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Friends can be found in the strangest of places.

I have a friend who most all of you know. In fact, when my friend and I walk into a restaurant together, people tend to whisper and stare at us. It happened most recently on Dec. 14 when my friend and I had lunch at Minerva’s. When I went to pay the bill, our waitress said another restaurant patron, who chose to remain anonymous, had picked up our tab for lunch. I have no idea who did that, but thank you very much.

When I took my friend to a Sioux City Explorers game a few years ago, TV cameras followed us to our seats and shot a lot of video of the two of us seated alongside one another enjoying a Bud and a hot dog.

Here’s a sentence I wouldn’t have written 25 years ago.

My friend is Rudy Salem.

As my grandson Cal would say – boom!

Our relationship did not start out that way. Rudy would attest to that.

This dates to the early 1990s when I served a term as a member of the City Council and a year as mayor, in 1993. I like to say that I gave Rudy his start in political activism when our council embarked on the local baseball stadium project. Rudy thought the voters should have a say on the $3.5 million investment. I said the voters already had their say at the last council election. We were going to build the ballpark.

Rudy went on the offensive. He called Bob Scott, Harry Keairns and me a lot of names, the most original of which was "The Three Musketeers." Harry was proud of the moniker. In fact, he wore a Three Musketeers outfit, complete with the swashbuckling hat and sword, to one of our council meetings. Rudy really became agitated when the Chamber of Commerce threw its support behind the stadium. Remember the bumper stickers? Baseball ’93.

This all happened pre-internet days. Rudy’s chosen method of communications were Mini Editorials and Letters to the Editor to The Journal. In fact, Rudy became prolific with his writings.

I may have a lot of skin, but it’s not very thick. Rudy really ruffled my feathers. In fact, Rudy and I didn’t speak for over 10 years. He recently told me he remembers an occasion when I saw him at a grocery story and turned and walked in the other direction. I don’t remember that, but it surely could have happened. As I told Rudy last month at lunch, that is really embarrassing and I’m sorry I reacted in that fashion.

Then something happened that changed our relationship.

Rudy’s wife of 51 years, Mary Salem, passed away in 2006 after a battle with cancer. Shortly after Mary’s death, I saw Rudy appear in a public service announcement for Hospice of Siouxland. Hospice had helped Mary and Rudy deal with those difficult times.

Those 30 seconds of Rudy on camera really hit me.

I saw a man who was heartbroken at the loss of his best friend. I saw a man who had a bunch of friends but who might need just one more. I picked up the phone and cold-called Rudy and told him that we needed to talk. He readily agreed.

Our first meeting was like a boxing match. At lot of quick jabs with no damage. We covered a lot of turf. I laid out the case for the ballpark and pointed to the millions of dollars in development that has been created as a result of the city’s $3.5 million investment in the stadium. Rudy gave me his side of the story and we agreed to disagree and moved on to other, more pleasant business.

Just so you know, Rudy hasn’t lost his edge even at the age of 88. At one of our luncheons years ago he wondered if he could ask me a political question. I said sure. He wanted my opinion on the mayor at the time. I said something to the effect that the mayor’s style was different than mine, but I thought he was doing a good job.

I then asked Rudy his opinion. Quoting Rudy, “I think he makes you and Bob Scott look good.”

Mama mia. That’s my buddy Rudy.

Next week: Steve Warnstadt

Jim Wharton, of Sioux City, is a former member of the Sioux City Council and a former mayor of Sioux City. He and his wife, Beverly, have one daughter, Dr. Laura Giese, and four grandchildren.

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