late on a Sunday night, far past our daughters’ bedtime, but the Stempers graciously welcomed us and we spent time reminiscing about better times with Ken.
David stepped up to help again when Ken died, and grew close to Eddie, Ken’s 12 year-old son.
I last saw David in April. We had lunch at a Capitol Hill café, then we saw the Matteo Ricci 1602 map exhibit at the Library of Congress. We discussed current events, his latest teaching job, our families, and of course Ken, because one year later we were both still mourning his death.
At the end of the day I remember thinking how much I valued David’s friendship.
When I got a call from Gloria over the Fourth of July weekend I thought it was about getting together to grill some meat. A few months had passed since I had seen David, and it was time again catch up with the Stempers.
– Carlos Hamann is a Washington D.C. area-based reporter and editor.