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:
feel how weak and fruitless must be any words of mine which should attempt to beguile
you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming.”
Jay, to Julie, Mary, John, Gina, Peter, Ann and Amy: Nothing that I can say
will diminish your sadness. We have indeed a “loss so overwhelming”.
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.
My first glimpse of Bill’s acute
and penetrating sense of justice and his concern for others came during those struggles
to try to make things right for all the kids in the schools. Bill understood something
of what it was like to belong to a group that we now label rather antiseptically
with the word “minority”. As a kid he and his family were the only Catholics in
a Protestant neighborhood in Trenton.
As a successful executive in the business world, he was the rare liberal in a
sea of conservatives. As
an informal emissary for the cause of integration, Bill had no peer. He could
chat warmly over a martini with people of opposing views and, gently but
effectively, make them see the issue in the clear, soft light of kindness.
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.
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 with his
important mathematical discoveries in the early 1900’s. In fact, Bill was
excited to come across a recent popular story about Ramanujan. He wondered what
the young man was really like, how he really felt in the presence of the Cambridge factotums when they ultimately brought him to England to share
his mathematics with the giants of the day. That was vintage Bill: concerned
about feelings, curious about the core-nature of the person in the story
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.
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.
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.
A few days after he moved in, he phoned me at dinner, asking if I could come
that evening to help him set up his computer. When I arrived, I found Bill on
his hands and knees on the floor in a maelstrom of papers large and small,
searching for an errant American Express bill that he had forgotten to pay. He
complained that he couldn’t see well enough to bring off this task, and would I
please hand him a pair of glasses from the top right-hand drawer of his desk.
When I opened the drawer, I found what must have been fifty pairs of dime-store
glasses, every pair of which was missing its right arm.
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.
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.