Sunday, May 18, 2008

Choosing Lloyd Reynolds over Barack Obama

Three days before the election, on a hot Sunday afternoon, I faced a choice between Barack Obama and Lloyd Reynolds.

It was a choice that only Portland could offer.

I chose Reynolds, a Portland treasure, even though he’s been dead for nearly 30 years.

The legendary professor of calligraphy, handwriting and, ultimately, life, was as charismatic, in his own way, as Obama is before a throng.

While Obama spoke to thousands in Waterfront park, nearly 200 of us jammed into the First Unitarian Church, a dozen blocks away, to hear Reynolds’ students praise their mentor and inspiration.

Many of us were drawn to the event by an excellent article by Bob Hicks in Saturday’s Oregonian.

We were mostly a gray-haired, devote assemblage. Perhaps one-third, when asked whether they had been Reynolds' students, raised their hands.

Several spoke of Reynolds’ influence on them. Inspired by Reynolds, Inga Dubay and Barbara Getty went on to teach doctors how to write clearly — and safely. After at least 150 presentations, the two estimate they’ve taught between 4,000 and 5,000 physicians how to make their writing legible.

As one emergency room physician told Dubay, “You’ve probably saved more lives than I have.”

The highlight of the Reynolds’ event was Reynolds himself, as seen in an old OPB video clip of him teaching a on-air class. The clip lasted only three or four minutes, but in that time Reynolds made one telling literary reference and got in a dig at the emerging vocabulary of graphic design. “I hate the word ‘layout,’” he scoffed. “We 'lay out' corpses!” Letters and words should be alive, not dead, he scolded.

The audience, many of them members of Portland Society for Calligraphy, laughed and nodded at hearing their mentor and teacher again. In 1968, Reynolds founded the society, which began as the “Western American Branch of the Society for Italic Handwriting" but mercifully simplified its name in 1983, five years after Reynolds died.

But listening to the stories about Reynolds, it's hard to imagine that he died at all. The audience was alive with and enthralled by his spirit.

Turns out that the very screen I am writing on was Reynolds-inspired. Bob Hicks, in his Oregonian story, recounts how Steve Jobs, Apple's co-founder and present CEO, was briefly a student at Reed College and was moved by the Reynolds legacy on the campus and by the master calligrapher's celebration of the written word. Jobs studied under Reynolds' hand-picked successor at Reed, Robert Palladino. Early on in the development of Apple's computers, Jobs made sure that their screens reproduced typography that was crisp, clear and beautiful.

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