A Heartfelt Farewell To UG

Today Gilbert H. Neal died, at age 82. To the rest of the world, he was the accomplished tire company executive who had a globe-spanning business career that culminated in the presidency of General Tire. To our branch of the Webner clan, though, he was simply known at UG — pronounced “Ugg,” and short for Uncle Gilbert.

IMG_5950He had an enormously successful business career that saw him rise from the bottom of the corporate ladder to the very top. He began in sales, was manager of a Firestone Tire store, then eventually became district manager of the Firestone stores in southern California. The Firestone executives clearly saw promise in this young man, because they made him the branch manager of the Firestone affiliate in Puerto Rico — and when he handled that job adeptly, he became managing director of the Firestone affiliate in Argentina, and then managing director of the Firestone affiliate in Brazil. He was brought back to the States to become vice president for Firestone’s Africa, Asia, and Far East operations, then moved to London, England to become vice president for Firestone Europe and Africa. He was named president of Firestone Steel Products, became a Firestone corporate vice president, and then became the president of General Tire.

It’s a record of extraordinary achievement in the business world. As kids, we Webners were dimly aware of Uncle Gilbert’s success, because we heard about the Neals living in the most exotic locations imaginable. Hey, one time they lived close to Disneyland, the mecca of any American kid in the ’60s! And they lived in foreign countries, and ate foreign food and went to foreign schools, and had security guards drive them around! To kids growing up in suburban Ohio, it was all impossibly glamorous and romantic.

Yet somehow, through it all, Uncle Gilbert remained UG. The success never changed him, really, from the man I first remember from when I was a toddler. He was a big man with an even bigger personality. If we kids were acting up, he gave the same blue-eyed, laser beam glare that could bore holes into the frostiest glacier and make you snap back into correct behavior in a nanosecond. But, his house was always a fun place because he and Aunt Barbara made it so. Theirs was the first place I remember hearing the record “The Twist,” and we kids watched Uncle Gilbert and Aunt Barbara laugh as they showed us how to do that dance. We Webners loved getting together with our Neal cousins Peg, Beth, Gib, and Dave because we knew we were in for a good time.

IMG_5947For as long as I knew him, UG had the same corny sense of humor and toastmaster jibes, like the one about the farmer being the man who truly was out standing in his field. He could talk for hours about golf mechanics, but he had the fastest golf backswing ever seen on the planet, one that broke all laws of physics and could not be captured even by stop-action photography. He played euchre with a roar, always asking for “the hook” on the turn card and always ready to burst into a huge, delighted grin when he somehow took the last trick that kept my sister Cathy from winning a hand. He was an avid reader who kept a fascinating array of books around the house. And he always — always — loved, respected, and honored my grandfather, and would sweat bullets when Grandpa Neal would sit as Uncle Gilbert labored to balance Grandpa’s checkbook, down to the very last penny. He knew well that if that checkbook didn’t balance, he’d just have to do it again and again, under Grandpa’s withering glare, until he finally got it right.

When I graduated from college, Uncle Gilbert and Aunt Barbara were living in London. They hosted me at their Marylebone Road flat for weeks before I went on a Eurorail pass trip around continental Europe and then again before I returned to the States. They were the most gracious hosts imaginable, and I will always treasure that time spent with them — although I think, now, about what it must have been like to have a shaggy, bearded college know-it-all suddenly become a fixture in their home for what must have seemed like forever. If they had any regrets, they never shared them or showed them. It takes a generous man to do such a thing.

As I grew older, and learned a bit more about the past, I learned that I owed another thing to UG — I might not even be here if it weren’t for him. He was instrumental in bringing my parents together and convincing my grandparents that my father was a hard-working man with prospects who really was good enough for a bank executive’s daughter. Dad and Uncle Gilbert always had a strong bond. It struck me that the first time I saw Uncle Gilbert, the executive who was at ease behind any podium, unable to stand and speak was at the small, family-only memorial service we had when Dad died almost 17 years ago.

I mourn the passing of this great and good man, who worked so hard, accomplished so much, and meant so much to his family, our family, and his many friends. I send my prayers and best wishes to my cousins Peg, Beth, Gib, and Dave, and their families, who are today dealing with such an enormous loss. Tonight, UG and his legacy will be very much in my thoughts.

Hydration Fixation

Yesterday I was in LaGuardia Airport, waiting for my flight home, when I saw that Delta had helpfully put a “water bottle refilling station” in its terminal for those people who seem to carry a water bottle and take a swig everywhere they go. A simple water fountain isn’t good enough — we need a “station” where those brightly colored, quart-sized plastic canisters can be filled to the rim.

IMG_1848I’m sure there’s a purported health reason for this fixation with water, but it’s always seemed weird to me. A few years ago I asked a summer clerk at our firm to come to my office for a meeting. To my surprise, the guy brought along a full, sloshing jug of water, with a plastic straw protruding out. Good lord! How long did he think the meeting was going to last? Was he really worried about becoming dehydrated during a discussion about a research project? Maybe he thought I’d spew so much hot air that the risk of dessication was more than he could tolerate. And his constant sipping made me think of a hamster, too.

What is it with the hydration obsession of some people? Is it supposed to help them stick to a diet by filling them up? Is it supposed to keep their body’s flushing systems working at desperate overload levels? Is it supposed to keep their skin moist and dewy fresh?

I like to drink water as much as the next person, but this hydration fixation seems to be reaching ridiculous levels.

All Aboard The Acela Express

IMG_1839On Thursday I needed to get from Washington, D.C. to New York City. Rather than taking a plane, I decided to try the Amtrak Acela Express.

I’ve never taken a train trip in the United States. I’ve ridden trains in Europe, but there is no American passenger train station in Columbus. I figured it was about time I tried an Amtrak train. After all, as an American taxpayer, I’ve been subsidizing Amtrak for decades. The Acela Express is supposed to be one of the few Amtrak routes where ticket revenue actually covers is operating costs (some people dispute this), although capital costs of the route remain subsidized by the federal government. Why not take advantage of the opportunity to see what my tax dollars have produced?

IMG_1842I liked taking the train, and I’d take it again. The Acela Express leaves from Union Station in D.C., has stops in Baltimore, Wilmington, Delaware, Philadelphia, and Newark, then arrives in Penn Station about 2 hours and 50 minutes after you’ve left the Nation’s Capital. Total travel time is about what you’d have by air, factoring in the time needed to get to the airport and go through security, and you end up in the middle of Manhattan rather than at LaGuardia. The cost of my first-class Acela ticket was about the same as the cost of a flight, too.

The first-class car was clean and spacious, and the train was sold out. Most of the first-class passengers were taking advantage of the free wireless that was afforded and the free beverages; my traveling companion and I each had a glass of decent red wine. Our car was quiet and spacious. The train rocks a bit, but you can stretch your legs and walk to the cafe car if you want, or just watch the scenery roll by. As an added bonus, I saw a U.S. Senator on the trip — New Jersey’s Bob Menendez.

A New York attorney I know said the Acela Express advertises itself as the “civilized” travel alternative. That’s not inaccurate. Thanks, fellow taxpayers, for a pleasant journey!