A (Sort-of) Short Memoir

After returning from the first around-the-world trip, September 1973

After the idea of writing a memoir gained traction early in 2009, I flailed a bit on how to get started. The dithering continued, but what emerged on an afternoon walk with MacKenzie in March 2009 was the idea of a short recollection, maybe 25 pages. The idea was to actually get something done, as a possible foundation for a longer version, and just in case that cellphone-wielding Chevy Tahoe driver finally succeeds in flattening the bicycle and me. So here goes.

The Brittons\’ Christmas Card, 1951

I was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, November 27, 1951, to Clifford and MarLyn Britton. My dad grew up poor, raised by a single mother, initially in and around the Little Belt and Bridger mountains of central Montana, but he came of age in the big city, Chicago. I was born a little more than six years after he returned from being banged up in the Pacific, as a grunt and ultimately a captain in the Army’s 145th Field Artillery Battalion. My mother grew up comfortably middle class, as the oldest child of a second-generation Italian, Jim Fredian, a grocer, and a second-generation German-Polish mom, Anne.

The trip home from Mt. Sinai Hospital was to a postwar apartment complex in the Minneapolis suburb of St. Louis Park, but the next year, 1952, Cliff and MarLyn secured the American dream and bought an almost-new colonial-style house at 5000 Arden Avenue in the adjacent and affluent suburb of Edina. My dad was at the time earning good (by no means great) money, but he was working hard for it, as a traveling salesman, representing a New York glove company and a smaller line of linens. Back then, respectable women wore gloves in spring and summer, and Midwest winters ensured that dad sold a lot of lined leather goods. My mother stayed at home with brother Jim, four years older, and me.

The interest in mobility surfaced early; in the driveway, 1954

The interest in mobility surfaced early; in the driveway, 1954

My first recollections date to late 1954, fittingly to travel – a road trip to Green Bay, Wisconsin, with my mom and dad, and frequent rides on the Burlington Zephyr, a streamlined train that connected us with maternal grandparents, aunts and uncles, and my paternal grandmother, all in Chicago. I also remember that my parents were enormously social people, busy home entertainers of their friends (mainly fellow peddlers from the “rag trade,” as my father called the clothing business) and of my dad’s customers, typically women buyers from stores large and small in his sales territory of Minnesota, Wisconsin, and the Dakotas.

With my mother and her parents, Anne and Jim, 1955

Although we frequently visited kin in Chicago, maternal grandparents Jim (called “Non,” short for nonno, the Italian word for grandfather) and Anne visited a few times a year. Jim was a tall man, ever smiling, and enormously capable with his hands, in contrast to my dad; Non built and fixed a lot of stuff at that first house. My Gram (Anne) was less convivial, though hardly dour, and deeply religious. We always had fun with them, playing games, going for walks, and just yakking.

Saddled up, Montana, 1956. I’ve never felt secure on a horse since!

Two other trips can be conjured, 50+ years later, in some detail: a long 1956 road trip to visit dad’s older brother, Uncle Harold, who managed a huge cattle ranch in Montana, which included a visit to Yellowstone, a rodeo, and other cool stuff; and a 1957 trip up the North Shore of Lake Superior to Grand Marais, then up the Gunflint Trail to Greenwood Lake, and a simple resort with 1930s cabins that would become my father’s vacation choice for more than a decade, a place of many happy moments – fresh fish, fresh air, fresh wild blueberries, and lots more.

Jim and I on the rocky shore of Greenwood Lake, 1960

There was an important day the following month, September 1957, when my mother, neighbor Martha Sheffield, and I marched (yes, it was purposeful striding) two blocks west to Wooddale School. Mrs. Sheffield, a teacher, was with us as oomph, to bolster the case with the principal, Mr. Sarff, that “Bobby” (as I was sometimes known – this was 17 years before I morphed into Rob) would not need Kindergarten. Indeed not. Bobby could already read and write, and first grade was where he belonged. And that’s where I went, into Mrs. Mansfield’s class.

Headed to School, 1957; my Dad was a hat and cap guy, and so were we!

It was a good life, proceeding on track, but it wobbled a bit that fall. My dad’s glove company failed (I learned the word “liquidated”), and we would need to move. There was a good sales-rep job based in Cleveland, Ohio, still close to the folks in Chicago. Wobble also meant a drunken fight between my parents, the outlines of which are faint, but the first time I recall that alcohol messed up lives.

So we sold the comfy house in Edina and moved east to a similar place, Rocky River, a solidly middle-class western suburb of Cleveland. We briefly rented a half of a double bungalow, then moved into another colonial house at 2501 Hampton Road. It was not far to Wooster School, and Mrs. Evans’ class. Kids adapt quickly, and life resumed a steady course. My dad still traveled most Mondays to Fridays, but my mom had his company-provided car (a really nice two-tone Buick). My sister Carroll arrived in July 1958. My mother loved Cleveland, but my dad missed his selling buddies in Minneapolis, and we were back in Minnesota the following spring (1959), renting a house on Newton Avenue in south Minneapolis. I finished 2nd grade in Miss Pieter’s class at Burroughs School (coincidentally, wife Linda was in a classroom just down the hall; we met later).

We moved back to Edina in fall 1959, less than two years after leaving, and into an ample Cape Cod right across 50th Street from our first house. Things seemed more steady, but wobbled during almost all of the 35 weeks a year when dad was on the road – my mother was drinking a lot, couldn’t-make-dinner volumes of martinis and sometimes huge swigs right from the bottle. It was frightening.

To add to my stress, I began to pay attention to world events. The Cold War was really chilly, and tensions were high. When the bell rang, I ran home from Wooddale School, to get answers to two questions: was mom drunk? And, from the afternoon Minneapolis Star, had the world edged closer to nuclear war? Yikes: looking back, that was a heavy load for a kid.

After we returned from Cleveland, I began to understand that money was tight. I knew the answer to “how tight,” because I began to monitor the register in my parents’ checkbook, and did that for years. One time in about 1962, I had to withdraw less than $20 from my little savings passbook and deposit it into my parents’ checking account to prevent a check from bouncing. That kind of experience unfortunately produced a “roof is gonna fall in” fear that unfortunately lasted until I was in my 50s.

But it wasn’t all grim. Despite my mother’s woes, the early 1960s had some stability, too. My parents continued to entertain a lot at home, filling the house with fun and laughter. My dad and I took lots of walks at night, when he was not on the road, and he was still optimistic. After 10 or 11 p.m., my brother and I would listen to rock and roll on the old black Zenith radio in our room, sometimes pulling in KAAY in Little Rock. And I always treasured private time with my Gram, my maternal grandmother; we would have “conferences” (as she called them) that gave me hope and strength. She knew my mother was boozing, but understood the limits of parenting adult children. Gram was overly pious, but she was comforting – and she loved to tell stories from the olden days.

In early 1964, we moved across the street, back into our first house; my parents really, really liked it. Within a month the wobble increased dramatically. My father, diagnosed with epilepsy on Okinawa in 1945, began having seizures after almost 18 years of health. Back then, denial was a way of life in many households, and neither parent explained the bewildering turn of events. Looking back, it was clear that the recurrence was the result of financial stress and too much alcohol (unlike mom, dad was emphatically not alcoholic, but he did like his drinks). The downward spiral led to a couple of seizure-related car accidents, mercifully involving no other cars, some hospitalizations, and a lot of medical bills.

I was in 7th grade now, at South View Junior High. Happily, I came to understand that the state of the world was way, way beyond my control – maybe I traded that anxiety for the trials of early adolescence. There were quite a few of those, mostly centered on being a total late bloomer, really short in stature, kid-high voice, all that. Mom’s boozing continued, perhaps even increased, and it was about this time that I came upon an understanding that has guided much of my life. “If I ever get out of this place,” I said to myself, “I will do everything I can to be happy and positive.” Interestingly, before he got sick, my dad, despite tough early circumstances, was remarkably sunny – perhaps he had a similar epiphany at age 14 or 15.

In June 1966, the same month my brother graduated from high school, we had to sell the house to pay the overdue hospital and other bills. We became tenants. I will never, ever, forget the look on my dad’s face the day we moved out. It was one of the moments that cemented a belief in the need for universal health care and other things that conservatives call “socialism.” Dad was never the same after that. Never.

The following autumn, I entered 10th grade and senior high school. I think back and see a kid still managing to excel, but domestic woe was taking its toll, and expectations began to diminish. There were bright spots, to be sure. Friendships were vibrant, many organized around the ten-speed bikes that we first bought in summer 1964 and that opened a wider horizon during summers. Some of the rides were on our own, and several longer ones were group rides with American Youth Hostels, a wonderful organization that had a very active chapter in the Twin Cities. AYH organized some swell bike trips, including a memorable ride in June 1965 from Chicago to Washington Island, at the end of the western “thumb” in Lake Michigan and part way back.

The Gitane road bikes we all bought in 1964 were catalytic, opening the world far beyond the range of the ten-speeds.

And we learned to ski, which was enormously cool. I had still not grown much, earlier speed and agility had waned, and I was thus not a school sports player, but I could ski fast and well. We skied locally at Buck Hill (300 feet high and 18 miles from home), trading 50 hours of autumn labor (picking rocks, painting, and such) for a $50 season pass, and we took trips to larger areas in Wisconsin and Michigan with the AYH, as well as three Christmastime journeys to Aspen, Colorado.

In early 1966, a new kind of bird appeared in the sky above Minneapolis: Braniff Airways had embarked on a thoroughly hip and way-ahead-of-its-time rebranding, and began to paint its aircraft green, ochre, blue, and other hues. The sight of a robin-egg blue 727 climbing out of MSP captured my imagination. After caddying one Sunday morning in June, my pal Greg and I rode bikes to the airport, bought $10.50 tickets on emphatically not hip Northwest Airlines, and flew round trip to Rochester, Minnesota, 72 miles away. It was new direction, and I jumped into it. Friends hooted at my obsession with timetables and stats.

Building on an earlier interest and skill in plastic model cars, I assembled a couple of airliner models from kits, carefully painting them with the aid of cellophane tape as masking. They were pretty good, good enough to suggest a business. Thus was born Bob Britton Enterprises, to sell scale-model Northwest 727s to pilots, stewardesses, and anyone who wanted one for $7.50 plus postage.

Handbills for Rob’s Northwest 727 models, $7.50

Northwest agreed to allow handbills to be posted on bulletin boards in crew rooms across their domestic system, and orders began to arrive from Seattle and New York and Cleveland. An Italian immigrant living in a YMCA bought $100 worth, fueled with determination to start an aviation museum in Akron, Ohio.

The airplane – and the lure of half-fare “youth standby” tickets – widened our horizons. Especially memorable and influential was our first trip out of the U.S. At age 15, three of us went to the big world’s fair, Expo 67, in Montreal. When you’re that age, it’s like all the “input valves” are open, and I acquired not only a strong interest in Canada but a curiosity about the world. And at one of the pavilions, sponsored by Canadian Pacific (at the time an integrated transportation company) and the mining firm Cominco, we watched a 20-minute film called “We Are Young,” the title of which has stayed with me as a touchstone.

Our High-Y (YMCA youth group) leader was a young guy who sold industrial equipment, and he talked one of his shelving customers, Braniff, into letting me visit their hangar on Friday and Saturday nights. So while my peers were necking with girlfriends, I was poking around 727s, BAC One-Elevens, and, if I waited until after 11, a big Boeing 707. Back then, security was by today’s norms laughably lax; I parked the car, walked through a couple of doors, and was on the hangar floor. It was awesome.

But I was still adrift. Junior and senior year, when peers were busy with college applications, I was not. It was clear that there was no money for my college education; even though my mother had returned to the workforce, part time, my brother’s studies at St. Cloud State College had sopped up the few extra dollars. I tendered one or two half-hearted apps. In the spring of 1969, when friends opened letters from MIT, the University of Colorado, Drake, and other schools, I had no such rudder. I can recall a troubled afternoon in May 1969, less than a month before high school graduation. I was lost. I rode my bicycle down to Lake Calhoun in Minneapolis, and rode around it, then around it again, and ten more times. My legs were strong, but I was still lost.

Then a miracle happened. A friend’s mother knew of a fellow, Rick Fesler, who had started a travel agency a few miles from home. She arranged an interview. Rick and I hit it off. He offered an unpaid apprenticeship that summer, with a sort-of promise – if his business developed the way he hoped it would – to begin paying me in the fall. With a job in hand, I applied late and was accepted at the University of Minnesota. In the course of two weeks, my young life again had direction and purpose. The backdrop of parental illness and dispirit continued, but I was a travel agent in coat and tie, riding my ten-speed to and from the office, learning around fares and tickets and tours. At the end of September, I began commuting to the U of M without a car, finding rides with friends and acquaintances to school, and hitchhiking home at noon every day (the destination sign taped in the back of a notebook helped a lot), to change clothes and either ride the bike or hitchhike to the office. And, indeed, Rick’s promised paychecks did begin, enabling me to pay tuition and fees, and to gain a sense of self-reliance and self-worth that I surely needed. It was about $50 a week, big money.

Rob the travel agent, 1972. The computer was an early first step — we still wrote airline tickets by hand, but didn’t use the telephone to make bookings — a breakthrough!

When you attend class every morning, and work every afternoon, four years goes quickly. I studied hard and did well. It took three tries (political science, sociology, journalism) to hit on a major that fit, and geography fit well. Among other things, it enlightened my summer travels to Europe (1971) and East Africa (1972). I was the quintessential 1970s young American tourist, long hair, orange backpack, and a lot of curiosity about the world.

The sign that helped get me home from school almost every day for four years, taped to the inside back cover of a spiral notebook.

In late 1972 and early 1973, the sense of heading toward the unknown returned, as completion of my B.A. approached. Like three years earlier, I got on the bike looking for answers. None quickly appeared. In February 1973, while riding from Denver to Vail for a skiing weekend with Colorado friends, I hit on the idea of a round-the-world trip to begin a month after graduation. It was a short plan, but a plan nonetheless.

In May of that year, about the time I took out an ad in the U of M student newspaper to thank everyone who had given me a ride home from campus since 1969, I met Linda. In a bar. Not some kind of meat market, but Marguerite’s, a tavern in tiny Dundas, Minnesota, five miles south of her St. Olaf College in Northfield. A few months earlier, at the celebration of the first of my friends to wed, I met one of Linda’s classmates, Jane Alrick. We went out a few times and had fun. Mutual friends told me that Jane was great “but you’d like Linda better.” So we drove down to Dundas one Wednesday night and they were right. We saw each other a couple of times in the subsequent weeks, and then nearly every day in June. In my last moments on this good Earth, if someone asks me what I remember about those weeks, I will tell them about getting into Linda’s green Chevy Vega, seeing a beautiful woman wearing lovely perfume, and thinking “how did I get close to this beautiful and smart woman?”

On July 1, I hit the road, via the airport, kissing parents and Linda good bye, and flying west, on a three-month round-the-world venture to San Francisco; hiking on Kauai; hitchhiking all over the North and South Islands of New Zealand; then across to Australia, Sydney, Tasmania, Melbourne, Adelaide, thumbing across to Perth, and through Oz’s red center; to Malaysia for a week with a family of a friend; quickly through Thailand, Nepal, and India; back to Europe, through Finland to Germany. And on September 21 at 7 p.m. to the Hofbräuhaus in Munich, meeting Linda and ten other friends. It was a big time. The whole trip cost $1011, $500 of which was air fare; I intended to keep it under a grand, but we got a little carried away in Munich!

When I returned to Minneapolis a week later, hitching from O’Hare, I was hyper-confident and more experienced in the ways of the world, but still a little lost. Planning and taking the trip had occupied about seven months, and I had no clear idea what to do now that I was a grown-up. I had as much work at the travel agency as I wanted, and a nice opportunity to travel as a tour manager for their expanding group-travel division. I spent a couple of weeks herding groups of Midwesterners through Spain and Germany that October, a week in Hawaii in January, and two weeks back on the Costa del Sol in the spring. During those months, the winningest idea was graduate study in geography, back at the University of Minnesota. I did well in the last year of my B.A., and faculty encouraged further work. I applied and secured financial support, which morphed into a three-year fellowship. With that settled, in May 1974 I set off to Southern Africa and Europe, returning in early July.

Linda Matthews, 1976

Linda and I resumed a strong friendship. It was love, but I was reluctant to call it that; this was, after all, a period of great experimentation, and rejection of commitment. Nevertheless, when she started law school and I began working on my M.A. that fall, we moved into a tiny studio apartment on Colfax Avenue in south Minneapolis. From the start, and continuing to today, we have shared values and an approach to life that has built a solid foundation.

Linda and I, nearly engaged

Like my undergrad years, the following four also passed quickly, with focused school work, some nice travel (including the luxury of a winter-long ski trip in Europe in 1976), and development of a solid research interest on the role of tourism and economic development. That orientation solidified in part through a strong relationship with a remarkable fellow, Herb Hiller of Miami, a Harvard-trained lawyer turned P.R. man turned enlightened critic of conventional tourism. Herb and I collaborated on a number of projects in the summers of 1975, ’76, and ’77, and he remains a solid friend and guide. During those years I also began having a bit of success with freelance travel writing, first appearing in the Chicago Tribune in 1977, then in other newspapers and some local magazines. I enjoyed those assignments, which typically paid $50 to $250, as well as the ego-stroke of seeing your name in ink.

In May 1978, Linda finished law school, I was awarded a Ph.D., and we got married. Whew!

Bride and groom, May 25, 1978

I spent that summer significantly underemployed, finishing up a few academic matters and, on Saturdays , delivering wedding cakes for McGlynn Bakeries. I joked at the time that it took a geography Ph.D. to get from the bakeries (that were in Target stores) to a VFW post or someone’s kitchen. In September, we moved from the cramped apartment to the upper of a duplex on Linwood Avenue in St. Paul, not far from Linda’s William Mitchell College of Law, in a leafy, older neighborhood called Crocus Hill. That September, I began a one-year teaching contract at the University of Minnesota, a two-thirds appointment. I remained underemployed, in contrast (and not unpleasantly) from the diligence and focus of the previous four years. Linda kept her head down, passing the Minnesota bar exam and working for the State Public Defender.

In early 1979, we began house-hunting, traipsing though dozens of places mainly in older neighborhoods in Minneapolis and St. Paul, and in February settled on a craftsman bungalow at in Crocus Hill, St. Paul, not far from our rented duplex.

Our first house, 1032 Goodrich, after a hard snow

I remember not sleeping the night after we signed the papers to buy the place for $73,000. That June, we closed on the place and I started a full-time gig at the Science Museum of Minnesota in downtown St. Paul. It was a good job, with relatively good pay, great benefits, and an agreeable bunch of colleagues, but with limited potential and a lot of waiting for stuff to happen.

When we closed on the bungalow, Linda and I had $13 in liquid assets. We drove past the manse, and noticed that the front gutter had fallen; it was an inauspicious start to home ownership. Before moving in, I began modest renovations, work that continued for several years. I became proficient with a wallpaper steamer (six or seven layers before hitting plaster), sanders, electrical work, even a bit of plumbing. A house built the same year the Titanic sank needed a lot of work.

I spent January through August 1981 in Australia, as a visiting lecturer at the University of New England in the small college town of Armidale, 300 miles north of Sydney. A few months earlier, Linda landed a plum job with the Hennepin County Attorney in Minneapolis, and she could not get a leave so quickly, so to the dismay of some family and friends (“for sure, the end of their short marriage,” they clucked), I headed Down Under by myself

With an Aussie friend

It was an outstanding experience, one of the best of my life. After a few days with mate Rob Freestone in Sydney, I took the overnight train north, waking to kangaroos jumping alongside the train. I rubbed my eyes, and they were still there. Those kinds of remarkable things continued for months (though I confess to three days of fear a when I first took up my appointment). I lived in an apartment attached to Duval College, with two flatmates, Rob Harris, an experienced violist, and Maureen O’Shea (now Byrne). I’m still in touch with both. Fellow faculty in the Geography Department, especially Jeremy Smith and Jim Walmsley, made sure that I was welcome in theirs and other homes. I visited Sydney a couple of times, where Rob’s parents, Noel and Jess, were Aussie parents. The university had a fleet of cars and small pickup trucks for faculty use, and I ranged across NSW and southern Queensland. Awesome.

In August, Linda arrived, and I was way, way happy to see her. We toured around, up to the Great Barrier Reef, back through Armidale so she could meet my mates, to Sydney, Canberra, and Melbourne. It was there, in the Windsor Hotel after a freezing cold afternoon of Australian Rules Football, that I told her that I didn’t want to be in academia anymore. We discussed the alternatives, and reckoned that going back to school made sense, to one of several business training programs that a few schools had begun to address the glut of Ph.D.s and dearth of teaching jobs. We continued traveling for a couple of weeks, through New Zealand and the Rarotonga in the Cook Islands. Returning to L.A. on a smoggy Friday afternoon was quite an adjustment.

I returned to the Science Museum, and back into life in Minnesota. It was time to start a family, and by Christmas 1981 Linda was pregnant with Robin. We did the usual prep, but as any parent knows, you really can’t prepare for all the change. Our dear Robin arrived September 7, 1982. The most visible scene from that fall was returning home from the museum to see Robin sitting in her foldable stroller (rickety by today’s over-engineered standards) on the front sidewalk, squalling; next to her, a frazzled mom. Time for a walk, a long walk. From the start, we were determined to get out, and were enormously fortunate to have a family of babysitters nearby, daughters of one of Linda’s lawyer friends.

With Robin on a hiking trail above Lake Superior, October 1982

That autumn, I applied to postdoc programs in the business schools at New York University, the University of Virginia, and Wharton – at Mr. Franklin’s University of Pennsylvania. All three programs addressed the imbalance between a glut of newly-minted Ph.D.s and a dearth of teaching opportunities, by retooling eggheads for careers in business. I got into the first two, and was waitlisted at the latter, my first choice.

In early April 1983, I was in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, doing research for a freelance story when I got the news in a room at the Holiday Inn: Wharton had admitted me. In my life, I recall floating up to the ceiling like a helium balloon four times, and that was the first (#2 and #3 were in the delivery room when Robin and Jack arrived, and #4 was Easter Sunday 2004 in Westminster Abbey). I somehow knew that a summer at Penn would change my life, and it has. I still see Patricia Rose, the woman who gave the thumbs-up, and each time I thank her.

In May 1983 I said goodbye to Linda and Robin, flew to Philadelphia, and moved into an apartment dorm on the Penn campus. Its Alternative Careers Program was one of the coolest academic experiences ever, forty students from across the spectrum of knowledge, from the humanities through the social sciences to the hard sciences. It was rigorous, with expected class participation, tons of homework, even calculus as precursor to economics. I brought my Trek bike along, and most mornings rose early for a fast bike ride, home along the east bank of the Schuylkill River, before class. Some great friendships were forged that summer, the best with fellow Minnesotan Jack Sheppard, a brilliant geneticist.

Back home in August, I began looking for a management job, but before I got far, the process reversed and someone found me. It was, unhappily, a wrong turn, back into the retail travel agency business, a stifling experience, working for four wealthy women who had just bought a longtime travel company in downtown Minneapolis. At the end of the first week, riding the bus home to St. Paul, I knew I had erred. My inherent optimism tried to gain a foothold, but it was clear the job would not work for long, so I started casting about. In December, Linda became pregnant with Jack. Time to get serious. I began to think more clearly about the kind of industry I wanted to join. I devised two tests: the new business had to be geographical, and it had to be complex.

In spring 1984, Stephen Wolf became CEO of Republic Airlines, an amalgamation of Minnesota-based North Central and four other smaller companies (local-service airlines during the regulated era, which ended six years earlier). I clipped an article about Mr. Wolf from the Minneapolis Tribune, and wrote him a letter. His assistant called me a couple of weeks later; she had shown my letter to Mr. Wolf, and he asked that she meet with me. Walking out of their building a week later, I knew I could talk my way into the airline business. And I did, passing the final hurdle of a short talk with Mr. Wolf (dismayed by the low caliber of management talent, he insisted on the final word for every new hire). Skeptical friends and kin swirled. Linda was about to deliver our second child, and I was signing onto a 25% pay cut and a job with a company its auditors declared might not be able to remain in business. But 18 years after first taking wing, I had made my way into the airline business, and I was pumped. The job met both those tests – geographical and difficult.

I had made it nearly to age 33 without owning my own car, but there was no bus from our house to the airport, so into the driveway rolled a tiny red Dodge Colt. And, a week later, into the house came John Andrew Britton, after a hard labor.

John Andrew Britton, born September 17, 1984

Plenty of change in short order. Jack quickly established that he was in charge, and needed sustenance and a dry diaper several times most nights. Eager to establish my cred at Republic clashed with little sleep, but I soon discovered the wonders of coffee, and all was again well.

Republic Airlines Colleague Bruce Carlson and I in action, helping turn around a good little airline

The first year at Republic sped past. I was initially hired to manage training for their field sales force, greatly reduced through restructuring. Some new folks were hired, and a number of longtime reps needed upgraded skills consistent with an increasingly competitive industry. It was a perfect fit, leveraging teaching skills and an understanding of travel agencies. Soon I took on some new duties, and less than a year later, boss and friend Jim Giancola named me one of three regional sales directors, responsible for the Minneapolis/St. Paul hub, Chicago, Wisconsin, and the rest of the old North Central heartland. The four of us began to use the nearly-free air travel benefit that draws so many people into the airline business. It was mostly smooth, but we did run out of diapers one Sunday afternoon at O’Hare! The new job required a lot of travel, and I was away from Linda and the two toddlers more than I would have liked.

Robin and Jack, 1985

On January 23, 1986, came the surprise and, to most of us, the bad news that Northwest bought our plucky little airline. Maybe it should not have been a surprise, because we had gone nose to nose with them on many markets, and we kicked ass, gaining market share everywhere we competed. Seven months of limbo began, as we awaited government approval of the deal and decisions on whether we would have jobs in the combined airline. The news at the end of August was mixed. My boss Jim would leave, and I was to be posted to Detroit as sales director for that hub, Michigan, and the whole of the Northeast. A good job, for sure, but requiring a move.

The day after Labor Day, I dutifully winged east to begin combining Northwest and Republic sales teams and trying to bring some order. Disorder amplified after October 1, the day operations were combined. To call it chaotic would not get close. Linda and I flew to Detroit one weekend to look at houses, favoring Ann Arbor. And a longtime friend and prominent alumnus of the Michigan law school set about finding Linda some legal work. He actually succeeded about the same time in November when a good job opened up back in NWA’s headquarters, as Director of Marketing Systems Development. Things were looking better. We had bought a really nice building lot in suburban Minnetonka, had plans drawn, and were getting construction bids.

Then one night in late May, running some household-budget numbers on our new green-screen PC, I concluded that I really didn’t want to work for Northwest. The operation was still ragged, but the real problems were that ex-Republic people were being treated poorly and the NWA corporate culture was backward. Airline consolidations are always problematic, and not just for union workers who fret about seniority. Every day at Northwest I felt condescension – they were the airline that flew 747s to Tokyo, and we were the folks with the Convair 580 prop-jets to Bismarck and Minot. Less than 36 hours after finishing the spreadsheets, Linda and I were in Dallas, Texas, looking around. One of my Republic mentors, Arnold Grossman, had joined American Airlines the day Northwest bought us out, and he had encouraged me to send a resume – AA was growing by leaps and bounds, and there were jobs for sure. We liked what we saw in suburban Dallas, guided by a Canadian geographer-friend who was living there temporarily. I submitted an app.

With my airline mentor since 1984, Arnold J. Grossman

In September 1987, an AA offer arrived, a good one. NWA countered, and after a couple of days of debate with Linda we decided to accept. I packed stuff into my silver Ford and motored down I-35, joining American on October 5. I rented a small apartment and commuted that fall, which was a grim experience (some airline people do it for years, which baffles me). Linda flew down for house-hunting in mid-October; we found one in less than a day, tendered an offer, and after a bit of wrangling got a contract on a repo at 1704 Cheyenne Drive in Richardson, which would be our house for the next 20 years.

The moving van arrived on Cheyenne Drive the first week of January 1988. We were Texans! The settling-in process was smooth, thanks in part to friendly and welcoming folks in our neighborhood. Things were good at home, but my first post at AA was actually with a new subsidiary, AMR Information Services, and the assignment was not core airline work. Less than a year after joining, I took a job on the AA Passenger Sales team, managing a chunk of our relationship with travel agencies.

In spring 1989, a chance conversation with a young colleague and graduate of the Cornell Hotel School led to an invitation from Prof. Malcolm Noden to give a lecture or two in his airline-management course. I was excited – apart from a couple of short presentations when I was at Republic, it would be my first time teaching not about geography but my new business. Preparing for and delivering the talk, I felt a confidence, from mastery of the material, that I never felt when I taught earlier. That first visit led to a long relationship with Cornell, and an enduring friendship with Mac Noden and his wife Barbara.

That April, I copped a promotion to lead our sales efforts in our largest market, Dallas/Fort Worth. The actual assignment was to do some targeted housecleaning, building cases on two incredibly abusive managers, both women. After eight months, the cases were done, the “ladies” reassigned. I had quickly gained the confidence of a senior marketing guy, Mike Buckman, and my reward was a job as advertising manager. When people asked what I had accomplished in less than a year in the DFW sales office, I replied that people no longer cried when they came into my office.

I moved back to our head office in January 1990. The previous director of advertising had been sacked for all sorts of malfeasance, but his replacement would not arrive until March, so I led the team for a couple of months. Mike confided that I could have done the bigger job forever, but there were personal connections and I would need to bide my time. Still, it was a way-cool assignment, into the fun of advertising for the first time. It was, after all, those Braniff airline ads years earlier that propelled an interest in the business, so actually getting to work on promotion was just way cool.

Jack and Robin on hand for test flights of American’s first MD-11, 1991

At home, the kids were busy with school, with sports (Robin was developing real talent as a figure skater), and other stuff. Linda was working for the Collin County D.A. The Silver Bird took us on some great family trips, and lots of returns to family and friends in Minnesota. Although the AA jobs were demanding, my strategy was to work 11-12 hour days during the week, and no work on weekends, which was family time.

In 1991, I was invited to serve as judge in the World Championship Barbeque Goat Cook-off, on the Labor Day weekend in Brady, Texas, a small town in the middle of the state. I jumped at the opportunity for a bunch of reasons, not least to reconnect with the small-town life my dad showed me, back in the 1960s when I would go on the road with him in summer. As expected, the welcome was warm and genuine, and I haven’t missed a year since then. Nor have I missed annual visits to the Minnesota State Fair (always a week before Brady), another way to reconnect with rural and small-town ways. There is comfort in cyclicality, and those two events fill me with goodness.

The ad-manager post was a terrific gig. There were some wonderful perks, like invitations to the 1992 Winter Olympics in France (Robin came along, and saw one of her heroes win the gold medal in ladies’ figure skating), and summer games in Barcelona (I wanted to take Jack, but NBC had a goofy age rule, so Linda came along). But Mike was right, I was capable of more, and after a couple of years I began looking for a new posting.

I had remained close to my Republic Airlines mentor Arnold Grossman, and he often said it would be great if we could work together. That opportunity came early in 1993, when he nominated me to be Managing Director of International Affairs, responsible for regulatory matters, relationships with other airlines, and implementation of airline alliances. I was pumped, but had to jump over some hurdles – at the time, Arnold reported up through Finance, and the two senior guys there, Gerard Arpey (now Chairman and CEO) and Don Carty (since departed) wanted to know why Arnold would choose “a marketing guy.”

I cleared the barriers, and in January 1993 started a four-year run that was by far the most intellectually challenging job of my airline career. I went to Washington a lot, and on some interesting overseas trips, including several great times in Paris with an OECD committee on the future of air transport. At the time, my friend Jack Sheppard (from whom our Jack takes his nickname) called me American’s “deputy foreign minister,” and I was flattered!

The phone rang in my hotel room in London late one night in December 1993. It was Linda. Jack Sheppard, the kind of fellow you assumed would always be around, had died suddenly. Four days later, I was at his wake. The next day, after the funeral, I stood on the steps of St. Luke’s in our old neighborhood in St. Paul and watched the silver-blue hearse bearing Jack’s remains disappear over the horizon on Summit Avenue. From that moment, not one day in the next three years passed without me thinking of Jack, and of my own mortality.

In the mid-1990s, after a mostly happy stint as Presbyterians, we joined King of Glory Lutheran Church, a large congregation with lots of transplanted Midwesterners, including an outstanding pastor from Minnesota. I found it a more agreeable place than Linda or the kids, and got involved in some activities, most notably an outreach that came to be called the Dallas Ramp Project. The project began in 1985 with the Richardson Kiwanis Club, but Lutheran funding and the energetic leadership of John Laine propelled the effort forward. My first ramp gig was in May 1996, and I have been at it ever since. It is by far the best volunteer work I’ve ever done, to make a huge difference in someone’s life in just a few hours, and to have fun doing it.

In the early evening on a Monday at the end of September 1996, my office phone rang, and the Caller ID read “R. L. Crandall,” American’s Chairman and CEO. I had a lot of contact with him in the international job, and he had been cross with me earlier that day, about a delayed project. I grimaced and picked up the phone. “Come to my office,” he said. To my surprise, it was not another beating, but good news, an invitation to lead the AA Corporate Communications team, and report directly to him. Wowie!

It was an interesting assignment, to say the least. I was responsible for our relations with the media, employee communications, and, nominally, American Way, the inflight magazine. There was ample room for improvement, especially on the employee-comms side, and we made some genuine progress. Six months into the job, the pilots went on strike. Thanks in part to a widely-circulated document I had penned two weeks earlier on the likely adverse impacts of a strike on the national economy (it remains one of my best written works), President Clinton ended the strike after less than 20 minutes.

Three days later, I tipped over in our bathroom. My stomach had been hurting a lot, and I didn’t really make a connection with all the aspirin I had been gobbling to fight stress headaches. But a gastroenterologist did: my stomach was bleeding badly. Happily, the Swedes had invented Prilosec, and I was back in the pink in no time. But it was a little scary. When I told Bob Crandall about it, he asked, “Did I give you that?” That year, 1997, was hard on my body; in October, after hitting a patch of wet leaves, I had a slow-mo crash on my bike, and broke my hip. Ugh. But God was smiling on me when I went down, and the joint was not displaced. A month of crutches and I was back in the groove. Onward!

In May 1998, the AMR board forced Bob Crandall into early retirement. I took a couple of trips with him in the final months, and despite his taskmaster2 approach and his enormous temper, I was sorry to lose a great, decisive boss. Five weeks after saying goodbye to Bob and wife Jan, his replacement, Don Carty, re-hired the fellow whose departure from CorpComms opened the job two years earlier – and made him a VP. It was one of the only times in two decades at American that I felt unfairly treated; the consolation: pretty cool post as head of the Food & Beverage team.

The two years as “the food guy” were really great. It was partly a line-operations job, partly a quality-improvement job, and partly a dollars-management job, with an annual budget that was north of $800 million. I had a superb boss, Jane Allen, enormously supportive, no nonsense, and a funster. I was part of the organization called Flight Service, which encompassed managing 20,000 flight attendants, planning and implementing aircraft-interior projects (seats, entertainment, etc.) and the food task. It was my first chance to get really close to the front line, and once each quarter I would put on a navy suit, grab an apron, and fly some trips as a working flight attendant. Those trips were great for building management credibility, and even better for process improvement – to see how “the product” is actually delivered is to find all sorts of opportunities to make things better, for customers and for flight attendants.

At home, Robin and Jack were well into adolescence, and living busy lives. The opportunities for involvement in coaching, helping at school, and with schoolwork were fewer, but I did my best to be useful. Robin began looking at colleges. They were growing up.

Materially, the mid- to late-1990s were a good time. The airline business was profitable, and my AA compensation was really good (conversely, in the losing years, it was tough). We saved for college, and had dollars for some nice family vacations – skiing in Colorado during spring break, and three cruises in Europe in 1996, ’98, and ’01. And there was money to invest in a log house on the North Shore of Lake Superior, a beloved, special place. It was a three-bedroom unit less than 100 feet from the water, rented most of the time, but used a couple of times a year. We had to sell it in 2003, and we made a good return, but that was not the point – it was always about the psychic comfort of “having a place Up North,” in a landscape familiar to me since 1957.

Our log house on Lake Superior, a wonderful, if briefly held, haven

In retrospect, I should have, for the first time in my airline career, politely said “no thank you” when a senior officer called one day in spring 2000 and asked if I would take an ill-defined role managing and improving our role in the oneworld airline alliance (with British Airways, Qantas, Cathay Pacific, and others). But I had been trained not to say no to big folk, so I reluctantly and tearfully left many friends in Flight Service. The new job was really frustrating, a herding-cats kind of position. It led me to look at new companies; I had “grass is greener on the other side” impulses in the late 1980s and through the 1990s, and I started to interview, but ultimately chose to keep slogging at American – which later proved to be a smart choice.

A countervailing bright spot was the opportunity to do more teaching. What started with Cornell had expanded to include Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management, and a small university in Umeå, almost on the Arctic Circle in the north of Sweden. In 2000 and 2001, I added several more schools in Europe and the U.S., grabbing a day here and a day there to get back into the classroom. It was enormously satisfying. I wanted to do more.

My father died in September 2000. In my eulogy to him, and many times that autumn and since, I’ve recalled what was a brief time together. His job put him “on the road” almost every week, and a combination of his illness and the inevitable clashes of adolescence and young adulthood created distance that was not easily bridged in his later years, when we could have gotten to know each other better. But I remember with clarity and value those happy moments when he imparted, in his direct and spare way, values and life lessons that I continue to hold close.

Happily, I was able to trade the alliance job for a more challenging – but temporary – post in January 2001, after American bought TWA. It seemed like a bad idea at the time, and became worse as time went on. My greatest AA hero, the late Bob Baker, was put in charge of the integration project, and I volunteered to help, along with a small leadership team for whom I had enormous respect. I had experience and perspective to offer, from my unhappy months before and during Northwest’s integration of Republic. It was interesting work; the close-knit team labored to avoid pitfalls of previous consolidations.

A few weeks before September 11, with my part of the TWA integration task well in hand, I had a plate of enchiladas with Gerard Arpey, at the time EVP of Operations, and asked his advice on finding a permanent post.

With former TWA flight attendants Wanda Moore, who flew 1947-49 and Billie Elliott, who worked 1951-52

The business was already back in the red (the media always say it was 9/11, but we were in trouble by the first quarter of ’01), and I needed a permanent posting. On his advice, I met with a couple of other senior folks. After the national and company disaster that awful Tuesday morning, lots of change happened very quickly. In that flux, I was asked to lead the advertising and marketing planning team. With the business in tatters and the brand possibly damaged, it was a superb challenge, and I jumped at the opportunity.

The fall of 2001 was a remarkable time in many positive ways, not least to witness the resilience and “can-do” attitude of colleagues and suppliers. Our longtime ad agency, Temerlin McClain, was superb, and though still losing enormous amounts of cash, we began to move forward. Away from work, we Brittons were coping with the departure of Robin, who began at the University of Southern California in August. I will never forget her phone call the evening of September 11, offering to quit and come home. I told her I would scrub floors at night before that would happen.

At the end of November, Linda organized a huge 50th birthday party at the house, complete with a schmaltzy accordionist, brats ‘n’ kraut, and a lot of beer. Neighbors, church friends, and AA people crowded the house and front yard on a warm night. It was a total blast.


Jack and Robin in London, 2004. We have hundreds of pictures like this, the family out in the world — surely one of the greatest blessings of working in the airline business

Although still turbulent, some aspects of the business were less bouncy through 2002 and ’03, and we were able to make good progress with the advertising function, for example, investing much more in online and interactive media. The advertising team members were a complete delight, and we had a lot of fun. I was building my “teaching network” to about 20 schools, and began to think carefully about a way to do even more teaching.

Slowly, a plan took form, to retire at 55, but not retirement in the conventional sense – I would continue at American as a consultant, perhaps take on some other clients, and spend more time in the classroom. Linda thought the idea was goofy, but I gradually brought her around, especially after she came with me on a teaching trip to the Stockholm School of Economics and to Umeå (Sweden) in September 2004. “They really like you,” she said one night in Stockholm. I sensed opportunity!

Stand and deliver. In front of students, perhaps my favorite place to be

Walking out of the building just before Christmas 2003, I ran into Gerard Arpey, now CEO. I had not seen him in a long time, and I asked him how it felt to be the chief. He lamented that although there were lots of consultants and experts schooling around, there seemed to be no one who could help him with his writing. I volunteered. “But you’ve got a job,” he said. I replied that I could do my “day job” and whatever he needed, and his face brightened. And I’ve been helping him with various communications tasks ever since. It has become a wonderful relationship, in large part because he is such a fine person.

Whoosh. You blink, it seems, and your kids have grown up. With Robin at her graduation from the University of Southerm California, 2005

The retire-at-55 idea began to take shape, helped with the prospect of a consulting contract with American, and at the end of 2006 my role changed. I became a retiree.

The first year of “independence,” 2007, was challenging. After more than two decades of intense days and 55 hour weeks, the pile of unallocated time was daunting. I was more isolated than I expected. But the freedom was heady, and the opportunity to spend more time in the classroom was truly wonderful. I visited 37 schools in 17 countries that year, and 32 schools in 2008

Whoosh again. Jack completed his M.S. from Southern Methodist University in 2008

We moved that year, for the first time in 20 years, to a smaller house, a very agreeable new bungalow with a front porch and Craftsman interior touches that reminded us of our first (1912) bungalow on Goodrich Avenue in St. Paul.

Our former bungalow in Allen, Texas

A move, especially after a long interval, is an opportunity to take stock, and while loading and unloading boxes and other tasks, I thought about the move to Texas two decades earlier. It was then, has been through ‘80s, ‘90s, and ‘00s, and remained one of the best things we’ve done. Friendliness, civility, expansiveness – there are many descriptors to the people and place. Texas, an expansive state with a strong identity, was a great place to live and work, and to raise a family.

We became grandparents in 2008. Robin and her former husband Brett Reck are wonderful parents to Dylan Caroline, a smiling, active tot. The arrival of a new generation, of new life, is a wonderful thing, and we have enjoyed our new roles.  Her sister Carson was born two years later.

Granddaughter Dylan Caroline Reck, 2009

At the end of 2009, big change visited again. With the airline business in the dumps, American did not renew my contract, which was the anchor of my consulting revenue.  Since then, I have scrambled quite a bit, but have been fortunate to find a range of companies that value my expertise.

A huge change happened in late 2012: Linda and I relocated to suburban Washington, D.C., to be closer to Robin, recently divorced.  “Closer” meant under the same roof — we three adults originally bought a wonderful house in a lovely wooded neighborhood about 12 miles west of the capital.  After several years, we began to feel more settled (though to me it will never be home), and the relocation has been good in many respects.  Helping Robin and being closely involved in the growth of our granddaughters, already now 7 and 5, for sure.  But more: Linda found what she describes as her “dream job,” a policy position with the American Bar Association, helping to improve criminal justice.  Georgetown University appointed me as an adjunct professor, to teach specialized marketing electives to MBA students.  And after a lot of trying, I finally landed some good consulting work in D.C.  Rising incomes among the three breadwinners enabled us to move into a brand new, much larger house in the spring of 2016.  It’s an awesome place, lots of room, well designed, and walking distance to Dylan’s and Carson’s school.

Carson on my shoulders, Charleston, South Carolina, July 2012

Carson on my shoulders, Charleston, South Carolina, July 2012

I hope that I still have quite a bit of life remaining. But the memory of Jack Sheppard has remained with me for more than 20  years. The reality that we do not know how much time God gives us was what prompted my early retirement, and it remains a constant thought – a motivation to take great joy in all that I have experienced thus far, and to remember to live each day to the max.

After an unhappy and constrained childhood and adolescence, I have been extraordinarily blessed with a varied, abundant, connected, and mobile life. Each day I give thanks to God for that life – for the good fortune of health and freedom, for wonderful children and a loving wife, for meaningful work, and much more. Life has all turned out far, far better than I ever thought it would be during dark and unhappy times as a child and teenager.

Finally, I summarize what I’ve learned in five-plus decades to be most useful “truths.” As time goes on, I will add to this list, but here’s a start:

  • Optimism is way better than any alternative. I learned that from my dad.
  • Finding a partner with aligned values will create a foundation for an enduring relationship; I am so blessed to have found Linda, who gave us Robin and Jack, and now Dylan and Carson
  • Engaging people, especially people you don’t know, is always rewarding; talking to strangers is a great thing. A variant here is the joy of staying connected, or reconnecting, with good people from your past.
  • Education is hugely valuable. It is the one thing that you cannot have too much of.
  • It’s better to be a participant; even if you’re last in the race or always on the bench, is better than being a spectator.
  • Everything inside of us – body, mind, and soul – is connected; we are whole and hurt in one of those parts brings hurt to all.
  • Will and determination – things I also learned from my dad – are essential.

The new house in McLean, Virginia

3 responses to “A (Sort-of) Short Memoir

  1. Carol Hess

    Rob, this was one of the most inspiring (although not short) memoirs I have ever read. Thanks for sharing your story. I wish you and Linda all the best.
    ~ Carol

    P.S. I can’t believe the mutton chops!

  2. Matteo

    Hey Rob, this is all really really nice. ciao, matteo

  3. Brenda Barnes

    Fascinating, inspiring, touching — from a fellow former AA colleague and Minnesotan, thanks for sharing, Rob! Best wishes to you and your family in your new home.

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