“Susan, are you writing this down? It’s going to be a bestseller,” he says emphatically. “I’ve got the name all picked out. It’s called The Life, Love and Folly of a 90 Year Old Man.” He pauses to observe my reaction. Edmund Koury, Chairman of the Board of Koury Corporation and Edmund Koury, my good friend announced this to me several years ago around the time of his ninetieth birthday. He has decided I need to write his life’s story and by the looks of things, I’d better get on it. He smiles a mischievous smile and chuckles, obviously amused with himself.
If it were not for a birthday cake indicating otherwise, you’d swear he was younger than he was by a decade or more.
In wintertime, he dresses in layers. The blood thinner he takes tends to make him feel cold all the time and gives him the appearance of having perennially bruised hands. Mr. Edmund often wears brown corduroys and a sweater vest over a blue shirt. He is colorblind and blue is one of the few colors he can easily discern. His hair is thick and white and his eyebrows often unruly, but on this day both have been trimmed by Gilbert Hutchins of Hutchins Barber Shop on Clifton Road. At Mr. Edmund’s recommendation and penchant for value, Mr. Hutchins now cuts my husband and son’s hair as well. “Now, Gilbert charges 9 dollars but tip him 3 bucks and no more,” he told my husband firmly. So that is what they do.
Mr. Edmund has the olive complexion of his Lebanese and Syrian forbearers combined with some French on his maternal side. While he bears an air of distinction, in his younger days he looked like a movie star. Today, deep lines crinkle out from his brown eyes like sunshine but they darken with remembrance. “We’ll get to the “love” part later, “ he says and begins dictating. I scramble to find an envelope or something to write on because you could never tell when he would start telling a story. “Now here’s the “life” part…It was my mother’s prayers that brought me back from the war…”
I never wrote that book about him but every year he’d add another number to its name. The Life, Love and Folly of a 90 Year Old Man became “a 91 Year Old Man”, then “a 92 Year Old Man” and so forth.
All I can think is how he would have turned 94 in October…
The Koury family is synonymous with the development of Greensboro. I’ve been fortunate to be an employee of the company for nearly 20 years and a design consultant for much longer than that. Mr. Edmund’s father immigrated to Greensboro from Lebanon around the turn of the century along with various cousins and brothers. They initially came to escape Muslim persecution of the Koury family’s Christian sons. His father was a peddler who sold cloth and housewares to farmers and country folk in the area. Eventually, the business grew into a dress store in nearby Burlington which Edmund would later manage for his father when he became ill.
Edmund was popular at school, becoming class president, yet he mostly kept to himself preferring not to socialize much with his classmates. His family’s dark skin and middle eastern customs didn’t fit so well among a WASP North Carolina textile town. Later, he served his country by fighting in the infantry division of the Battle of the Bulge. At the end of the war, appendicitis kept him from leaving Germany with the rest of his battalion. He stayed behind to work as a prison warden in a Mannheim POW camp where he met a German widow and unexpectedly fell in love. Less than a year later he waved goodbye to Hilde Kohl. She waved and blew kisses to him from a second floor balcony, accompanied by her young daughter Dagmar and mother who was severely crippled by arthritis. Back home, he finished college and partnered with his brother Joe in several successful businesses including a small textile company and Kirkman Koury, a residential construction company, which eventually morphed into Koury Corporation, one of the most successful commercial real estate development companies in the state.
One basis for our unlikely friendship was that Mr. Edmund was a great storyteller. The story of Hilde was one of a few that was tinged with regret but mostly, he had a stoic acceptance of things that were not meant to be. He would often recount war stories which I listened to with fascination, especially since my own father had served in the same war as a marine in the South Pacific. Having lost my father decades prior, I would have given anything to ask him the questions I asked Mr. Edmund. One story he told occurred during a cold winter evening when he and his radio man became separated from the other troops. They had been scouting for places to set mortars. It was bitterly cold and dusk tinged the sky. They spotted a shed on the bleak horizon and headed off to take advantage of any shelter it might offer for the night. Upon arrival, they dropped their heavy packs and surveyed their surroundings. Peering out the back door, they saw three German soldiers approaching the shed wearily in the snow. Mr. Edmund and the other soldier drew their weapons and prepared to blast the door when it swung open. Instead, the German soldiers opened another door which led them to an adjoining side of the barn. Seemingly unaware of the American soldier’s presence just a few feet away, the Germans talked among each other before falling asleep. Mr. Edmund and his companion did not make a sound or sleep a wink that night, afraid they would be discovered. After they heard the Germans snoring, they quietly made their way back to their camp before sunrise. He always ended this story by saying it was his mother’s prayers that brought him back from the war. Years after his mother passed away, her rosary still hangs on the wall in his kitchen.
Mr. Edmund loved Dancing With the Stars. It was an ongoing joke that he only watched the show because of their nice shoes. He was fond of the latin dances, especially the dramatic Argentine Tango. His favorite dancer was Cheryl Burke while mine was Derek Hough. I looked forward to his analysis of the dancers’ performances each Tuesday morning after it had aired the previous Monday night. He loved big band music and remembered seeing Frank Sinatra in Raleigh during the early years. He said he couldn’t believe how the girls went so wild over such a little man. He thought Cole Porter was one of the best songwriters of all times and I would have to agree with him. I have always liked Night and Day but had never heard of Begin the Beguine. “What is this thing called love?” he’d sometimes ask rhetorically and answer himself with “It’s a mystery!” He loved spending Saturday nights in front of the television with Lawrence Welk and watching old movies on the Turner Classic channel.
We also shared a love for Middle Eastern foods. After he discovered how much I loved the food I’d eaten on a trip to Greece, he made it his mission to teach me about Lebanese delicacies such as kibbeh, meat pies, stuffed squash, homemade hummus and baba ganoush. He brought me a cookbook written by his cousin Marie. I’d try out the recipes over the weekend and bring them in for him to sample a bite sometimes on Monday mornings. He taught me to enjoy good olives and a fine Manchego cheese, along with fresh figs and nuts purchased from the Jerusalem Market located a few miles down High Point Road. If you stopped by his office in the morning, you couldn’t leave without a handful of almonds or walnuts which he procured by the bagful from Costco.
I am not sure if he drank Scotch or Whiskey but I know he had a gentleman’s appreciation for a good drink, good-looking cars and good-looking women. I’m also not certain about the order of his preference. He continued driving his “Sunday Car” an ancient Riviera, I believe, that rolled over the roads like a tank along with his SUV (which he called an SOB) well into his 90’s. His driving skills were legendary among my co-workers and despite their warnings, he would occasionally insist I accompany him to some place or another. I always tried to meet him and even begged him to let me drive the car for him but there was no way he would allow a woman to do such a thing. He found my lack of confidence in his driving skills amusing and would often pretend while driving that he couldn’t make out stop lights and road signs ahead. The last time I saw him we joked about riding around together and he referred to me as “white- knuckled” which was true.
He looked forward to birthdays and special celebrations that he could use as an excuse to entertain and share the company of others. Up until last year, he would have me gather together his nieces, an old friend or a favorite neighbor for the occasional grand luncheon at one of two of our tenant’s restaurants on the other side of town. Sometimes, he would tell me to invite my sister or a girlfriend and he would insist on sending everyone home with to-go boxes filled with enough food for dinner.
He was humble and kind and treated the greatest and least of people with the same consideration. He was especially sympathetic to other immigrant families and went out of his way to give them opportunities to get ahead. He knew his employees and their families by name and expressed special concern about their health and well-being. He believed inhaling salt water up your nose was good for congestion and in the importance of physical exercise. He could walk circles around most everyone at the mall throughout his late 80’s. If he would see any of us walking to the Post Office or somewhere he’d grab our arm and make us walk laps a few with him.
Last fall, he suffered a major setback when he was in an automobile accident. No one else, thankfully was hurt. Under the careful watch of his brother’s family and dedicated caretakers, he managed to get through several difficult months of rehab and come back home. Last Tuesday, he passed away peacefully at this same home he had shared with his mother. He sensed her presence as he neared the end, asking his caretakers to check on his mother “in the next room.”
I recall that when I dropped in to visit him just after New Years, I asked him how he was doing and he nodded sadly, replying “I’m ready to cross the river.” He had said those same words to me with every setback he’d suffered over the last four or five years and as usual, I refused to placate him. “I’m sorry, Mr. Edmund, it’s just not your time…” I’d say before turning the conversation on a lighter note. “Besides, anyone can see you look too good to cross the river.”
This never failed to bring a smile to his face.
Mr. Edmund was a bright spot in my life and I believe I was the same for him. It has been one of the great joys and privileges of my life to call him my friend. So many people just seem to grow up and grow old but Mr. Edmund retained his youthful spirit and a passionate outlook on life. The Life, Love and Folly of a 93 Year Old Man… This says it all, really. I can attest that he lived a great “life”. He cared deeply for others and was “loved” and respected by both his Koury family and his other family- the employees that worked for him at his company.
“Folly” is not a word one hears used much anymore. It’s impossibly old-fashioned, a throwback to silent movies and vaudeville shows. It’s a word in keeping with an old man who refused to be defined by his age or his position in life. Whether it was folly or something more akin to wisdom, I cannot be certain. It is, however, something I hope to keep with me in my own travels towards the river. It is a reminder that while all of us must age, growing old is entirely optional.
Rest in peace my friend.