What is it the poet said? Like muffled drums, our hearts beat a funeral march to the grave. And so it is that Bryant Gumbel, a man who is nothing if not prepared, keeps a list of his pallbearers.
Who has been true? Who has transgressed? Though only 39, he has done it many times. Gumbel hates surprises. The list changes every few months or so. He keeps track.
"I don't want to wait until something happens to see who my friends are," says Gumbel. "Or maybe I just don't want to be the guy who, when he dies, they can't find six guys to carry his coffin. Maybe this is a way to be sure I have six."
There have been days when he has wondered. Gumbel has a couple of thousand acquaintances but very few friends. Not that he couldn't have more. It's his choice. "If I'm in a room with 100 people, will I be able to find one person I'd like to have dinner with?" he asks. "Probably not," he answers.
Forget that. There are times when friends visit the Gumbels and Bryant won't come out of the den. "I've long since stopped apologizing to company for his grumpiness and aloofness," says June, his wife of almost 15 years. "Sometimes he doesn't feel compelled to entertain. It doesn't bother me anymore."
Strange man. Stubborn man. A man who might have best described himself when he said, "It's not that I dislike many people. It's just that I don't like many people."
The problem with people is that they just aren't as good as a certain Chicago probate judge who has been dead for more than 16 years—Gumbel's father, Richard. People don't try as hard as he did; they don't work as hard, achieve as much, carry themselves as tall. And who could be as heroic? Once, in the Philippines during World War II, Richard continued to march despite being obviously ill. The medic finally pulled him aside, sat him on a rock and took out his tonsils, then and there. And what did Sergeant Gumbel do? He got up and marched on. The man never let up. When he returned from the war, he put himself through Xavier University in New Orleans while working full-time to keep his family eating. He was senior-class president and yearbook editor. Then he put himself through Georgetown law school while working two jobs. He graduated second in his class.
Let's face it. Compared to Richard Gumbel, most people come off like Lumpy Rutherford. So Bryant finds it hard to be impressed; he finds himself getting let down a lot. He has more feuds than some people have friends: David Letterman, Connie Chung, Linda Ellerbee, Steve Garvey. It's not his fault. People aren't good enough. People aren't professional enough. People aren't true enough. And so he sits alone in the den of his 14-room home in Waccabuc, N.Y., making a list that weighs heavy on his mind. Who can be trusted to hold up one-sixth of his memory?
If you happen to be among the listed, consider yourself lucky. In Gumbel, you have a man of wit, style and grace. You have a man who, as anchor of NBC's Today show, is the only TV interviewer who might make Ted Koppel look over his shoulder. When the situation gets tense, Gumbel is a lock as the silkiest talent strapping on an earpiece.
You also have a friend you can take to any party, for there is no subject on which he is not conversant. You have the world's best Trivial Pursuit partner, a Jeopardy! fiend, one of the last of the Renaissance men. You also have the Beau Brummell of this age, an impeccable dresser, a man with more than 100 suits (18 of them made specially for the Olympics by award-winning designer Joseph Abboud), some with the tags still uncut, a man who wouldn't think of leaving the house without color-coordinated tie, cuff-links, underwear and socks.