Friday, October 27, 2017

The Eyes of Art

I really didn't expect to find his name. I had Googled my old company during a free associative search for something or the other, but when I saw Art's obituary, I stopped and read it, and then I promptly lost interest in whatever it was I had been researching.

Way back in 1980, I was offered a position as the data processing manager for a Chicago carbon paper company. It had all happened rather quickly, when the small, family owned consulting company that I had been working for suddenly collapsed, leaving its customers stranded. One of those customers was American Tara Corporation, which was quite the player in the carbon paper business at that time, with revenues in excess of fifty million dollars a year. For those of you too young to remember carbon paper, it was the manual precursor to modern copiers -- it allowed you to make multiple copies of documents by interleaving carbon-coated sheets of thin tissue-like paper between regular sheets. You would then write or type on the top copy, and the pressure would be transferred through all the lower layers, generating what were known as "carbon copies." Even though the mechanics have long since disappeared, that expression has remained in our lexicon.

Because computer networks did not yet exist at the time, I was constantly on the road among the company's five divisional offices, supporting their systems by applying application or operating system upgrades, installing hardware, and meeting with management and end users. (This was all before frequent flyer programs, or I would have made out like a bandit.) About one week every month, I found myself at offices in Atlanta, Boston, Chicago or Los Angeles. I didn't mind the travel, because in those days, airlines offered comfortable seating and real food, and companies were quite generous with their expense accounts, especially smaller companies like ours.

Art, in the late 1970's
And so it came to pass that one day, I made the acquaintance of a certain Englishman named Art, who was the divisional controller of our Los Angeles office. Art, probably around 60 years old at the time, was in Chicago with several of his staff members to meet with us about an upcoming payroll system upgrade. He was very knowledgeable about accounting practices and could describe complex California payroll requirements in great detail, but he maintained this particular sparkle in his eyes that revealed his ready sense of humor. I took an instant liking to him.

In those days, I generally traveled to each divisional office for several days at a time. In the case of my West Coast trips, I usually took a weekend on one end or the other to visit with my aunt, uncle, and grandmother, who lived about fifty miles up the coast from L.A. in the city of Camarillo. The work weeks were demanding, partly because our American Tara office was located in the heart of South Central L.A., in an area where we were advised to leave no later than 5:00 PM for our own safety. Because of this, the office officially shut down around 4:45, and it was therefore imperative that we finish our work early each day. All our equipment including adding machines, check embossing machines and the like were wheeled into a walk-in safe and locked up for the evening to prevent theft. This was not unwarranted -- one evening, several of our late shift factory workers observed two men attempting to wheel our entire rack-mounted microcomputer system, which was in a room with its own lock, out the front door of the office and down Beach Street. During daylight hours, the area was fine, but when darkness descended, it was dodgy at best.

On my first trip to our L.A. office, I traveled with my friend Sam, who worked as an industrial engineer at our office in Chicago. One evening, Art asked if we would join him for dinner. We agreed, and Art said he would pick us up at our hotel. Decked out in a bright, bold Hawaiian shirt that was impossible to miss, Art appeared at the appointed time in his trademark Buick Riviera and whisked us away to Canard de Bombay on San Vicente Boulevard for an outstanding Indian dinner and some lively conversation. He brought us back to our hotel at a reasonable time, and we were able to get a decent night's sleep before heading back to South Central the next morning. That was the beginning of my dinners with Art.

Bognor Regis, Sussex
I learned fairly quickly that Art's wife Marie suffered from poor health, so after work, he would head straight to his home in Downey to take care of her. On nights when he had dinner plans, he would get her set up with dinner before he headed back out. It was obvious from the way he talked about Marie that Art was extremely devoted to her, and yet, I also got the sense that he enjoyed getting out once in a while and sharing stories. Art was an outstanding storyteller. When he spoke, his bright blue eyes sparkled, and his regal English baritone would make even the most mundane story take on a life of its own. He had many stories to tell.

Art had grown up in the English coastal resort town of Bognor Regis and had enlisted in the Royal Air Force, where he served as a decorated flight sergeant during World War II. He had participated in the Battle of Britain. It was during a six week layover that he met Marie, who was living in New York at the time. They fell in love, and Art proposed to her in a letter he sent while he was stationed in the Indian Ocean. Marie accepted his proposal, and they were married in England in 1945.

Although he had served extensively in the RAF, war stories were not Art's stock-in-trade; rather, he preferred talking about time he had spent in Billings, Montana, Marie's hometown, to which he had moved with her in 1950. In 1953, Art and Marie had a daughter named Barbara Anne, and in 1957, Art became a naturalized citizen. In 1970, they moved to Los Angeles.

By the time I met him, Art had lived in L.A. for about ten years, and he had learned his way around the city fairly well. Karen and I lived in Chicago at the time, and being a dual-income-pre-yuppie couple, we were always exploring local restaurants, so any time I traveled, I enjoyed sampling the local fare. Art was an excellent dinner companion, and we had a regular set of places that we frequented: Lawry's Westside Broiler in Beverly Hills, Castagnola's on the Redondo Beach pier, and The Warehouse in Marina del Rey.

As a divisional controller of our company, Art managed a small staff of administrative employees, and he was well-liked by everyone. I remember clearly how one week, the division's entire accounts receivable system collapsed due to an issue with the computer hardware. Art and I discussed the problem at length, and when we had exhausted all the automated recovery options, it became apparent that we would have to manually re-enter the sales data from all customers for the preceding month. On Saturday morning, the entire staff appeared, and we made it a data entry party. In the afternoon, Art found the Dodger game on the radio, so we tuned in to that. We came back in on Sunday and finished the task, and never, throughout all this, did Art lose his cool or his sense of humor.

Castagnola's, years before it was
destroyed by a storm and fire
For some reason, even though Art was 35 years my senior, we had a lot in common, and talking to him always seemed more like talking to my father or uncle than to a work associate. Art loved to talk about Billings, and he told me that he and Marie already had plans to move back there when he retired a few years down the road. He liked the remoteness and openness of Montana, which stood in sharp contrast to his neighborhood in Downey. So I was not surprised to hear, years after I had left American Tara, that Art and Marie finally made it back to Billings.

Once back in Billings, Art and Marie resumed the life they'd had years before. They reconnected with friends, and Art became very involved with the Optimist Club. From all indications, he and Marie had a wonderful life there, but Marie passed away in 2003, and shortly thereafter, Art relocated to Portland, Oregon, where he lived with his daughter's family for the rest of his life. He passed away peacefully on an evening in May of 2015.

I was extremely touched by Art's obituary. We had not communicated since the mid 1980's, but reading it brought back so many memories of the few short years that I was able to explore fine dining and conversation with this gentle man, to hear his stories, his contagious chuckle, and watch those sparkling blue eyes as he told a story. I know this may be a bit out of the ordinary, but I would like to leave you with a quote from Art's obituary, because it is so beautifully written:
This is the chronology of a fulfilled life, but does not describe the character and temperament of a wonderful man who was loving, kind and tolerant throughout his life. If there was a silver lining in any situation, Art was able to find it. If there was good in a human being, Art saw it. He was a wonderful, warm and loving husband, father and friend. We shall miss his twinkling blue eyes and love of horse racing and silly puns and unfailing loyalty. 
He also leaves a tremendous legacy which, as is the fate of so many others, will likely never enter the history books or grace the television screen. Yet, with his help, the war was won, two great nations were strengthened, and many, many lives were made brighter, happier and more hopeful. His was a life well-lived by a man who enjoyed living life to its fullest. 
Art, you were the epitome of a gentleman. Thank you ever so much for being my friend.