Al Gardner passed away a few weeks ago. I found out yesterday. He was in his mid-80s so it isn’t a surprise.
The Gardners owned the summer home next to ours at Chautauqua Institution from 1970 to 1983.
In middle age, when I think back on the people in my life who’ve influenced the man I’ve become, Al has a role out of proportion to the (at most) 20 days a year that I saw him back then … or the 10 or so times I’d seen him over the last 30 years.
He was not an easy person for the neighbor kid to like, even though his day job was as an elementary school principal.
And he was not an adult that ever sat down with me in any way and mentored me to behave like he did. If anything, he was a bit of a prick and a prig. All he did was merely set a good and decent example of one way that life could be lived.
As an old school, socially conservative, northeastern liberal, Al would probably object to me seeing him as an exemplar of Deirdre McCloskey’s bourgeois dignity.
But I see that Al demonstrated a puritan seriousness of purpose that was pretty much absent in the other adults I knew. He’s one of the people that planted a seed in me, that didn’t really flourish until my late 20s: that you don’t work hard at things because that’s what you’re supposed to do, but rather because that’s who you are.
I tend to doubt that Al ever read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.* On the other hand, it was part of the liberal canon back then, so he might have.
Either way, here was this adult in my early life who didn’t view attention to detail as either obsessive or pedantic. Instead, he showed through example that the the details were worthy of attention for their own sake. That life itself was a craft that you could hone.
I’d like to think he even might have been pleased to see the extent to which I emphasize that the fields I teach in are crafts that students need to work at, and that they aren’t readily characterized by talent or skills.
Lastly, I see a similarity. Al was somewhat estranged from the family of his birth, and somewhat distant from the family he’d created. I wonder how much I’m the same way: frustrated with the disinterest in the craft of life in the one direction, and frustrating in the other direction because maybe, just maybe, the final product we’re making together is going to turn out just right.
* It’s fascinating that this book comes to mind since it uses the metaphor of a Chautauqua.