Jim Van Orden

Tribute To: 

“Watch out, I’m Bulldozer Bully,” commanded the big boy with arms folded across his chest.  I was one of those he unceremoniously bumped, or “bulldozed,” out of his way that sunny day on the Tuscan Elementary School playground in the fall of 1951.


I later learned the boy’s name was David Waltz, a second grader who, along with his brother, Peter, a kindergartener, had just moved to Maplewood.  I was seven and between the brothers in age.  Our second meeting was a little less bumpy than the first, fortunately.  A short time later, we were formally introduced when my mother invited the boys and their mother, Luba, to our house.  Both women had several interests in common including raising boys (three in my family) and their religion, Christian Science.


It was wonderful growing up with the Waltz boys and their parents.  Luba was my “second mother” and Sparky, her husband, my “Mr. Wizard.”  They lived only a few blocks away, so I often visited by walking or bicycling.  Luba helped me one day when I fell to the pavement and lacerated my hands, elbows and face.  She always made me feel special and fed me very well, too.  Which was understandable because I was skinny compared to her robust sons.    


Sparky was the smartest man I ever met.  His cellar was filled with large, black wooden panels that he had wired and equipped with dials and gauges of all descriptions.  His workbench was a treasure trove of tools, test equipment, soldering irons, vises and boxes filled with nuts, bolts, screws and nails.  He opened my eyes to science and technology.  And I learned that he worked at a mysterious and exotic research facility called “Bell Labs.”


As a result of Sparky’s influence, David and Peter could build anything.  Their hobbies were wide-ranging and they were experts at stamp collecting, musical instruments and constructing model airplanes, cars, ships and miniature railroad layouts.  The boys built a soap-box racer that had rack-and-pinion steering, an advanced system that American cars wouldn’t have for another decade or two.  Sparky even set up a “theater” for his sons and their friends under the cellar staircase.  Many a Saturday afternoon involved squeezing between David and Peter as we watched ancient, 16-millimeter black-and-white cartoons flickering on a makeshift screen.


A strong rivalry grew among David, Peter and I as we grew up, however.  It had to do with our fathers’ cars.  Sparky drove a 1951 Ford and my father had a 1953 Chevrolet.  For years, we fought over which car was faster, smoother, more powerful and all the other things that were important to young boys.  The debates would last well into early morning when I stayed overnight, only to be reignited when we saw Fords and Chevies the next day.  Even as adults, we often teased each other on this subject.  Only a car nut would understand. 


From Cartoons To Scouts


David was my Boy Scout leader after I finished the Cub Scout experience.  He was a Boy Scout’s Boy Scout.  He knew Morse Code backwards and forward, could tie any knot known to man, and was an expert with a compass when we were lost in the woods on long hikes.  Most of all, he was patient with boys who were slow learners, such as I.  Sparky, who directed our Boy Scout troop, was the same way.  And between them, I learned a lot and was helped along to earn a dozen or so merit badges.


Having to learn the “duck-and-cover” routine during my early years at Tuscan School, I had a great fear of Russia and the atomic bomb.  But it was David and Peter’s grandfather, a Russian immigrant, who opened my eyes to his heritage and nation.  I marveled at his patience as he taught his grandsons the challenging Russian language, which they both mastered at an early age.  And I enjoyed his broken English as he related stories about the homeland during long dinners.  During such an occasion, I didn’t understand and asked him to repeat a word.  It came out in strange fashion and this 11-year-old boy, with his mouth full of milk, couldn’t hold back a big laugh and sprayed the dear man’s face.  I was grateful he and everyone laughed, even though I was terribly embarrassed.


David was a highly respected student and when he became a sixth grader was selected by the Tuscan School principal to serve as “Safety Patrol Captain.”  I was in fifth grade and was honored to serve under David as a “patrol boy,” a job that saw about a dozen young men help children across busy intersections before and after school each day.  David was an outstanding captain who, I’m proud to say, rewarded me for my service by helping to select me for his job when he graduated.


Then David and Peter Disappeared


When I returned from summer camp in 1956, I quickly learned that the Waltz family had moved to Allentown, PA.  Sparky had been transferred by Bell Labs to work at the enormous Western Electric/Bell Labs facility there.  It was quite a blow to not have David and Peter, as well as Luba and Sparky, living nearby.  A big emptiness filled my life.  Realizing how sad I was, my mother arranged the first of many Greyhound bus trips that took me to Allentown during the next three years.  I soon discovered that nothing had changed:  Luba was still my “second mother,” Sparky had a basement full of lab equipment and tools, and David and Peter were my best friends.


When I bought my first car, a 1951 Mercury, in 1961, the drive west on Route 22 across the Delaware River and on to Allentown became an exciting adventure.  On one expedition, the engine’s distributor failed and my “Black Beauty” barely limped to the Waltz’s front door.  But it was no problem for Sparky, David and Peter, who knew a local mechanic who could replace the “brushes” in the faulty unit.


My two “Bulldozer Bullies” now stood 6-feet, 3-inches tall and weighed in excess of 200 pounds, still dwarfing their skinny friend.  Soon, however, college would take us our separate ways once again.  I went off to sunny Florida to study at The University of Miami.  I only saw David and Peter on one or two occasions as the three of us pursued under-graduate and graduate degrees in various fields.  And before I knew it, we all had wives, young families and lived in far-away states.


I knew that David had excelled on the varsity rowing team while studying at MIT.  We met during his senior year and he demonstrated his high level of fitness by doing ten one-legged squats.  His mental prowess was also well-honed as he went on to earn his doctoral degree.


Our Final Meeting


I owe Sparky an enormous debt of gratitude for helping me launch my AT&T career.  It was during the recession of 1974 that I found myself with a wife, two small children, a house and a job that was going away.  My employer, a small public relations firm in Vineland, NJ, was dissolving as it lost key clients.  After applying for 250 jobs throughout the Philadelphia and south New Jersey areas, there didn’t seem to be any prospects.


But then I received an unexpected phone call from Sparky, who told me about writing jobs at Bell Labs.  He urged me to send him my credentials, which he said he would forward to the company’s PR director.  About a month later, I was invited to a job interview.  My first day of work was August 4, 1975.


Twenty-one years later, in 1996, as AT&T was going through enormous change and upheaval, I attended a public relations conference in Princeton, NJ.  Remembering that David was employed by a high-tech company in the area, I called him and he invited me to meet after work.  We hadn’t seen each other in more than a dozen years.  As I stood in a reception area that reeked of profit and success, a mighty bear of a man approached.  Without a word, he put his arms around me and literally lifted me off the ground.  


I followed David in my car as he drove a circuitous route from his office along twisting roads through the lush forests that surround Princeton.  Bonnie, David’s wife, greeted us in the driveway of their amazing home, and we shared a wonderful dinner as well as stories that covered a wide spectrum of subjects.  It all came to an end too soon.  As I left them and returned to my hotel, little did I know that I’d never see David again.


But he was always in my mind and memories.  We never lost contact, fortunately, and I kept track of his extraordinary career and work as a professor at Columbia University.  He was and always will be my “Bulldozer Bully”--and a great one, at that.


Jim Van Orden

Richardson, Texas