In 1864, President Abraham Lincoln wrote a letter of condolence to Mrs. Bixby of Boston, who had lost five sons in the Civil War. There is a sentence in his letter that captures perfectly how I feel in speaking to you today about Bill Blackshaw. Let me quote his graceful words:
and I met through our wives Jay and Jackie in the early 1970’s. Those were the wrenching
times of integration of the public schools in Pasadena.
Ah yes, the martinis. He and I would often meet at the end of the day at the Coachman bar, and it wouldn’t take long for Bill to mount a story. Sometimes it would be a story about the advertising world he knew so well, sometimes a vignette from his World War II experiences, or maybe a tale of how he and Funky O’Brien as kids climbed to the top of the church steeple because the priest told them they couldn’t. As his passion rose, he would often get off the barstool, gesturing as necessary to make a point. Although I was his intended audience, others at the bar – and eventually all the other patrons in the place – were following along, captivated by the characters so deliciously drawn in Bill’s story. Yes, he was a master storyteller, as all of you must surely know. Perhaps not all of you know that he also wrote of his experiences in short stories shared with a writing group whose members he greatly enjoyed.
Please tell me how the world can get along without any more Blackshaw stories. Sometimes at one of our regular lunches Bill and I would talk about science, usually because he had asked a question, often a question arising from an item in the news. He was striking in his curiosity, and willing to work hard to try to understand what ever issue was on the table. Often toward the end of these discussions, he would ruefully recall his spark of interest in physics in high school, a spark that he wished he had nurtured, a spark the educational system and the ever-dominant teen-age culture quickly extinguished.
his native sensitivities always allowed him to see the wonder in the natural
world, even at technical levels that would have intimidated a lesser mind. He
loved the story of the poor young, self-taught Indian mathematician Ramanujan
who, working in complete isolation, impressed some of the world’s most
distinguished scholars at Combridge University
Politics, however, was a more common subject for us, a subject on which our views were nearly identical. Bill was extraordinarily well informed, whether the topic at hand concerned international issues of war and peace, or local stories about philandering politicians. He read history widely – and remembered much of it in detail. He watched the Sunday Meet-the-Press shows, and Googled with great enthusiasm to get deeper into current events. But his political passions always reflected his close emotional connection to the working guy in the factory, a connection he not only grew up with through his family and childhood friends, but also developed first-hand through his own experiences as a young worker.
Shortly after returning to Trenton from World War II, Bill and his friend Jim Springer opened the White Tavern, the 1940’s version of a fast-food place. It sometimes seemed to me that Bill remembered to this day the name and face of every customer who ever set foot in the place, and he could tell fascinating stories about most of them. One episode that pleased him greatly had to do with the poor young man Bill hired as a dishwasher. The lad eventually became the cook and ultimately the owner, presiding over the White Tavern until his very recent death.
Kind, caring, helpful, loving, smart…these are all words that apply perfectly to Bill in their deepest and most compelling meanings. But there is another word that does not work when it comes to Bill: that’s the word organized ! Organized he was not. After retiring from the ad agency, Bill opened his own business in a newly rented office on Union Street in Pasadena.
Bill liked to twirl his glasses. I chose a pair at random, and he put them on, but – alas – to no avail. I don’t know whether that American Express bill ever got paid. But never mind. His former boss at the ad agency knew Bill was an incredibly and productively creative guy, a man of great intellectual, spiritual and artistic curiosity and energy, in other words, a man of immense value in their world. So his organizationally- challenged dimension was but a small price to pay.
beautiful, bright and vital wife Jay somehow kept the domestic ship afloat when
Bill forgot to deposit his paycheck or neglected to tell her he had gone to New York that afternoon
and wouldn’t be home for dinner. All
told, the Blackshaw family noticeably raised the energy-level and the
collective IQ of the Pasadena area all by itself.
But beyond all this, apart from Jackie, Bill has been my closest, deepest friend. I learned from him in ways I cannot count but will never forget. I consider knowing him one of the great experiences of my life. I can only hope that a fragment of his gift for making true connections with others at their very centers will have somehow fallen off on me.