Alphabetical Seat Assignments, Sixty Years of Friendship with Bob Dilenschneider
April 14, 2016
By Michael A. Calvert
It was well past midnight when I slipped into bed at New York’s Algonquin Hotel. I flipped the pages of Bob Dilenschneider’s fourteenth book on how to succeed in business. As I often do, I skimmed the index for Birmingham and was shocked to see my name. On page 130 of Power and Influence, I was named as part of Bob’s extensive “active” network, a city planner in Birmingham, Alabama, he had kept in touch with for 45 years.
Earlier that evening, Bob had sent his driver to bring us from Manhattan past Yankee Stadium in the Bronx through the suburbs to his home on Long Island Sound. A uniformed maid answered the door and took orders for drinks in the foyer. Bob and his wife Jan led us through a huge living room with a long bar and picture windows framing the gray water out to a gazebo near the sea wall. We shared news on our high school classmates, our travels, and Jan’s opening at an art gallery in Paris.
As twilight became night, Bob showed us a new wing that housed Jan’s studio and her latest paintings. Dinner was served by staff. More conversation ensued about mutual friends from home, our travels, and current events. Bob quoted Henry Kissinger, a guest at one of their cocktail parties, on the dismal prospects for negotiations on the Middle East. He lamented that George Steinbrenner had to quit coming for health reasons, “mental health, that is,” said Bob in an aside to me.
As we prepared to return to Manhattan, Bob handed me his most recent book and insisted that we visit Little Italy where the San Gennaro Festival was underway. He instructed the driver of our town car to take us there. Earlier that day the statue of St. Januarius, the patron saint of Naples, led a procession on Mulberry Street to the Church of the Most Precious Blood. We sampled the cannoli and fried Oreos (an Italian name?) at one of the stands lining the street before hailing a taxi to the Algonquin.
The alphabet brought Bob and me together. Calvert was assigned a desk in front of Dilenschneider on our first day at St. Charles Preparatory in Columbus, Ohio. Bob’s deep voice was a low rumble as he gave me a running commentary about the priests’ lectures and classmates misbehaving or dozing off. At the end of class, he usually asked me to repeat the homework assignment for him. We often sat together at daily Mass, in the cafeteria, and in the gym during intramural basketball games. I met students from his neighborhood in Upper Arlington. Later he gradually filled in sketches about each of them. Some had older brothers who flunked out of St. Charles; others had girlfriends at St. Mary’s of the Springs, a nearby girls’ school. One classmate had been sent off to Virginia Military Institute for a while after he was expelled from St. Agatha Elementary. I soon had brief bios on most of my freshmen classmates.
Coach Ryan, who taught freshman history, had nicknames for everyone. He tried to tag Bob as “swistle-doogle” instead of Dilenschneider but deferred to students who adopted the nickname Dilly. Bob didn’t like it—so the name stuck. At graduation, someone shouted out ”Go, Dilly” as Bob crossed the stage, and Bob scowled as he accepted his diploma.
We extended our discussions on the phone in the evenings, beginning with the assigned Latin translation and moving on to the school’s chances in an upcoming game, who was dropping out of our school, and whatever was in the news. Bob’s dad, was the business manager of The Citizen, the Scripps-Howard newspaper. I found his name, S. J. Dilenschneider, on the masthead. Bob and his brothers and sisters were expected to discuss stories in the evening paper at the dinner table. I became a newspaper reader when I delivered the Ohio State Journal in elementary school.
When Bob called me during freshman year, he interrupted me to ask “What the hell is that noise?” I was puzzled for a moment until I realized it was a F-86 Sabre jet fighter roaring overhead. My family lived close to the airport and was aligned with the longest runway. We could see wheels were down when airliners and military planes passed over our house to land.
“Jesus, why do you live there?” Bob asked immediately, and then added, “Gee, I guess you get used to it.”
Later I visited Bob’s home in Upper Arlington, a substantial stone house furnished with oriental rugs, framed paintings, and antiques that I had only seen in movies. I lived across town in Amvet Village, a post-war subdivision of several hundred nearly identical, closely spaced houses for returning servicemen.
Until Bob got his license, we were together only at school. Then I watched through our picture window for his dad’s magnificent, white Buick with flaring tail fins. My four younger brothers and sisters made tents, played war, and created Bedlam. When the Buick floated to a stop in front, I ran to the car.
We went to high school football and basketball games, dance parties, and the T.A.T. Restaurant on East Main Street where we saw lots of St. Charles and Aquinas letter jackets. Bobby Smith shocked me by eating a cheeseburger on a Friday night when that was prohibited by Catholic doctrine. He held a glass of water over his plate and proclaimed, “Anything under water is seafood,” he said with a grin spread across his face.
Sometimes I stayed over at Bob’s. His mom fixed French toast and muffins, and I recall his dad asking how I liked the recently introduced color pictures in the Citizen. I was impressed by the quiet, restful atmosphere. A reciprocal invitation was not an option—given our three-bedroom house for a family of seven.
After graduation, Bob and seven others in our small class spent June and July preparing for orientation and freshman year at Notre Dame. Some others went to private colleges, and about half went to Ohio State in Columbus. At $100 per quarter, OSU’s tuition was a bargain hard to ignore. And the Buckeyes were rated nationally in football and basketball that year.
I didn’t consider anything but living at home and going to Ohio State. Mom needed help with the bills, and Dad borrowed my ’51 Pontiac and blew up the engine in Kentucky on some sales job. I needed a car so I delayed starting school until Winter Quarter, worked at Kroger’s, bought a ’49 Nash for $100, saved another $125 for tuition and books, and played in a flag football league at Linden Park.
When Bob came home at Thanksgiving, we got together at the Varsity Club, the Heidelberg, and other campus bars. He told me about Notre Dame, we exchanged gossip, and ran into classmates and other old friends. I assured him that I was registered at OSU and would not be one of those guys who never quite got back to school.
By summer, I had credits for most of my freshman year and belonged in the campus bars, but we explored the 711 Night Club where Skip Robinson caressed the microphone and made women crazy. Once we walked into the Northern Bar where people I had learned to call “southern white hill folk” in Sociology 401 instead of hillbillies gathered and broadcast down home music to West Virginia and Kentucky.
In subsequent summers and holidays, we frequented Plank’s in German Village. An aged hunchback played old favorites, hands flying above his stooped shoulders with accompaniment by another old guy who played the spoons. My mother grew up nearby, went to the Latin Mass at St. Mary’s where the sermon was in German, and enjoyed singing at Plank’s.
Bob was also interested in neighborhood characters: Po, a guy who insisted he only had one name and was from “downy Ahighya Riva”; Charlie Houllihan who had a fast red Pontiac Bonneville that he raced at the drag strip on Sundays and any night of the week on a certain deserted highway; and Clem Watzek, an alcoholic who twice climbed a power pole to bootleg electricity for his cleaners when his power was cut off. We cruised the Beverly Drive-In in my neighborhood where guys came to show off their customized cars with flashing chrome spinners on the wheels, growling twin pipes, and a continental kit on the rear bumper. Bob also loved to hear the latest about my friend’s dad, Big Joe, who booked horses and sports.
In my junior year of college, Bob invited me and a friend to come to South Bend for a football game. I was always a fan of the Fighting Irish as well as my Buckeyes. Although a winter storm the weatherman called a “polar express” was coming out of the plains, we left early on Friday and pulled onto the campus when only a few inches had fallen. Bob introduced us around his dorm and led us to a pep rally in the gym. Several thousand fans, mostly male, shook the building with cheers, sang the fight song, and chanted, “Go Irish, Go Irish…”
Bob showed me to a top bunk of a student that was away for the weekend. In the morning I climbed down and noted no one was in the bottom bunk. As I opened my suitcase, I glanced at the closet and saw a bare leg protruding from a pile of dirty laundry. It was still, gray, and looked like a mannequin limb, but I feared it was part of a corpse. I pulled on my pants and slipped on my loafers. I carefully poked the leg with my shoe. No response. I brought Bob to the room and he roused Tommy McGuire with a good kick. He grumbled, rolled over, and went back to sleep.
The Fighting Irish won the game, and we had great fun cheering them on. We walked on packed snow to a party at a conveniently nearby girls’ college, for a victory party. With five times as many guys at Notre Dame as girls at St. Mary’s, most guys despaired of a date much less a girlfriend, but Bob beat the odds. We met her and her friends. That night Tommy McGuire was not in his bunk, nor was he on the closet floor the next morning. The Notre Dame Fight Song always takes me back to that weekend in South Bend.
One summer Bob was an intern at a public relations firm in Columbus and not expected in the office until 9 am. I was a janitor at a downtown department store and we cleaned the store between 5 and 10 am. We returned to Club 711 and other familiar night spots and added the Peppermint Lounge. There were mornings when I sleepwalked behind my Hoover as I went from floor to floor.
Bob was slightly better rested when he arrived at his office. The partners often called stenographers into their offices to take dictation, and he arranged for a stenographer to take a letter the next morning. The night before he worried aloud that he would stammer and look foolish to the stenographer. Of course, she and the other stenos would giggle about it in the ladies’ lounge. I suggested that he write the letter and memorize it. He had done that, but remained uneasy. When we met for a drink the next evening at the Blue Danube, I asked how the dictation had gone. “It went well,” he replied, “But I cheated. I taped the letter to my side of the desk. When the steno came in, I looked at the ceiling and began. Occasionally I glanced down, paused thoughtfully, and reeled off another paragraph. I was very professional.”
“ Are you going to list her as a reference on your resumé?” I asked with a laugh. He shrugged.
* * * * * *
Twenty years later, as a consultant for the federal government, I had a series of meetings with city officials in Chicago. I hadn’t seen Bob in several years, but we corresponded from time to time and exchanged Christmas cards. I knew he worked for Hill & Knowlton, Public Relations Counselors, in Chicago so I made arrangements with his secretary to come by his office on Wacker Drive late in the afternoon before I went to O’Hare for a late flight home.
I found the building in the core of downtown on the river. The reception area was chic, colorful furniture with modern art on the walls. An attractive woman emerged to lead me to Bob’s office where he was to join me. His large corner office with floor-to-ceiling windows looked across the river to the Tribune Building. Instead of a desk with drawers, there was table with curved legs and gold leaf—I only knew it was a French design when someone named Louis was king. Soon after Bob arrived, we went to the Four Seasons for a drink. An hour later, I glanced at my watch and Bob said “Don’t worry, my driver will get you to the airport on time.” We enjoyed a couple more drinks, and found his driver in a limousine in front of the hotel. Bob introduced me to Joseph, his driver, and I settled back, stretched my legs, and asked Joseph how long he worked for Bob. He replied that he was Mr. Robert’s driver since he was named head of the Chicago office.
A year later, Bob became CEO of Hill & Knowlton, then the largest public relations firm in the world, with an office in New York. Subsequently the company merged with a British firm, and Bob left to form the Dilenschneider Group with his headquarters in the Chrysler Building and offices in several world capitals.
The year I retired after 28 years of leading revitalization of Birmingham’s City Center, my wife and I were in New York for a few days and Bob invited us to the Metropolitan Club for breakfast. He awaited us at a table in a cavernous room with dark wood and mirrors on one side and a views of Central Park through high windows on the other.
Bob lamented my retirement and offered me an opportunity to avoid what he considered to be the inevitable ensuing decline. He offered to publish a book on our classmates, The Men of St. Charles, if I would write it. He sent me a contract and an advance of $1,000. Although I was intimidated, I gathered information and drafted an introduction for review by Bob’s editor. In a few months, I told Bob that I wanted to write about my memories, but I wasn’t ready to author a book. A professional writer wrote St. Charles book. I have taken writing classes and enjoyed recording stories for family and friends. A few have been published. I am grateful for Bob’s firm nudge toward writing.
If I publish a book, Bob will be more than a footnote. He’s certainly been part of my “active” network since we come together nearly sixty years ago as a consequence of of the alphabet.