Uncle Bill(Bill Gichner passed away on 12/8/04. This eulogy was delivered by Nol Putnam on 12/10/04 at Addis Isreal Synagogue, Washington, D.C.)
And so we have gathered, not to bury Bill but to praise him, to honor him, and to acknowledge the deep debt we owe him.
What a span he has seen: from airplanes made of canvas and baling wire to land rovers on Mars; from the heyday of smithing in the 1920's studying with the likes of Paul Kiss at his father's shop to smithing's nadir after World War II; to now, where if not ascendant the art is at least well known. And this is in no small part due to the efforts of Bill.
So I would say first that Bill was a traveling man. With the exception of loading the van, a chore that Bill doled out happily to whoever was unhappily handy, usually Big Bob, Bill was ready for a trip in about ten minutes. And those poor old vans - what they were made to carry. It was not that they were stuffed to the gunwales, rather that all the stuff was so awfully heavy and often awkward. Forget anything except the front two seats. As Mack can attest, he made do with a campstool on the bad trips and a lawn chair on the good ones - no seat belts there. The trio of Bill, Peter and Mack logged some 80,000 miles around the country looking for shops, trading tools and books, and trying to keep the van on the road. Was it in Colorado that one of the vans finally gave up the ghost? Before that trio was the duo of Bill and Phil Blundell. When Phil got back to the Farm he'd come by the shop and regale me stories of the road. Like stopping someplace in Kansas on the search; the outskirts of a small town "Stop the van." Bill rolls down his window, sniffs the air - "Take a right up there, there's a shop around here somewhere." And ten minutes later they'd roll up to some dilapidated building that was indeed a shop. And the trading began.
Bill was a trading man. He loved to sell you something. He liked it better if you had something to sell him. But he liked it best if you could trade, haggle, argue, suggest, plead and finally agree.Beneath the trading, however, was genius. He knew the value of tools; he knew the worth of the right tool for the right job. If Bill felt that you needed that specific tool, neither heaven nor hell would stop him from getting it into your hands. "But, Bill, it's too expensive." "Not if it's the right tool," he'd say. "But I can't pay for it now." "That's all right, take it and use it and pay me when you can." He did that hundreds, perhaps thousands of times.
Swenson and I were figuring the other day that Bill probably made about two dollars a sale over the years. What people did not know about were the tools he gave away to set up some worthy shop - in Africa with Manfred Bredohl, in Guatemala with Jack Andrews, in the middle of the Navajo Nation, as a memorial to Debbie, for the farm shop that Bob Morris set up to teach new smiths.
And his books, his beautiful books - many now given to the new Metals Museum library. One or two found their way to my library. I choked at the price, but I didn't argue, and in truth they have been worth every penny. Many were works of art in their own right, created in the days when publishing was an art form, gilt letters on the bindings, print that made an impression on lusciously thick, deckle edged paper. Bill loved them for themselves and that they were also a tool.
He would lend them, he would share them. Not six weeks ago, he got Michael to make some Xerox copies of a picture in a book he had just received and then sent to me simply because I admired it . A generous man.
Bill was an earthy man and never profane. In thirty years of friendship I cannot remember hearing him swear.
Above all, Bill was a friend. He was a friend to hundreds of people; but Bill was my friend. We met thirty years ago at a craft fair. When he came by my booth for the fourth time, I said something brilliant, such as "You must like iron." In a few years the relationship had blossomed and Bill would call me every few weeks to see what and how I was doing. His phone bills must have been horrendous for he called all over the country and often to Great Britain. But it was always personal. "Can I help you with anything?" "Do you need anything?" "Are you charging enough?" And, "when can you come down to the beach? I need about ten minutes warning for the Princess Suite?"
He taught me tricks; he told me truisms; and once in a while he'd leave me holding the bag. At a small craft fair I was taking a break from demonstrating at the anvil. Bill was hammering away, a young girl watching intently. "So what do you think I'm making," he asks. She replies, "a giraffe?" "Exactly right." says Bill. He hammers away for a minute or two, then turns to me, "Nol, would you finish up this giraffe," and sotto voce "I've gotta' go pee."
I thought of him as my Uncle Bill. That older, loving relation who always had a good word, usually an insightful word, and who you knew, when the going got hard, you could turn to for advice and help. Uncle Bill's support and wisdom has in no small part made me the smith I am.
And to Michael, Joann and Bob, and then all the grandchildren, to Joe and his family, while I am not sure you had any choice in the matter, thank you for sharing your Dad, your Grandfather, your brother.
Go well into the night, Uncle Bill, my "gentle, parfait knight."
December 10, 2004
Copyright Nol Putnam 2004