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Memories of Cactus: For this reporter, subject became a friend

Ricardo Gandara

In 2005, I called Cactus Pryor with an unusual request. "What can I do for you?" he asked.

"Mr. Pryor, ah, I'd like to meet with you, ah, because I've been assigned to do an advance obituary on you."

"What?" Cactus laughed.

"Yes, I'm sorry about this," I started to explain, "but we, ah, do these for some people."

He couldn't stop laughing. "Let's meet at Cisco's," he said.

That was the start of something special.

I've always kept a courteous distance from people I interview and have always been on guard not to be a friend to a person in a story. That was difficult with Nopalito (from the Spanish word nopales, or cactus leaves). That's what I liked to call him.

At Cisco's that fall morning, we hit it off and shared a lot about his life. A lengthy 2008 story allowed me to see his sensitive and caring side.

Oh, that Cactus. He was as funny in private as behind the mike.

Just the other day, I went to say my goodbye to my friend at Christopher House, the hospice facility where he spent his last days. He was unconscious, but I think he knew I was there. I thanked him for all the laughs and allowing me into his private world. Driving back to the office, I began thinking about our walk in his neighborhood and lunches at either the Frisco Shop or Hill's Cafe.

Some mental notes:

He loved and appreciated President Lyndon Johnson's family and all the opportunities they gave him in radio. He referred to Lady Bird Johnson as just "Bird."

During one evening walk, I got to see how people genuinely loved Cactus. I swear, his neighbors must have been tipped off that he was out. But then again, he just had that kind of personality.

This was cute: He'd get giddy when we talked about Peggy, his wife of 22 years. That man was so in love, and he appreciated her every day, especially after he was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. "I feel bad for Peggy," he said in 2009. "Right now, I'm OK, but I know things will get worse. I hate to put this on her. I'm damn lucky to have her."

Yes, you were, Cactus. Peggy and I talked through the years, and she updated me on the advance of the disease. She did it so lovingly, and nary a complaint. Her tireless efforts to keep him busy and engaged were not evident to anyone more than Cactus. "We still go out on dates," he said.

I could never figure out who loved or appreciated the other more. They were meant for each other.

Cactus loved Texas, Austin, radio, golf and his life.

"If I had to do it over again, I don't think I would have done anything differently," he said. "I have no regrets. Now tell me about you."

I did. I shared about a recent lost love, a great girl from Minnesota. Cactus jumped on me: "Why are you telling me? Go tell her!" Good advice.

We talked about my dancing daughters, Alexandra, Victoria and Isabella, and he about his grown children. We were two proud fathers whose kids turned out OK despite us.

He always wanted to make sure I had a paycheck. He was concerned about the newspaper business.

There were a lot of things my friend didn't say but were understood: Today is a gift. Tomorrow is, well, gravy. And if there's a day after that, it is God working in our lives.

Thermerstrockimortimer, Cactus. I think it means God be with you.