YAM Notes: November/December 2023

I have sad news, my friends. Three very special men passed away this summer within weeks of each other: Mike Payne, who died July 27, and two members of the Whiffenpoofs – Erik Gann, who died July 19, and Geoff Neigher, who died August 10.

“Mike and I were neighbors freshman year, roommates the next three years, and brothers for life afterward,” said George Lazarus. “Our families were mirror images of each other. Our fathers were lawyers working in the New York court system, our mothers both worked in education. Mike had a younger sister, I a younger brother. Our families shared similar outlooks and values. There were some differences in our backgrounds. One of us was Black, one White; one Catholic, one Jewish. We respected these differences and learned from each other.

“We also shared this in common: We loved our wives, and consequently, our lives. Sue Payne was indeed committed to Mike in sickness and in health. In health, they enjoyed their lives in both D. C. and Sag Harbor, Long Island. When Mike became ill, it was Sue who took active charge of his medical care, getting him the best care possible.

“Mike had a successful career as a lawyer in the Justice Department. He was an expert in asset forfeiture. His rap on this subject was hilarious. He retired at a relatively young age so as not to deny himself that experience, and he did enjoy the freedom of retirement. He was stoic in his final illness, choosing to focus on the daily pleasures of being alive rather than the prospect of dying. He was unafraid of death and died with his wife and cherished daughter Sydney at his side. He was a content man. We should all be so lucky.

“To say that I will miss my brother is an understatement. But I will carry his memory with me.”

“Mike Payne was one of the defining personalities of my time at Yale,” adds Bruce Heitler. “We ran on the mile-relay team together and had lots of time to talk – sitting together on the bus to Cox Cage, chatting around the track, indoor and out, admiring with Mike’s wry humor athletes we could never keep up with, including Wendel Motley and Jay Luck. Mike would good-heartedly punctuate my inappropriate intensity noting with a gentle jab that I had not brought my Tractatus-Logico-something-or-other, on the track bus. I still quote him from time to time concerning “getting hit by the band” at the Penn Relays on the final stretch of the quarter mile. The band begins to play just as one’s legs protest not only with pain, but with a torturous gait, slower than a walk, for the final 80 yards. That image taught me that even humiliation could be punctured by humor. Mike was a source of profound learning for me, deeper than classes or books.”

“I met Mike Payne at Fordham Prep’” says Jorge Dominguez. “I had just immigrated and spoke little English at a school in the Bronx, where not even the janitor spoke Spanish and the language was not taught in the curriculum. Mike was a track star. He took the initiative of approaching me to make me feel welcome. We must have communicated with signs, but it clicked. Years later, at one of our Yale Reunions, he explained that he had pegged us both as outsiders, and thus reached out to include me.

“Mike was the only Black in our high school class of nearly 200 students; there were no Blacks in the class following us. The track coach, who happened to be my history teacher, routinely made racist remarks in the classroom. I once asked Mike about this during a Yale Reunion. He simply rolled his eyes. I suspect he had to ‘roll his eyes’ many times in different lifetime circumstances.

“Mike was smart, insightful, wickedly offbeat, funny, and often understated. These qualities came together at our 50th Fordham Prep reunion. We were taking turns recounting something about our lives at the Prep and in the years that followed. Somehow, unplanned, Mike became the master of ceremonies, and very effective in this role. When one classmate described allegedly undistinguished years in the US Navy, Mike gently asked, ‘yet you rose to become a Rear Admiral?’ Widespread laughter.

“He was a wonderful human being, whom I greatly miss.”

Meanwhile, the Whiffs wrote this about Erik Gann: “He was a psychoanalyst of skill and compassion. He practiced successfully, first in San Francisco, next in New York City and then back in San Francisco again. Late in July he lost his valiant battle with cancer and passed away, quietly and peacefully. He leaves his lovely wife, Dr. Phyllis Cath, and his children Eliot, Laura, Alexander and Andrew.

“Erik was a musician. He was a talented pianist and singer. At Yale, he sang with the Augmented Seven and the Russian Chorus. At Columbia Medical School he was Sky Masterson in a student production of “Guys and Dolls.” In 2016 he was inducted into the Whiffenpoofs of 1967 and performed with us at our 50th Reunion.

“Erik will be sorely missed, by his family, by his patients, by his classmates, and certainly by his fellow Whiffs. He made the world go round!”

Tom Jones added, “Erik was the best of friends. In 2021 I lost a dear Jewish friend. His widow asked me to conduct the service. I was terrified. I couldn’t refuse, but I had no idea what to do other than perhaps write an obituary. But I knew to whom I could turn. I called Erik. With great kindness and gentleness, he guided me. He suggested I sing “Avinu Malkeynu.” Because I could not possibly recite the prayer, he translated the Kaddish into English for me. And he encouraged me. The morning was difficult, but with Erik’s support I made it through. He was a friend indeed.”

And Geoff Neigher said, “Erik was a relatively new addition to the Whiffs, but he seemed, almost instantly, to be an old friend. Maybe it was his sparkling sense of humor, or his easy conversational style. Certainly, it was his warmth and compassion. He demonstrated those qualities to members of my family on more than one occasion, and for that and for his friendship, I am deeply grateful. His voice will be missed in more ways than one.”

“Erik and Walt Buhl and I all moved on to medical school at Columbia P&S following our graduation,” adds Mark Chodoff. “There was a tradition at P&S of producing old Broadway musicals each year. Our first year there, the show chosen was Guys and Dolls. I, as a Dramat techie emeritus, built the sets. Eric was a smoooooooth Guy Masterson, and Walt played Nicely Nicely Johnson. A lovely Vassar girl who was in her first year of Nursing School was cast as the female lead, Sarah Brown. Her name was Abigail Bantham, but that changed in September of 1968 when we married. And this September it will be 55 years.

“I will cherish my memories of Erik.”

Only three weeks after writing this, Geoff died, too. “He had a remarkable college career,” says Tom. “A Berkeley resident and an English major, he was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa in his junior year and was tapped by Skull and Bones. He sang with the Yale Glee Club, the Spizzwinks, and the Whiffenpoofs. After college he entered Yale Law School.

“He might have had a distinguished legal career, but after a relatively brief time with a Wall Street firm he made a surprising career change in 1974. He moved to Los Angeles to launch a writing career with his friend Chick Mitchell, ‘66. They collaborated on a number of situation comedies including The Bob Newhart Show, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Rhoda, and Gimme a Break, rising from episode writers to senior writers to executive producers.

“Following Chick’s untimely death, Geoff moved from writing half-hour sit-coms to hour-length dramas, a transition very few writers have made successfully. He wrote episodes for Northern Exposure and wrote and produced Picket Fences, Murder One, Law and Order: Criminal Intent, and John Doe. In1993 Geoff was nominated for an Emmy for Outstanding Writing in a Drama Series for Northern Exposure. The following year he won the 1994 Emmy for Outstanding Drama Series for Picket Fences.

“The Whiffenpoofs of 1967 have stayed particularly close over the years, not only performing for our classmates at reunions but getting together with our wives annually for the past ten years. Geoff was always at the heart of those gatherings. He had a knack for making you feel better. You felt you had his total and undivided attention. He was unfailingly warm and generous. He could always make you laugh, sometimes even at yourself. Somehow, he knew just when you needed a phone call. We have never had a better friend.

“And Geoff could sing! He had a voice like velvet, smooth and expressive. No concert was complete without Geoff singing Doug MacNeill’s arrangement of ‘Don’t Blame Me.’ The Whiffs will sing again, but it will never, ever be the same. Geoff leaves his beloved wife Karen, his son Eric, his daughter Julie and two grandchildren. He will be sorely missed by his band of brothers – the Whiffs of ’67 – and by his many, many friends.”

May their memories be a blessing.