Carnett: Summer 'surrogates' bolster each other

Last week this space acknowledged the 20th anniversary of Orange Coast College's 1993 summer musical production, Rodgers and Hammerstein's "South Pacific."

I was fortunate to land a small role in that show. Last week, I listed in this column several other cast members, including Sean Cox who portrayed the wily but endearing Seabee Luther Billis.

My daughter, Jenn, who took an OCC acting class or two with Sean in the early 1990s, recently reminisced with me about him.

Though Sean and I hadn't met before "South Pacific," he ended up becoming my "surrogate son" for the summer. And that relationship meant a great deal to me.

The spring and summer of 1993 were a tough period for my family.

Because I've loved "South Pacific" since I was 10, I decided months in advance to audition for a small part in the OCC show. I was in my 22nd year as the college's community relations director.

My good friend Alex Golson directed the show, and encouraged me to audition.

In April of '93, about a month before tryouts, my son, Jimmy, was killed in an accident. Our family was devastated. I wasn't sure I was up to taking on an acting assignment. After some deliberation, however, I decided to give it a try. The distraction might do me good.

After the musical was cast, I met Sean for the first time. Coincidentally, his father had died within several days of my son, but I was unaware of that at the time.

As rehearsals began, I was impressed by Sean's portrayal of Billis. What a talent! Sean, who was 21 or 22, even reminded me a bit of my spirited son. I caught myself choking up a time or two watching him rehearse.

Someone — I don't remember who — informed me a few days into our rehearsal schedule that Sean had recently lost his father. He was grieving quietly. That person thought the two of us should talk.

I agreed, and we did so backstage one evening.

"Sean," I began hesitantly. "I understand your dad recently died."

Sean's normally cheerful demeanor darkened. I quickly followed up.

"I think I know what you may be going through," I added. "I recently lost my son. He wasn't much older than you."

I could scarcely contain my emotions.

That's all it took. Our bond was instantaneous.

"Sean," I said, "I'd be proud this summer to be a surrogate dad, if you're comfortable with that. I think we can help each other."

He agreed.

Sean and I became sounding boards for one another. He'd lost a dad; I'd lost a son. We shared much that summer, including a lunch or two. On several occasions, Sean stopped by my campus office to talk. Sometimes there were tears.

The show closed after a successful run, and Sean and I hugged after the final curtain.

During the 1993-94 school year he occasionally stopped by my office to let me know how he was doing.

In '93-'94, many dear friends contributed money to endow an annual $500 OCC scholarship in my son's name: the James Edward Carnett Writing Scholarship. Jimmy was a published author and poet.

In the spring of '94, unbeknownst to him, I decided to award the first scholarship to Sean. How perfect! He'd written a couple of scripts and was an accomplished actor and an excellent communicator.

Jimmy would have approved.

In mid-May, Sean was given the scholarship at the college's Honors Night Awards Ceremony in the same theater where "South Pacific" was staged the previous summer. My daughter, Jenn, joined me in presenting the award. Sean was most appreciative.

Since then, the scholarship has been awarded 19 times.

Last week, Jenn told me she'd recently seen Sean. He sent his regards and is making wedding plans. Life is good.

I'm so glad.

God, C.S. Lewis said, shouts to us in our pain, and I believe that. But, I also believe he links us with selected others just when we need them most. Jim and Sean desperately needed each other 20 summers ago.

That meeting was no accident.

JIM CARNETT lives in Costa Mesa. His column runs Wednesdays.

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