Thursday, May 19, 2011
May 19, 2011 [Uber-Tribute Post]: An Exemplary American
My paternal grandfather, Arthur R. Railton (1915-2011), is an exemplary 20th- and early 21st-century American on at least three distinct and impressive levels. In his principal career, as a marketing and public relations executive at Volkswagen, and more exactly as one of the main voices behind the rise of the Beetle in and after the 1960s (his early admiration for the car while an editor at Popular Mechanics is what led to the job offer from Volkswagen in the first place), Art significantly impacted and helped alter the development of the automobile industry, in America and around the world. Moreover, it’s fair to say that the popularity of the Beetle played a not-insignificant role in other cultural trends and movements of the 1960s, most especially the hippie and anti-war movements, and so in its own focused way Art’s professional career contributed to the whole arc of the second half of the 20th century in American culture and life.
Art and his wife, Margery Marks Railton (1918-2000), retired to Martha’s Vineyard in the mid-1970s, and it’s there that the second, and for me even more impressive, level of Art’s exemplary American story played out. Never the kind of person who could retire to a life of golf or the like, Art joined, and soon became one of the most significant presences at and leaders of, the Vineyard’s Dukes County Historical Association and Martha’s Vineyard Museum; for many years he also served as the editor of and a researcher and writer for the Museum’s quarterly journal, the Dukes County Intelligencer. Art’s reinvention as a local, regional, and national historian is one of the most impressive scholarly acts I can possibly imagine, not only because of the incredible quantity, consistency, and quality of the work he produced, but also because he did it entirely out of passion and love, for its own sake and the sake of what it and he could contribute to the Island’s awareness and understanding of its history and identity. And to top all of that off, Art began work, in his 80s (!), on the first (at least since 1900) and definitive history of the Island, the book that became his The History of Martha’s Vineyard: How We Got to Where We Are (2006). It’s a great book, fun and well-written and richly researched and thorough and broadly accessible, and it garnered Art a great deal of well-deserved and very positive recognition and praise.
The third level of Art’s exemplary American story is the least public, the least broadly meaningful, contributed the least to any national narratives or histories or conversations; but it’s also by far the most inspiring to me, in every aspect of my own identity and life. Art’s life story reads like a Greatest Generation stereotype: worked from a very young age to support his family in New Hampshire during the Great Depression; shipped off to Europe to serve as an officer in World War II (where among other amazing things during his four years of service he was one of the first American soldiers to come upon a recently abandoned concentration camp, a story he only told late in his life) immediately after marrying his college sweetheart Marge; came home to raise a family and become a hugely successful part of a major corporation; etc. Yet in one crucial way Art challenges the ways in which our national narratives so often depict such older Americans as conservative, resistant to late 20th century changes, targets for the Birthers and their ilk: he was by far the most tolerant and open-minded and liberal in the most genuine and ideal sense of any person I’ve ever met. If anybody ever tries to argue that issues like gay marriage or mixed-race identities or full racial equality or anything else just take time, require generational shifts, Art provides the most compelling piece of evidence I’ve ever encountered for the contrasting reality: ideal American values can and do exist in every generation.
Art, my Granddad, passed away earlier today. But his life and story—like those of his wife, who on the third level was at least as inspiring and impressive an individual and American for damn sure—will live on, as a model of the best of what American industry, scholarship, and identity can be. More tomorrow,
PS. Two links to start with:
1) Art’s History: http://www.mvmuseum.org/shop-bookMV.php
2) One of my favorite pictures, both of Art and period: http://www.facebook.com/#!/profile.php?id=63603442