What We're Reading...

Eulogy for John Metzler

By Don Gibbon


18 May, 2010

I want start by telling you a story about another very good man.

Some few years ago I was assigned  as a Home Teacher to a man named Ron Dommermuth. For those of you perhaps not acquainted with this practice in the Mormon Church, all elders are assigned as Home Teachers to a small number of individuals and families. They have the responsibility to care for these families in every way necessary… spiritually and temporally. That means you have to find out who they are, really know them well, really learn to care for them.  When I found Ron he had just been brought into the Forbes Nursing Home in an ambulance. He made the trip unconscious on his back. When he awoke he quite literally didn’t know where in the world he was. He was in spatial limbo. Over the next few years we got to know each other pretty well and became very close. Ron was getting older and more frail and I did what I could for him to make those declining years more enjoyable. Ron had been a life-long Boy Scout so I knew he loved the natural world. Although he was wheel-chair bound, I took him birding. I set him up with a spotting telescope on the window sill of my car. He could see the birds sitting down.  He got to see the baby red tail  hawks in a nest I was photographing in Homewood Cemetery. He was really excited by that adventure. He hated the endless scrambled eggs in the nursing home, so on the way home from a trip to the Columbus, Ohio, Temple, we stopped and got him some sunny-side up eggs. He liked that too… just two months before he died. Eventually Ron ended up in the hospital and the end was near. As I was leaving his room at the end of one of my last visits, I was out of sight, almost out the door but I heard him call out after me, “I love you, Don.” I was stopped dead in my tracks. “I love you too, Ron,” I called back.  A week or so later I conducted his military grave side service in the Allegheny Veterans Cemetery.

Those words, “I love you” spoken man to man, brother to brother, are rarely heard, almost never in my lifetime. My father never said them to me.  I didn’t make the opportunity to say them to John, my dear friend John. Maybe it’s not too late: “I love you, John. Can you hear me? I so hope so.”

I did love John. I admired him extravagantly.  He embodied so much of what I think is right and good and valuable in the world. He was a superb role-model for me in so many ways. Here are a few of the reasons why, embodied in three short  extracts from the famous counsel by Polonius to his son, Laertes, in the first Act of Shakespeare’s Hamlet:

Those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried, Grapple them to thy soul with hoops of steel;

Give every man thy ear, but few thy voice;

Take each man’s censure, but reserve thy judgment.

This above all: to thine ownself be true, And it must follow, as the night the day, Thou canst not then be false to any man.

John’s foremost characteristic was his integrity. As Shakespeare said, he was above all true to himself and false to no man. His integrity glowed about him. He was through and through a good person. John knew what he wanted to do and to be in life and he did what was necessary to make his life conform to those high values.

Another Shakespearean recommendation was loyalty to friends. I have never seen a viewing at a Funeral Home packed the way Conroy’s was last night. The Metzler family has friends grappled to their souls with hoops of steel.

John was a quiet man. He listened, knew exactly where he wanted to go, but criticized very little. He gave “every man his ear, but few his voice.”

As many of you know, John created – with the help of a lot of those friends, many of them here right now – the table tops for the G-20 Summit formal dinner at the Phipps Conservatory. In that job he exemplified many of his most precious traits and capacities.

John loved trees, had worked with trees a large part of his life. He became almost obsessed with the idea of making possible a higher use for the trees of Pittsburgh when they had to come down, to do more with those trees than chip them up into mulch. He established relationships with everyone he could to make sure he would be notified when great trees were in danger of being wasted. For example, he saved 40 honey locusts which had been cut down in the renovation of Point State Park. And some years earlier he had gotten several large red oaks and sycamores out of Riverview Park. He had slabbed them up and sent them up to Somerset to be kiln dried.

But that’s getting the cart a bit before the horse. John had worked for over 15 years to prepare himself to be a “tree artist.” He had gone to  night school for 13 years to get degrees in engineering and industrial design to be able to handle the challenges of owning his own woodworking business. Things fell into place and eventually he had a several thousand square foot studio/shop, shared by as many as nine other artists who needed the space and equipment. He was following his own unique and bold vision, something totally new in Pittsburgh. On the way he was making possible a community of like-minded creative people, essentially an atelier for woodworking. If anything, John was persistent… he endured to the end.

This place, this artistic  community, exists largely because of John’s genius and courage. And it was in place when the big opportunity came along. Richard Piacentini, director of the Phipps and host-to-be of the upcoming state dinner for the G-20 Summit in September 2009,, heard of John’s work just a short time before the event. Surely he knew he was asking the impossible when he called John with less than two weeks to go and asked him to make 110 linear feet of table tops from Pittsburgh hard woods for the dinner. And with more bravado than good sense, John said “Sure… we’ll do it.” That was on a Friday. On Saturday the wood for the tables was coming out of the kiln! Talk about timing! The tables had to be designed, some complex equipment had to be created to make the job technically possible, people had to be assembled to carry out the phenomenal amount of work. One of the demonstrations of John’s personal genius was that he had to get all these artists who had their own ways, their own visions, to see the job his way and do it his way… and still keep them his friends. And he did it! Some fifteen people, including his father, worked with him to get the tables ready and in place on time. They are an extraordinary legacy for the city of Pittsburgh.

One of Piacentini’s central premises is that Pittsburgh has the talent and capacity right here in the city to do anything we want to do. It is a crying shame that while John proved him right once, he’s not going to be able to continue in the extraordinarily bright leadership role he had created for himself.  But surely he has shown us the way.

John’s vision was built upon stewardship, a love of and deep caring for this place we all call home. He loved Pittsburgh’s trees and was a true Friend of the Urban Forest. Diane Krumrine, director of the Friends of the Urban Forest and a close friend, is directing a memorial service for John to be held at Allegheny Commons on Sunday the 23rd at noon. All are welcome at that service.

John’s life was about quality. He was devoted to doing things well. His artistic vision had been nurtured by his teacher, sculptor Janese Hexon, of Squirrel Hill. John felt he owed Janese a huge debt of gratitude for forcing him to break free of two-dimensional thinking and see the artistic third dimension in trees. John had developed the traditional woodworking skills to be able to create superb quality wooden art pieces, things never even imagined by others. One of the great thrills for me is to run my fingers over the soft curved surfaces of John’s work and feel the warmth of the quality. It puts me in touch with Pittsburgh soil, Pittsburgh’s weather, Pittsburgh’s history… and with my dear friend, John.

If you want to read a bit more about these things and have a souvenir of John and his work, the Summer issue of Pittsburgh Quarterly magazine has an article on him. It’s coming out this week.

The Mormon Church has a short description of our core beliefs called the Articles of Faith. My favorite one is the last one,  Number Thirteen: We believe in being honest, true, chaste, benevolent, virtuous and in doing good to all men. Indeed we may say that we follow the admonition of Paul – We believe all things, we hope all things, we have endured many things and hope to be able to endure all things. If there is anything virtuous, lovely or of good report or praiseworthy, we seek after these things. John did his best to live out that Article of Faith.

We love you, John.