In memoriam

Tuesday’s editorial in the Enterprise was a eulogy for Bill Madden. One part said ” you might have seen him cruising around in his Cadillac and even pulling over to the side of the road to chat.” This is both true and false.

He did indeed pull over to chat. I had that pleasure dozens if not hundreds of times.

As for him cruising in his Cadillac? Forget it.

He chugged along, crawled along, perhaps even crept along in it. But cruised? Never.

To my way of thinking, cruising speed starts at at least 12 mph, and I’m not sure Bill ever reached such breakneck speed – at least not in town. I’ve a feeling if he had, I would’ve read about it in Ripley’s Believe It or Not.


I knew Bill all my life, but for my first 25 years or so he was an unapproachable adult. Not that Bill himself was unapproachable in fact the exact opposite was true. But it was me: Growing up, all adults were Mr. or Mrs., and young people did not have conversations with them. So he was Mr. Madden, and our conversations were limited to Hello, How are you, and so on.

But sometime in my early adulthood, Bill and I started schmoozing with each other. I guess it was inevitable, since chatting with everyone and anyone was something we both did constantly. Our conversations began on the same note.

“Hey, Rabbi,” he’d always say. “Whatta ya know?”

To which I always replied, “Damn little, Willy.”

I realize to some people, him calling me Rabbi was politically incorrect, if not rude, if not downright anti-Semitic but I knew better. To him it was a term of affection, and so be it.

He loved to kid around, but he was lousy at it. His just didn’t have the satirical edge to carry it off. Ultimately, I always found him a great, big-hearted lug, with a generous side many people never knew about. I discovered it first-hand.

Great plans

It was 25 years ago, and my boss at school was a real taskmaster. But he was also fair and he knew how to get maximum performance out of us. In addition to teaching, he expected us to do other chores, and at one point he asked me to join a committee.

Some wag defined a camel as a horse put together by a committee, which I think is a perfect metaphor. Plus, ultimately, it seems no matter what the committee finds or recommends, the powers-that-be do whatever they wanted to do in the first place. So I always avoided committees like I do sloppy drunks (and for the same reasons).

I told my boss I really didn’t want to be on the committee, and his response was creative: He asked me what service I’d like to do instead.

I told him I’d think about it, and I did. What I came up with was I’d organize and put on a ’40s style nightclub, as a fundraiser for a division project. He thought about it, liked the idea, and gave me the go-ahead,

It was one of those projects that if I’d known how much time, detail and energy was involved, I never would’ve started it. But sometimes ignorance is a wonderful thing, and that was one of them.

Eventually, I got a place on campus reserved, got the culinary division to cater it, got students to staff it, and then got an all-star lineup of musicians to play it. We had a stage installed, lighting and sound set up, and tickets printed up and ready to hit the market.

There was only detail left to take care of – getting a piano. Because let’s face it, when you’ve got a cabaret of singers and pianists, a kazoo is not an option.

Great help

Finding the piano was easy – Peter Lesser at the Java Jive coffee house said I could use theirs.

But once that happened, the real problem surfaced: How, exactly, do you get a piano from Saranac Lake to a building at Paul Smith’s – and on its second floor, no less.

I asked all sorts of people, who in turn came up with all sorts of answers, none of which were definitive.

I was totally confused about what to do, when one a friend told me about someone he knew who got a piano. He somehow wrassled it into the back of his truck and headed home. He drove up Bloomingdale Avenue, turned right on Broadway, and when he did, the piano slid, hit the side, flipped, and landed in front of the Rusty Nail, a thousand shadows of its former self.

As soon as I heard that, I knew I had only one option: It had to be moved professionally.

I gave Bill a call.

After he said hello, I cut right to the chase.

“OK, Willy,” I said, “I’ve got a problem and I don’t know if you can take care of it.”

“What is it?” he asked.

“I need a piano moved from town to Paul Smiths,” I said.

“From town to Paul Smiths?” he said. “Listen, Rabbi, we’ve moved pianos from town to Chicago. How can that be a problem?”

“Because,” I said, “I can’t pay you.”

“Well, yeah,” he said, “that could be a problem.”

I then explained it was for a fundraiser and everything was being done on a shoestring budget and all I could barter with was a couple of free tickets.

“If we had any money, I’d gladly pay it,” I said. “But all we got is elbow grease and chutzpah.”

A moment passed, then he spoke.

“I don’t know about your elbow grease,” he said. “But, yeah, you’ve got chutzpah all right.”

And then, as I figured, he said he’d do it.

Which of course he did.

The piano got moved with perfect efficiency, but in classic Bill Madden Manner. It was delivered about ten days after he said it’d bebut with enough spare time for it to be tuned and for me to avoid apoplexy.

I never forgot Bill’s kindness.

I also never asked him how much it cost to move a piano between Saranac Lake and Paul Smith’s – let alone to move it twice.