A columnist of heart and mind

A columnist of heart and mind
Interviewing the animals at Children's Fairyland in Oakland. L-R: Bobo the sheep, Gideon the miniature donkey, me, Tumbleweed Tommy the miniature donkey, Juan the alpaca, Coco the pony

Saturday, February 20, 2016

A Man For All Seasons

(Above: George and Sonja and their son George Jr. and Daughter Kristina Brouhard, who now run the business Photo by Tomas Ovalle/Valley Times)
When the 19th Century businessman Peter Cooper, who was universally beloved for his honesty, fair dealing and philanthropy, died in 1883, the minister stood before the open casket and intoned, "Here lies a man who never owned a dollar he could not take up to The Great White Throne."
Such a man was George Vukasin, the longtime president of Oakland's Peerless Coffee Co., who died on February 15 in Alamo, just a few months short of his 83rd birthday.
 The son of a Yugoslavian immigrant, Mr. Vukasin was a businessman of the old school: one who played fair with everybody - his employees, his customers, his suppliers, even his competitors. He never wanted to be the richest man in town. His real ambition was to be a pillar of his community, and in that he succeeded.
As president of the Oakland Port Commission, he supervised the construction of Oakland International Airport and brought the Japanese container program to the Port of Oakland.
As President of the Oakland-Alameda Memorial Coliseum Board, he was instrumental in bringing the Raiders back to Oakland and made the Coliseum the best example of one sports complex being home to three professional sports teams. He was also a longtime member of the Oakland City Council and Vice Mayor from 1975 to 1977.
But his contributions went far beyond the Bay Area. As president of the National Coffee Association, he made it his life's mission to raise the quality of coffee around the world by convincing growers, especially those in Colombia, to switch from low-quality Robusta beans to high-quality Arabica beans.
His motives weren't only aesthetic. He knew that if the quality of the coffee was higher, the farmers could charge more. And that meant they could afford to switch from growing coca beans – the main ingredient in cocaine – to coffee beans.
For this, he was awarded Colombia’s highest honor, the Manuel Meija Award, named after the father of the Colombian coffee industry. He also earned a more dubious distinction: a hefty price on his head set by the Colombian drug cartels. Whenever he flew to Bogota to confer with the government, his plane would be met on the tarmac by an armored car and a platoon of soldiers who would whisk him to a different safe house every night.
But the thing he was proudest of was his family. He and his wife Sonja had a 50-year love affair that featured travels all over the world. And nothing made him happier than spending time with his children and grandchildren. No school activity, no sports game, no social event went unattended if he could possibly help it.
My favorite memory is the day, more than 20 years ago, when he and I were walking along Webster Street across from the Oakland Tribune. Mr. Vukasin gestured toward the string of inexpensive Chinese, Vietnamese, Thai and Cambodian restaurants along the street and said, "See those restaurants? They were all Yugoslavian restaurants when was a kid."
He got a thoughtful look on his face and added, "Same people, different faces. That's all."
George Vukasin never forgot where he came from. He was buried on Monday at Mountain View Cemetery.
There lies a man who never owned a dollar he could not take up to The Great White Throne.

Monday, February 15, 2016

First In War, First In Peace, First In The Hearts Of His Countrymen

(Above: George Washington as he really looked, from a life mask by Jean-Antoine Houdon. Image courtesy of George Washington's Mount Vernon.)

When I was growing up, George Washington was a remote figure to me. He was the stern-looking fellow on the dollar bill with the powdered wig and pursed lips. I could never figure out why his contemporaries like Jefferson, Adams, Franklin and Hamilton - men who had a sizable regard for their own abilities – regarded him as the greatest of them all.
I also never bought into his modesty act whenever opportunity came calling. Every time he was asked to lead the army, or preside over the Constitutional convention, or become our first president, he'd say, "Gee, guys. I really hate to leave Mount Vernon, but if you insist, well, OK." And I'd always think, "Who does this guy think he's kidding?"
Then, one day, I visited Mount Vernon. And I realized in a flash: He wasn't kidding at all. If I lived at Mount Vernon, I'd never want to leave there, either. It's the most beautiful place I've ever seen.
The Washington Monument is across the river in the middle of the National Mall. But his real monument is Mount Vernon.
Unlike Thomas Jefferson's home, Monticello, it's not an aristocrat's house. It's a farmer's house. But it's a very elegant farmer's house.
In the parlor is the harpsichord his granddaughter Nelly Custis (after whom I named one of my cats), used to play for him. And hanging in a glass case in the main hallway, as it has ever day since 1789 – except once, when it was sent to Paris in 1989 to be part of the celebration of the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution - is the key to the Bastille, a gift from Lafayette.
But to get to my second question, which is why all those other heavyweights looked up to him so much, the answer isn't that he beat the most powerful empire in the world with a ragtag army. Or that he basically invented the office of the presidency.
It's because having won the war, he did something that no conquering general in history – not Ceasar, not Cromwell, not Napoleon – had ever done: He went home. All the others seized power and made themselves dictators.
The date was March 15, 1783. The place: Newburgh, New York. The soldiers hadn't been paid all throughout the war, and now Congress was reneging on its promise to pay them when the fighting was over.
Two hundred of the most senior officers gathered at Newburgh to plot a coup d'etat. They'd march on Philadelphia, arrest the members of Congress, and set up a military dictatorship.
Suddenly, there was a knock on the door. They opened it, and there stood Washington himself, who asked for permission to address them.
He began to read them a letter from a Congressman, then he did something they had never seen him do before. He reached into his pocket and put on a pair of eyeglasses.
"Gentlemen, you will permit me to put on my spectacles, for I have not only grown gray but almost blind in the service of my country," he explained.
He started to walk toward the door, but by the time he got there every man in the room was sobbing like a baby. The coup d'etat was over. And our democracy was born.
Thanks, George. Happy birthday.