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Any writer has heard the riff. “Oh, wait until you meet so-and-so,” exclaims a new acquaintance at a barbecue or bowling alley. “You could write a book about him!” The truth is, we all may have books inside us, but inside us is where they tend to belong.
Of course, that doesn’t stop some people from hiring scribes to convert their observations into bound volumes, predominantly of the vanity sort. The writer punches the clock, produces a stock narrative, cashes the checks, and walks on.
That was what Pat McNees expected in 1989, when the American Society of Journalists & Authors (ASJA) called. A longtime ASJA member, McNees participates in the trade group’s Dial-a-Writer service, through which those with projects can contact wordsmiths.
The prospective client was the family of Warren Webster. Webster, then in his late 80s, had been chief executive officer of Joyce-Cridland, a solid but little-known firm. The Dayton, Ohio, company makes jacks—not the teeny flat-tire-changing sort, but the medium-size vehicle-hoisting machines used in service garages, and the enormous industrial lifts that can move railroad cars and Las Vegas stages.
Webster was feeling peaked. A few years before, he’d lost both legs to diabetes. He’d learned to walk on artificial limbs, but then Mary, his wife of 70 years, died, and his spirits flagged. His children and grandchildren had long pestered him to commit to paper the story of how he had steered Joyce-Cridland through the ebbs and flows of a changing economy and volatile business environment, and how he and Mary had raised their family in a very different America. They decided to hire a writer to turn his tale into a privately published history that would be circulated among Webster’s friends and relatives, and not coincidentally perk up Warren Webster’s senescence.
McNees had deflected many inquiries from the matchmaking service, but this time she followed up, and she found someone she liked. Webster reminded her of her own father, an ironworker and staunch union man, but nonetheless of a piece with the former manager.
“At the time, my own father was dying,” she explains. “He had always been an opponent of management, but he and Mr. Webster had many things in common. Their main virtue was honesty, and both of them had a mistrust of “them,’ whatever “them’ was—government, unions, organizations that ran things. They both felt these folks didn’t have the best interests of the country at heart.”
McNees wanted to write about someone who was not accustomed to being written about. “People do too many celebrity profiles,” she says. “This man’s life couldn’t have been more typical—extremely lacking in charisma, the absolute salt of the earth, a decent gentleman who was very doubtful of this whole enterprise. He had led a modest life, and he was a little puzzled at why we were doing this. But he was also very curious about the world, and he was one to ask questions.”
The assignment at first seemed simple to McNees, a former book editor turned prolific free-lancer. She was accustomed to selling feature articles to regional and national publications and cranking out executive summaries for the World Bank. For this job, she would be Scheherazade in reverse, helping to keep her subject alive by maintaining an interest in his story.
A funny thing happened on the way to the vanity press. As they chatted, McNees discovered that Warren Webster did have a book inside him that was worth writing, one to be appreciated not only by his kin but by anyone interested in the business of life, the life of a business, and life in these United States. “Mr. Webster had come up at a time when certain kinds of Everyman could rise to the next level and stop working in the factory,” McNees says. “It was possible to go from the shop floor to being an engineer, and he did.”
A high-school dropout who came into his own as his nation was doing likewise, Webster rose from the toolroom to the boardroom through a combination of persistence, flexibility, and an intuitive grasp of manufacturing and marketing. He joined Joyce-Cridland when it produced sewing machines, stuck with the company through its days as a bicycle manufacturer, and helped steer the firm into the modern era as a maker of lifts and jacks.
But Webster was no corporate cipher; he had a life, a family, and all the travails adhering thereto. His wife was mentally ill—in the current parlance, she was bipolar, but in the old days, her condition was known as manic depression. In between hospital stays and shock treatments, Mary did the best she could to raise their three children and keep a home. Webster was as open about his wife’s illness as about his business. McNees saw an opportunity to work on a broader plane.
“It seemed to me that this was bigger than a family story. I told Mr. Webster, “You know, we could write your story so that somebody 100 years from now could read and know what life was like when you were a young man,’ ” McNees says. “It wasn’t hard to make my case. Joyce-Cridland is the sort of company where they hire somebody who is good and let them do what they think is right.”
Webster and his inheritors accepted the writer’s premise. Historian Robert Kanigel, who eventually would write the introduction to McNees’ book, provided guidance. Webster’s son-in-law, James Dicke II, an avid reader of American history, peppered McNees with suggested sources. “They gave me so much freedom it scared me into doing a much better book than I set out to do,” she says. “It was an intellectual adventure.”
It was also a chore. Besides talking with the patriarch and burrowing through volume upon volume of business and social history, McNees had to find a publisher. Unsurprisingly, houses in New York rejected the idea as too specialized, but D.C.-based Farragut Publishing offered to buy the book (sponsorship helped: Because McNees was being paid by the family, she did not require a huge advance). With time out to care for her father—he died in 1990—McNees pressed on, propelled not only by the desire to see her words in galleys but by a resonance with the man she was profiling.
“He was not a father figure,” she says. “If anything, there was a tiny bit of flirtation; he would always want a haircut and to be spruced up before I came. We developed an incredible level of trust. Once I asked if I could snoop around his house. He said, “Fine, that’s OK.’ ”
Rummaging around her patron’s basement, the writer uncovered boxes of company documents presumed lost years ago. “The papers were waterlogged and mildewed, but I came running upstairs and told him. His eyes twinkled and he got all excited,” McNees says. “As I went through the materials, I would ask him about them, and he would put them in context.”
Warren Webster lay patiently through interviews on his business as well as his life. He never rebuffed a question, never censored an answer—well, he may not have been wholly forthcoming about his after-hours activities at trade shows—even directed McNees to critics of his decisions. Now he was tired, and McNees realized his life might reach its end before it reached print. So she began to hurry her output, and to read the manuscript to him, chapter by chapter. This tactic not only engaged Webster, but improved the text. “It’s a very good way to edit,” she explains. “All of a sudden I heard the prose as something someone would listen to, and I streamlined it. It also makes you aware of things that are really boring; you’re embarrassed to be reading them.”
The approach had a drawback. As McNees finished reading the second chapter, which included the line, “Life with dirty fingernails was not for him,” the old man stopped her. “He hadn’t used those exact those words, but he loved the process through which I developed the thought,” McNees says. However, Webster also said she had summed up his life and might as well quit right now. McNees persuaded him otherwise, chivying him through 15 more chapters.
Warren Webster died Jan. 24, 1994, at age 92, leaving a large and loving family and a mournful Boswell. “I felt sad,” McNees says. “He had become a part of my consciousness; I would try to speak in his voice and tell the story from his point of view, and he was there in my brain.”
With time off for filial piety, McNees spent four years on the book. Though she and the Webster clan were parties to an exchange whose standard model is notable mainly for conflict, McNees has nothing but happy thoughts of her Midwestern Medicis. “We never had a contract,” she says. “I would send them a bill once in a while. They wouldn’t blink.” Now she’s at work on a history of another manufacturer—a forklift company run by Webster’s son-in-law.
And that book that was inside Warren Webster—what about it? An American Biography: An Industrialist Remembers the 20th Century is a soulful account of one company’s life, one man’s family, and the myriad tiles that make up their mosaic. Besides illuminating a technological arena about which hardly anyone ever thinks, McNees has produced a lean, swift narrative of life in the American Century, warts and all: the roar of the ’20s, the sag of the ’30s, the flowering of the arsenal of democracy, and the slow segue from post-WWII ebullience to the retracted realities of the 1990s. It is that rarest of literary commodities: a one-sitting read about business.
In addition to providing the writer with a raison d’être and a paycheck, An American Biography got McNees thinking about her own life. “A project like this is like being confronted with death,” she says. “I asked this man, who had lived more than 90 years, what had been the best decade of his life. He said it was when he was in his 20s, when life was simple and all those horrible things hadn’t happened and he and his wife and partners were struggling. They did not have the things they wanted, but they were working to get them. It gives you a perspective on your own life: Which things did you treasure, which did you fritter away, of which were you most proud?”
And McNees, who interviewed her dying father much as she did Warren Webster, recommends that activity to anyone with older acquaintances or relatives. “At a certain point, people have a drive to sum up their lives,” she says. “If you can tap into that with someone it can be wonderful for them and a source of real practical wisdom for you, plus insight into your own family if you’re related to the person talking.”
An American Biography is available at area bookstores or through Farragut Publishing at (800) 298-4706.