I walked into my very first creative writing class–my only writing experience was investment research reports and letters to shareholders–and was stunned to find my workshop mates were seven women, all published authors. My discomfort was compounded when the mentor called on me to lead off, analyzing a manuscript by a fellow student. I can’t remember how I responded, but I still feel the rush of blood in my face as I struggled for something to say.
Following this humiliating morning, I met my wife, Reba, at lunch and told her, “I was the dumbest person in the class!”
Her unsympathetic response: “It’s about time. Most of us have that experience earlier in life.”
It was true. I’d always been a (mostly) A-student. But that was fifty years ago. Recently retired, I had joined this writing class as a lark to spend a couple of weeks with my wife in London and Bath, a typically attractive locale for Spalding University’s annual residency for its distance-learning MFA in writing program.
I survived, thanks to my seven female classmates, who were supportive and helpful; and an excellent instructor/mentor, who labored over my submissions and taught me the basics of writing creative non-fiction. At the end of two weeks, my new friends were encouraging me to write the complete story of Reba’s and my forty years of fine art print collecting. The result will be published this winter by David R. Godine, under the title Small Victories: One Couple’s Surprising Adventures Building an Unrivaled Collection of American Prints.
Many years passed on the way to becoming an author. Birth and early childhood in Beaumont, Texas and then to Austin, where I attended public schools. After graduation from high school, I was accepted into the Naval Officer Reserve Corps as a “Regular,” entitling me to a generous college-of-my-choice scholarship and employment with the Navy for three summers. The only drawback was an obligation to serve three years’ active duty after college.
Living in Austin made attending the University of Texas an easy decision. The two most influential men in my life, my father and uncle, were both engineers, and all I knew was to follow the pattern, so I majored in Chemical Engineering. The Midshipmen summer training cruises to Europe were eye-opening. I discovered art in Paris and Amsterdam, and developed a desire for more international travel.
After graduation from Texas and becoming an Ensign, USN, I accepted an offer from Esso (now ExxonMobil) to work in their Baton Rouge refinery. The major attraction of the job was eligibility for a Teagle Scholarship. Teagle, a founder of Standard Oil, had established a no-strings-attached scholarship to Harvard Business School for employees with three years’ company service. Esso generously allowed me to count my Navy time as active employment, if I would put in a few months of work at the refinery after discharge.
I served three years in the Navy, all at sea, aboard the U.S.S. Maury, a hydrographic survey ship that was mapping the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean searching for locations to place hydrophones to track Soviet submarines. Long stretches away from civilization, but a technically interesting occupation. The high school summers I’d worked with my Dad’s land surveying crews proved more valuable than my engineering degree. Back to Baton Rouge after the Navy to earn the scholarship, then to Boston for Harvard Business School and an MBA two years later (Class of 1961).
At HBS my finance professor steered me to Wall Street, where I joined a small investment management firm as a securities analyst specializing in the chemical and oil industries. For the next forty years I worked in some aspect of securities and investment, at Waddell & Reed, a mutual funds company; at Mitchell, Hutchins, a research-oriented stock broker; and the last twenty-one years as CEO and Chairman of Alliance Capital Management (now AllianceBernstein), a large pension fund and mutual funds company. I retired from Alliance in 2001.
An important goal at Alliance was to “internationalize” a heretofore domestic company. Reba was part of this effort, and we succeeded in attracting overseas clients. The company learned to invest in foreign markets. This interest carried over into retirement, when I helped other former Alliance employees start off-shore businesses, e.g., our Cornerstone Partners, a private equity firm based in Warsaw, Poland.
During all those years on Wall Street, my principal avocation was collecting fine art prints, an activity Reba (Ph.D. Art History) and I shared from the time of our marriage in 1975. Over a thirty-five-year period, we built what was thought to be the largest privately-owned collection of fine art prints by American artists. Drawing on our collection, we created traveling exhibitions to more than one hundred museums in the United States, Canada, Mexico, Europe and Japan. We responded to the question “Is there a good video on prints?” by making one: All About Prints, an hour-long PBS show and DVD. In 2008, we donated most of our collection—about five thousand prints, our files, library and the building that housed it all—to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.
After ceasing to collect prints, we decided to write, incorporating our print collecting experience. Reba (nom de plume Reba White Williams) has turned to fiction, mysteries set in the art world, mostly prints. Her first novel Restrike was published June, 2013; its sequel, Fatal Impressions, in April, 2014; and Angels, an e-book, was released this past July. Bloody Royal Prints, the third installment, will be published early 2015.
Whether my memoir Small Victories will be both my first and last book, remains to be seen.