Volume 50, Issue 6 - June 2015


Big Al and Alvin

by Lyle R. Hill

It was supposed to be a short meeting. Maybe 10 minutes at the most. At least that was the plan. But as the years have passed, I have come to fully understand, maybe even appreciate, the fact that plans are not always meant to be followed. Call it what you will—fate, luck, or divine intervention—things don’t always go as planned, and sometimes that’s a good thing.

“Al,” I began, “this is the watch I called you about, and let me say right up front that I appreciate you taking the time to see me today. I can see how incredibly busy you are, and I’ll get out of your hair as soon as I can.”

Al Reed - aka “Big Al”—along with his lovely wife Suzanne—own and operate a fast-paced, highly successful business in Villa Park, Ill., by the name of Boulevard Jeweler and Coins. Their reputation is outstanding, and they are extremely well known throughout the area. On the morning of my scheduled meeting, the place was buzzing with activity.

“Okay, Hill,” “Big Al” replied as he began to inspect the watch, “what’s the deal with this watch?”

I’m not sure when or how Al Reed got tagged with the “Big Al” label, but it fits him well. He’s a good-sized guy with a muscular build, but I think the “Big Al” moniker has much more to do with his personality and bearing than it does with his physique. Once you have been around him, watched him enter a room or work a crowd, he simply becomes “Big Al” because it just fits. I have known him for about 10 years. He’s an usher at the church I attend, and I have also worked with him through a youth basketball program the church operates each winter. He’s a good guy.

“Well Al, an old friend and co-worker of mine from my glass business days by the name of Bobbie Rovner called me to ask if I knew any trustworthy and honest jewelers who could both appraise and perhaps even repair an old watch that had belonged to her mother. You see, the watch had been lost for years, and then through a set of unbelievable circumstances, had been found and given to her. She was reluctant to let it out of her sight because it has a fair amount of sentimental value.”

“Big Al” continued to examine the tarnished, delicate, nearly 80-year-old silver watch as I provided a few more details of its story, including the fact that the back cover was engraved with the words “To Mae from Ben -3/17/1937.” Mae and Ben were Bobbie’s parents, and March 17 was Mae’s birth date.

“Well Hill, like a lot of things I look at, it probably has more sentimental value than monetary worth. In its day, it would have been a relatively common and inexpensive piece. However, I think it should clean up nicely, and I’m quite confident it can be made to operate again as well. So that’s what I think we should do. But now I’ve got a question for you, from your ‘glass business days,’ as you refer to them.”

I had already taken more of his time than I had planned, but if someone wants to talk about glass, I’m all in.

“Sure Al, ask away.”

“Well Hill, you said you were in the glass business, so I’m wondering if you ever heard of a glass company by the name of Tyler and Hippach? They were a big outfit on the north side of the city.”

While we had been talking, Al had been interrupted a number of times with phone calls or questions that needed his attention, but I could tell that the subject at hand was important to him.

“Yes I have, Al. In fact, I went to work for Tyler and Hippach right out of college in 1970, and while the company changed names and ownership a couple of times, I was with the organization for more than 40 years. But why do you ask?”

Al leaned forward and a look of seriousness came over his face as if he was in deep thought.

“OK then,” he continued, “Would you have known a glazier by the name of Alvin Parkhill?”

“Yes, I did,” I replied. “Alvin was one of the company’s top foremen. A quiet but highly respected man who was regularly assigned to train younger guys. I never heard a negative word spoken about him, and in 1976, I became, at least on the company’s organizational chart, Alvin’s manager. We always got along well, and he was with the firm until he retired in the early ’90s. But what does Alvin Parkhill have to do with you?”

Al paused as if to collect his thoughts and then looked me directly in the eye as he spoke.

“Alvin became my father-in-law when I married his daughter. He was the grandfather of my two oldest daughters, Laura and Ellen. What’s most interesting, though, is that he pushed me very hard to join Tyler and Hippach when I got out of school in the early ’70s. I almost did it, but wasn’t convinced that working with my father-in-law would turn out to be a good decision … for the family, anyway. So just think, Hill, had I made the move to go to work there, I guess you and I would have gotten to know each other a lot sooner. And then at some point, you and Alvin would have probably ended up reporting to me … you know, after I became your boss.”

It was starting to become clearer to me as to how Al had become “Big Al” but who knows, maybe we would have ultimately reported to him.

“You know Hill, Alvin was a ‘keep-to-himself’ kind of a guy. Never had a lot to say, but he was a truly good man. Cared about his family and was always good to me.”

“Al, something just came to mind about Alvin but you probably already know this.”

“What are you talking about, Hill?”

I had now been involved in conversation with “Big Al” for almost 40 minutes … long past the 10 minutes that we had both more or less agreed to, but neither of us seemed to care.

“Well Al, in the early 1990s, I became quite interested in photography and started taking a lot of job related pictures. One picture that I took, of Alvin, ended up on the cover of USGlass magazine, and I think a framed magazine cover with that picture is still hanging in a Hillside, Ill., conference room today.”

With this news, Al’s entire countenance changed. His eyes lit up and a wide smile came to his face.

“Hill, how do I get a copy? Laura and Ellen loved their grandfather, and I am quite sure that they, like me, know nothing about this. Alvin probably never mentioned it to anyone. My daughters will go crazy over this. You gotta come through on this, Hill. Just tell me what it will cost and it’s yours.”

I don’t think “Big Al” is the kind of guy who likes to hear “no” for an answer, so I told him I would do the best I could to find and secure for him a copy of the Alvin Parkhill magazine cover. Besides, he was helping me with the watch situation and so maybe … as we Chicagoans tend to say … I owed him one. So I called one of my friends who still works at the facility where the magazine cover was hanging, and got the date of the particular issue involved. My next call went to the one person in the world who could track down a copy of the magazine … if one still existed.

“Deb,” I began after my call was answered on the second ring, “It’s Lyle, and I need to ask you for a little favor.”

“Another one?” she quickly responded with a slight rise in the pitch of her voice.

“Deb, Deb, Deb … when’s the last time I asked you for a favor?’

“Four days ago, Lyle, which I think brings the total to 11 thus far this year, and it’s only the third week in April … but who’s counting?”

“Apparently you are.”

“I’ll tell you what, Lyle, I’ll do a favor for you if you will do one for me.”

I like Debra Anne Levy, publisher of USGlass magazine. She’s level-headed, fair, and a good business person. Someone you can talk to and negotiate with.

“Okay, Deb. You first.”

“Well, Lyle, I would just like you to get your columns in on time, and in some kind of a reasonable format, meaning approximately 850 words and something that has some amount of relevance to the industry. Does that sound reasonable?”

“Of course, Deb. You can always count on me … now my favor from you. I need to try to find a copy of the September 1994 issue of USGlass magazine. It’s kind of important, and will make a couple of lovely gals by the name of Laura and Ellen as well as their father, ‘Big Al’, quite happy.”

“Do I know them, Lyle?”

“No, but you know Bobbie Rovner, and if I can get that magazine cover, she’ll be happy too.”

“Is there one of your long and convoluted stories in here, Lyle?”

“There is, Deb, and you can read it in the June 2015 issue of USGlass if you want. Now about that cover … is it possible to find one?”

“Believe it or not Lyle, there is a slim chance that I might have one buried in a box of old issues in my basement. Give me a few days, and I’ll see if I can find one for you and your friends.”

To my pleasant surprise, Deb came through, and about 15 days after our little talk, an original September 1994 USGlass arrived in the mail with Alvin on its cover. I headed to Boulevard Jeweler and Coins, to deliver the magazine and pick up the watch. “Big Al” was there behind one of the counters when I arrived.

“You didn’t think I could pull this off, did you, Al?”

“No I didn’t, Hill. I have to admit that I am both amazed and appreciative. What else can I do to thank you for pulling this off?”

“Just one thing, Al.”

“You name it, Hill.”

“From now on, I’d like you to call me ‘Big Lyle.’”

“Can’t do it. Doesn’t fit you, Hill.”

“I see your point. So how about buying me lunch”

“Big Al” did buy me lunch … at a very nice and somewhat expensive restaurant. I would have rather he called me “Big Lyle,” but a free lunch was better than nothing, and Laura, Ellen and Bobbie were all quite pleased. So now you know the story of “Big Al” and Alvin, and if you want to call me “Big Lyle,” that would be okay, too.

the author
Lyle R. Hill is the managing director of Keytech North America, a company providing research and technical services for the glass and metal industry. Hill has more than 40 years of experience in the glass and metal industry and can be reached at lhill@glass.com. You can read his blog on Wednesdays at lyleblog.usglassmag.com.

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No reproduction of any type without expressed written permission.