Scott Bertram showed me what it means to be a man – John Svara

“After my father, grandfather and uncles, Scott Bertram was the man most responsible for showing me what it means to be a man.”
“After my father, grandfather and uncles, Scott Bertram was the man most responsible for showing me what it means to be a man.” contributed photo

We mourn the passing of Scott Bertram, who with his wife Audrey Townsend founded Carrboro’s Townsend Bertram and Company. Scott died July 28, 2017, after a four-year contest with cancer.

After my father, grandfather and uncles, Scott Bertram was the man most responsible for showing me what it means to be a man. I met him in 1988, the same year TB&Co was forged, myself fresh out of high school and then a year in Mexico and two semesters of college in Ohio.

I had returned to familiar Chapel Hill but then crept north and west, to rural Orange County and the Environmental Land Group, a community founded in the ’70s by Walter Kauffman, Scott B (to distinguish him from Scott Aycock, my best friend from high school, who was then working at Townsend & Bertram), Patrick Dougherty (aka Mr. D), Lawrence Naumoff, George Baer, and other such mavericks of the age.

I talked Scott into letting me rent and live in The Shed, a tobacco barn he and Mr. D had salvaged, moved, and rebuilt, and later in the Love Shack, a whimsical but highly impractical structure made from cedar posts and recycled French doors and plywood. I lived there, making pots, burning wood (often, as is said of woodstoves and poor insulation, freezing my belly and burning my a$$ and vice versa), swimming in the pond those older men had dug, learning to identify mushrooms and use a chainsaw after the massive oak falls from Hurricane Fran, etc., until, inspired by the books of H. D. Thoreau and the model of Scott B, and with much help from my brother, Kevin, I built my own house near the Haw River in the early 2000s.

I regret that I took no photographs of Scott. That I didn’t get to know him better in his later years, when I might have been less intimidated by his profound manliness. That I never asked him to teach me to windsurf.

It was said that Scott included in all of his rental, employment, and business contracts the contingency that if the wind was blowing he could be found on Jordan Lake and might be yet some time. He exemplified a joyful, fun-loving, hard-working creative side of masculinity that I daily consider and try on for size. He was a masterful artist and engineer, yet always humble and unfailingly kind. He laughed at other people’s jokes, listened to their music and sang along, and shared credit for everything.

I will tell one more story of Scott B and then maybe some of you will share others by writing to the editor or commenting online.

My kiln was a heap of old firebricks which Scott built for his first wife, an accomplished potter then and now, and which had sat idle at ELG for years. With Scott’s help I rehabilitated and fired it dozens of times, but when I first lit it, impatient, a load of poorly formed stoneware inside, Scott was home with newborn Betsy and bread dough rising and he told me he would be along shortly.

The ancient kiln burners were clogged with dirt and rust scale and spider wrack, and when I tried to light them, propane – heavier than air, don’t forget! – accumulated on the kiln floor and when it did ignite it blew back out the burner ports and singed one of my legs pretty badly.

Soon Scott B was there with Betsy in a carseat and bread dough in a bowl, both on the ground in the shade of the kiln shed (the gas was turned off at the tank so neither child nor bread was ever in any danger), crescent wrench and wire brush in hand (Scott nearly always had tools in his hands). He cleaned the burners, tightened the iron pipe fittings.

Without appearing to look my way, in his brusque exclamatory manner he said, “looks like you lost all your leg hair and some of the skin! No worries! Ride with me back to the house!”

By that time Audrey was home and it was she who cleaned and bandaged my burn while Scott shaped his loaves and put them in the oven. Later that day I produced my first ever load of bisque-fired pots and Scott brought me a warm loaf of whole-wheat bread and a spear of aloe vera.

I can’t describe Scott B any better than to invoke Patti Smith, in her lovely remembrance of Sam Shepard: Scott was a colossal, noble, stoic lion, carved from the rock of a low cliff. And as Ms. Smith asks that actual stone lion of Lucerne to ready the way for her departed friend, on behalf of Scott we make this plea: if it be within your power, have his favorite board waxed and waiting for him, cotton sail clean and neatly trimmed, on a day when the wind never stops blowing. He won’t need an ankle strap. He won’t need anything.

John Svara works for the Durham Community Land Trustees and is the proprietor of Form and Flaw, llc.