Saturday, July 25, 2009

A Piece of Really Good Work

My great-grandfather, Richard Albert King, died about ten years before I was born. Everyone in my family who knew him personally is also now gone. So, the memory of my great-grandfather comes down to a few simple items.
I know from family stories that he was a kind and gentle person. I know my father, Richard, was named after him, and it was a good naming because my dad, too, was kind and gentle.

Sometime during the Depression, my great-grandfather was given a part-time job as sexton at his nearby Episcopal Church, more an act of kindness and dignity than financial gain. Its unintended consequence, however, was that mixed families of long-time Presbyterians and Lutherans became loyal Episcopalians, probably a better indication of how religion really works than a burning bush in the desert or a conversion on the road to Tarsus.

Finally, I know that every evening after dinner, my great-grandfather would retire to the cellar (and I mean cellar, not basement) to warm a pot of glue and cut and shape pieces of hardwood to make beautiful inlays. We have a chessboard and lamp from his labors. But the best example of all is an exquisite inlaid table that now resides in the corner of our dining room.


If everything I knew about my great-grandfather came down to this one item, I would see a patient, exacting craftsman with a flair for the creative; a “measure twice, cut once” guy; and someone who built things to last. All things very much worth aspiring to.

That table tells an important personal story and is what I call a piece of really good work.
When I was ten years old my parents bought a run-down house near Buzzards Bay and spent the next three decades turning it into a comfortable family cottage. We had outdoor hot water by the third year and an indoor shower a year or two after. But, almost the first thing my father decided he needed to do was replace the old, rotting foundation.
So, I spent the summer of my 11th year (along with my younger brother) crawling around under a two-story house, raising it inch-by-inch on jacks, learning how to mix concrete, and trying to avoid digging trenches. Today, I don’t pretend to know how to lift a house three inches and build a stone foundation under it, and I still occasionally dream (claustrophobically) about crawling around underneath, hoping not to see a snake. But, when my father lowered the house down on the new masonry, it was flat and plumb and square. A perfect landing.

From time to time over the last forty years I have driven by that cottage (long since sold), remember my father, and think: that foundation is a piece of really good work.

Today, I’m lucky to be on the Board of the New England Historic Genealogical Society (see here). It’s a group of accomplished and sometimes brilliant people (present company excepted) who come together around the powerful notion that family and history are things worth preserving and celebrating. Some of the Trustees with whom I have worked—David Kruger, Bob Bixby, Richard Benson, John Cabot and Alvy Ray Smith come immediately to mind—have not only had exceptional careers in business, but have written meticulously researched, beautifully constructed, almost monumental family genealogies. (See here for the NEHGS Online store.)

The kind of things you read in awe.

Their books are, each on its own, a piece of really good work, and something that punctuates all its author’s other accomplishments.

This all bubbled up not long ago while I was reading a Sunday New York Times article by Michael Wilson (“Where the Bodies Aren’t Buried”) about the Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn. Established in 1838, Green-Wood is home to many famous New Yorkers, especially from the second half of the nineteenth century. Among the half-million residents of the cemetery’s nearly 500 acres, fashioned in the style of Mount Auburn in Cambridge, are Louis Comfort Tiffany, Henry Steinway (of piano fame), William “Boss” Tweed, James Merritt Ives (of “Currier and Ives”), Samuel F.B. Morse, DeWitt Clinton and Frank Morgan Wupperman (the Wizard in The Wizard of Oz).
In Wilson’s article about Green-Wood, however, we meet one of the cemetery’s living residents, Kestutis Demereckas, an engineer who moved from Lithuania to New York in 1989 and now serves as Green-Wood’s surveyor. Known as Kestas, Mr. Demereckas’ job these days is trying to find "dirt--a plain patch of earth long enough and wide enough in which to dig a fresh grave. An empty spot."
It seems Green-Wood is close to full after expanding for decades in all of the logical places. The cemetery, often three-deep in bodies, will have to close to new burials in the not-too-distant future. Before that happens, Kestas is trying to get as many people in as possible.

To do this, he consults surveys of the cemetery done in 1875 and 1895 by a surveyor named Lindsay Wells, Mr. Demereckas's predecessor at the job by more than a century. Wells' surveys are "veritable works of art, from the intricate inking of the roads and paths to the gentle swirls of cursive labeling of each clear rectangular lot. They are signed in neat script” and serve today as an essential key to the Green-Wood puzzle.

“I have incredible respect for this man, Lindsay Wells,” Mr. Demereckas said. “When I saw, first time, drawings, I was very impressed. I was jealous.”

Imagine Mr. Wells standing in the cemetery just ten years after the Civil War, working alone, making his careful drawings and being so exacting in his measurements that 134 years later in 2009 Mr. Demereckas could find a few square feet of open ground amidst 500 acres in which to bury a modern New Yorker. No audience, no applause, no fame; just Mr. Wells doing a job in the best way he knew how.

Those surveys, you would agree, are each a piece of really good work.
Indeed, Mr. Well's surveys, my friends' genealogies, my father's foundation and my great-grandfather's inlaid table are all the kind of really good work that can be inspirational as we head off to tackle a new project or a new day.

Early on in my first job out of college at the Chase Manhattan Bank, we were ushered into a two-day seminar on career planning. I remember distinctly that one of the exercises was to write our obituaries. That seems pretty morbid for a bunch of 22-year-olds, but the point was if we knew how we wanted to be remembered, we’d be encouraged to make some good choices in getting there.
I cannot remember what I wrote, but I suppose it would have been pretty standard 22-year-old stuff. If I were to try my hand at such an exercise today, however, I know a few things I might want to be remembered for (kind and gentle being, unfortunately, out of reach at this point). And among them I am certain of one thing: it would be good to leave behind at least one piece of really good work.