Saying Goodbye to a Great Man

(3rd in a series of 3 tributes to Gordon Wetmore. 1st is here)

You hate to let a guy down. And when someone is good to you so often, it seems especially cruel to disrespect him.

Gordon in his studio

I was dancing on the edge of that possibility with Gordon as I once again hit the tenth floor button in his elevator and brought him a hot cup of coffee. He greeted me with his usual enthusiasm and we sat down to discuss the big project I had been working on for three years and was nearly finishing—a rather comprehensive book on Chattanooga and it’s ruling aristocracy.

Gordon had already hooked me up with a huge favor. He was somewhere between an acquaintance and a friend with the current editor of Newsweek, a Chattanooga native (Sewannee, to be specific). For me, Gordon took a risk with that relationship and sent him my manuscript and asked for an endorsement. We got one, and it is now prominently featured on the back cover. I’ve used that quote like there’s no tomorrow.

Gordon’s generosity seemed rather endless. He agreed to paint both my kids in pastels for a ridiculously one-sided trade he concocted. They sit prominently framed in my living room and rank as one of my very top possessions in life. Now, they are even more valuable.

For the book, I interviewed nearly 60 people all over town, getting their takes on Chattanooga, it’s power elite, and all the intrigue that goes along with managing a city. I would share all sorts of stories with Gordon about the interviews, but I never got around to asking him for an interview, even though, as a portrait artist acquainted with so many of the town’s elite, he was in a great position to offer some superb insights. I could tell he wanted to be part of the circle of interviewees, but he never said anything about it. Better men might have gotten upset.

Actually, Gordon often shared that he had a lifelong struggle with anger. This completely mystified me, and it represents the third of Gordon’s dimensions/contradictions that I have been detailing in this series, those contradicting qualities that dramatists, novelists and screenwriters say make for great men. Gordon struggle with a temper? I’d never witnessed anything like it. All I had ever seen was the kind personality that everyone wrote about online when the news hit of Gordon’s sudden passing. “Gracious, warm, gentle, soft-spoken”—these were the types of words used about Gordon again and again.

What gives? Well, first, it needs to be understood that this is a one-source story with no evidence. Gordon is the only one who’s ever said anything to me about him struggling with anger. Others closer to him may know more about it, but, heck, for all I know it wasn’t a big deal and was merely a creation of Gordon’s humble, self-deprecating style.

More credence to Gordon’s allegations about himself can be found on his Facebook page where he sites the following as his favorite quote: “Better a patient man than a warrior, a man who controls his temper than one who takes a city.” (Proverbs 16:32). It doesn’t prove he had a temper problem, but it proves he thought he did.

Some insight might be gained from a favorite movie he lists: As Good as it Gets. He loved that Jack Nicholson character and brought him up on several occasions. A highly gifted romance novelist, this lead character has the ability to rip open the hearts of women for precisely the same reason he can send them into emotional ecstasy: he understands how they think and feel. Eventually, thanks to Helen Hunt, he finds a way to channel his abilities toward the good.

Maybe this explains why Gordon was not just another nice guy, but a man that has been eulogized across the country as one of the nicest, kindest, most gracious men they’ve ever met. Maybe Gordon was well acquainted with the ugly side of this quality and understood the great power of harnessing it toward the good. If ever he really did struggle with anger and a temper, it’s pretty clear he achieved the victory described by the writer of Proverbs.

So, by the time in life that he was dealing with my perceived snub of not asking him for an interview in the book when he was an obvious candidate—and sixty others had gotten the nod—he was an old pro at concealing any irritation and continuing to be generous and gracious.

One of the reasons I had delayed asking for his insights was because I was using Gordon as an ace-in-the-hole. If I interviewed him near the end, he might be able to fill in some gaps. Why I didn’t explain this to him, I’m not sure. But by the time I got close to doing so, I realized Gordon could help me with something a little more important. I asked him to write the Foreword. Because of his connection to the town’s elite, and because of his friendship with me, he was the perfect candidate to provide a warm introduction for a suspect character to a wary but interested audience.

Gordon was delighted. It certainly could be considered small potatoes in his world. But he was, as always, genuinely appreciative and even honored. That was the thing with Gordon; he always made you feel like you were something special.

Last week, I drove to the Chattanooga Bank Building and Gordon Wetmore’s studio, entered the code to the outside entrance, and rode the elevator to the tenth floor. As always, I had two servings of coffee in my hands. But no one was there this time to drink the second cup. I walked up the stairs to the 11th floor penthouse. The studio was locked, so I left the coffee just outside the door. A pity.

But I enjoyed my share of coffee and conversation with this great man. Way more than I deserved.

 

(3rd in a series of 3 tributes.)

A Man’s Contradiction is his Genius (1st of 3)

It takes a genius to herd cats, I mean artists (2nd of 3)

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