Mike Byrnes was one of my dearest friends, and he was a dear friend to way more than just me. We all knew that this was coming, but now that it is here, the loss is profound.
When a few of us got together more than 10 years ago to form what is now Explore Bristol, I never imagined the deep and poignant friendships that would culminate from a simple tourism initiative. One person in particular became one of my favorites in my unusual friendship with Mike Byrnes.
Mike Byrnes was the Chief (or General) in command of our small and mighty team of volunteers when this group got off the ground with its intention of getting Bristol to be recognized as a “great place to visit by land or by sea.”
Mike called the micro groups, “working groups.” Those who took part in the early days would likely recall that Mike was an expert in getting us, and all our ideas, together and show enthusiastic support — and then delegate. Mike Byrnes was an expert delegator.
Never one to sit still, Mike would rally Jeff Hirsch and me to rally anyone who would listen in helping them understand the importance of tourism in Bristol. From meetings with Roger Williams University, Bristol Town Council meetings, and gatherings among residents and business owners, Mike was a tireless champion of Explore Bristol.
Our unique and totally volunteer collaboration built a website from scratch and raised money to support this often thankless endeavor, belly laughing throughout our time together with a lot of eating (and drinking) along the way.
The British Car Festival came out of this too, and Mike, Pete Hewett and many others spearheaded this festival in our town. It was a never-ending joke between us when the first festival was supposed to head down Constitution Street to an eager group of waiting residents, British flags flying in support, when they skipped our street. Mike never heard the end of this (and never missed the street again).
When Mike and Marie lived in their beautiful, restored farmhouse, more than a few of us were the lucky recipients of an abundance of vegetables, farm fresh eggs, strawberries, raspberries and often, personal delivery service from Mike, himself. If you were even luckier, you may have also received some fresh cheese made locally from the goats milk on the farm too.
When his body started to tire, there was much sadness in his eyes when he had to admit that the farm was getting to be too much for him. I cherish some of his strawberry plants that made their way to my garden and come back every year. Of course now I will delight in them even more as a tribute to his gardening skills and the love of nature we shared.
Mike invited many friends over to his farm the summer before he moved out of his beloved homestead to “shop” in the barn loaded with so much of Marie’s and his delights from China. He sat adorned with the red suspenders and the straw hat I had passed on to him from my own father and my grandfather. Cane in hand, barely able to hear, he used the cane as a commanding tool to point and order his son, Patrick, around while we waited for Mike’s brother, Chris, and sister-in-law, Mary, to arrive so we could all try to roll the non-working Austin Healy back into the barn.
Mike sat on the sidelines barking — I mean, telling us, a “better” way, ordering us around, looking more like he was rallying his troops. I chuckled lightly as I looked at Patrick with a peace sign of sympathy.
It was the same experience when my son and I more recently joined Mike and his son, Chris, for a delicious lobster feast while Marie was away. Bossy pants Mike, that’s what I thought as I listened to him directing Chris on the “right way, aka Mike’s way, to get the lobsters ready. Mike was in his element (where I am sure he is probably doing the same thing now).
Many of my friends on the liberal side of things have been curious what I saw in Mike Byrnes that made us friends. Our views were quite different, but what I admired about Mike was his willingness to listen. He would often bring up points I had never considered, and though I seldom moved over to his side (much to his chagrin), I liked that we shared space to share our different views.
Those views were often discussed during the many dinners with the third part of our three-musketeer group of great humans, Jeff Hirsch.
Anyone who really knew Mike, whether you agreed with his ideas or not, knew his heart. I had that intimate privilege of getting to be a part of his family life in many lovely ways. Our viewpoints on politics and social issues were always a topic, but we always managed to find common ground in our love of Bristol, people, family, history, food and drink especially, and travel in our hundreds of discussions. He was smart, engaging, and humorous, an encouraging cheerleader, and I was in constant awe of his deep curiosity.
Mike taught me, by his example, to take the time to have eye to eye, rather than keyboard to keyboard, conversations with anyone willing to share their ways of thinking in a calm and, more importantly, kind fashion. A friend of mine summed Mike’s place in our Bristol world nicely when she
said, “Although he was adversarial and often frustrating, he was smart and hardworking and someone I know you enjoyed having a good debate with. He will be missed.” Yes.
Up until the end, Mike was filled with good humor, smiles, appreciation for visits and the food that was endlessly arriving. He would even, without having much taste left, still enjoy a glass of Sicilian red or any other wine he had in his collection. Marie and the family were generous with Mike’s time too, allowing visits throughout because Mike loved his friendships.
He never faltered in his friendship with me. We had our moments where our opposing views usurped our similarities, but we would manage to find our way back to what we enjoyed about life, usually through (too much) food and drink at The Lobster Pot with our dear friend, Jeff Hirsch, egging us on (with too much food and drink).
My son had a bird’s eye view of this relationship and was able to keep up in many conversations with Mike on politics and history. Like a proud mama, I got to watch their engagement on many topics and book discussions. I usually had no idea what they were talking about.
Mike, Dewolf Fulton, Stephen Brigidi and I began a short-lived group this past summer where we got together to discuss politics and social issues. It was a fulfilling experience. The endless emails and book exchanges became almost a full-time job, and I had to remind Mike and Dewolf that I still worked. I never could live up to their expectations of reading all the material they endlessly provided and expected immediate commentary.
I wonder now that Mike has moved on to his next chapter who will continue to write the fiery, yet thought provoking (and often maddening letters depending on what side of the aisle you were on) to this newspaper? When he and I delved into conversations on racism, who will I hear say, Alayne, what about the Sicilians?!
Who will invite me to sit at his table for the clambake at the La Bella Sicilia Society I never would have known existed if not for my friendship
Mike Byrnes was one of my dearest friends, and he was a dear friend to way more than just me. We all knew that this was coming, but now that it is here, the loss is profound. There is a big hole and space left, and I can’t imagine anyone fulfilling his role. What I have realized in my friendship with Mike is the permanent imprint on how I think about current issues and how I think about people with differing points of views.
After all our talks, Mike and I would look each other in the eye and hug with a generous heart. If this is what another human leaves behind, then I agree with some of his last words his wonderful daughter, Meredith, let us know in her email to some of us announcing his passing.
It’s been a wild ride. Yes, Mike, it has.
To Antipasto, our friend. You are already missed.