The year 1955 was a long time ago. So long, in fact, that many, if not most, of you reading this tribute were not as yet born. Back then, Floor Covering Weekly was the industry’s only weekly magazine, owned by a character straight out of a Damon Runyan novel. His name was Irv Genett, a diminutive crusader who railed against real or imagined industry villains, those who he categorized as “crooks and con men.”
Nattily attired and in his Adler elevator shoes, Genett conducted a tour of the Textile Building at 295 Fifth Avenue, the headquarters for the few dozen carpet, linoleum, rug and tile producers and distributors of the time, to introduce Al Wahnon, his new managing editor. If a poll were taken among those who met Al on that first day of his new career, it is doubtful anyone would have guessed he would become the journalistic giant who would chronicle the next 56 years of our industry’s explosive growth, consolidation and maturity.
This he did as FCW’s editor, and since 1986 as founder and editor-in-chief of Floor Covering News.
That afternoon in 1955 lingers as my first memory of Al. After introductions, the three of us stood in the showroom of my employer, Stitt & Howell: me dragging on a Marlboro, Genett biting furiously on his stogie, and Al puffing contentedly on his curve-stemmed Meerschaum pipe. Significantly, both Al and I were in the first week of our jobs in the flooring industry. Through the cloud of smoke, a discerning observer might have identified two kindred souls in a conversation that was to continue for the next five-and-a-half decades.
So much has been written about Al, so many accolades given, so many experiences recounted by his legion of readers, fans and personal friends that it seems redundant to recount his myriad accomplishments. Whatever praise has been heaped upon him was well deserved for he truly was an extraordinary journalist and an even more extraordinary human being.
If you’ll forgive me, I’m going to skip the specifics of all he did. You already know. Instead, I’d like to recount the friendship we enjoyed for so many years. There is a saying that friendships come and go. It’s true. So many people enter our lives—fellow workers, golf buddies, school mates; you get the point. But, common environments and interests don’t necessarily mold lasting friendships. More often than not, they fade away as we move on with our lives.
Real friends, somehow, become part of who we are. Al and I spent hundreds of hours talking and listening. We understood.
There was no barrier to the communication. We had a lot to prove to the world, but nothing to prove to one another. Each of us had experienced success in the same industry at the same time. Neither of us was sure we merited all we had received.
We each felt the insecurity that comes from exceeding the goals we set for ourselves. Was this real? Were we just lucky? There was this kind of confessional dialogue; discussions that let the genie of self doubt out of the bottle. We rejoiced in our good fortune to have found ourselves in an industry that was blowing up, offering extraordinary opportunity to those who were willing to chase their dream. But, did we really merit getting such a large slice of the pie?
We spoke of industry issues, of our families, of leaders and losers, of long ago and far from now. We told jokes and laughed uproariously. We took long walks on the beach during summers in the south of France. We reveled in the magic of life and marveled at the confluence of events that brought us to this place in our lives. We consoled one another over sorrows and tragedies, the loss of loved ones. We discussed our bad habits and weaknesses, long conversations by definition.
After selling Horizon Industries to Mohawk, years would pass without my seeing Al. We spoke occasionally by phone, and when we did it was as though time hadn’t passed at all. It was just as real, just as natural. My last visit with him was five years ago, and though he had grown old his spirit was still that of a youngster. We kept in touch often after that visit, but my heart sank last year when I learned he was hospitalized with kidney illness. Typically, he rallied back, returning to his office and writing his editorials.
And then, just like that, Al died. This issue of Floor Covering News will be filled with sadness. His passing leaves a huge hole in our hearts. We know the likes of Al Wahnon will never appear again. But, just maybe, there is a young person out there who has been inspired by him and waits, pen poised, ready to chronicle the future of this great business with similar devotion.
Wouldn’t that be a fitting jewel on the crown of his legacy?
We were all given the special gift of his friendship. By word and by deed he inspired hope and reminded us of our good fortune to have made our careers in this great industry. He raised the bar of principles and ethics, and crowed to the world that ours was a model of how an industry should work.
You were special, Al, and I will forever carry within me a large part of what you so willingly shared. For us, the conversation is over. Thanks for listening, Old Friend.