One of my favorite books, When God Winks at You, was written by Squire Rushnell, a former television president and CEO with ABC. It is packed with interesting accounts of how God speaks directly to you day-to-day through events that first seem to be coincidences. Such events have occurred in my life many times leaving me to conclude that I am never alone, and God is good, all the time. This Magic of Marble story happened right here in Central Park where sculptors from all across the United States worked including Francesco Gazzi, our guest Italian sculptor. I sat down Sunday with two of them in the Blue Bell Pavillion at Central Park; and Robert Larson and Bill Usher told me their unusual story.
Robert Larson has been coming to Sylacauga for the Magic of Marble Festival for many years. He is a personable, intelligent, “Santa Claus” of a man, beard and all. As a child he lived in Plainville, Connecticut, and received an undergraduate degree at a Jesuit University there. Then he went to the University of Florida and received a Master’s degree and on to Florida State University for his PhD. He spent his career teaching philosophy, humanities, and sculpture at Northwest Florida State College. He has always been interested in sculpting and sold his first stone sculpture to another kid for $.25. The kid’s dad made him bring it back and demand his money back. At age 8 he made a wooden Scottie dog for his mother. Robert is now retired, but continues sculpting beautiful pieces and loves our unique Sylacauga marble.
Bill Usher is from Baton Rouge, LA; and this is his first visit to Sylacauga. A married man with three children and a BFA degree, he is a Design Manager for Old South Lighting and Iron Works. In Atlanta, seeking stone, he crossed paths with Jane Jaskevich; and she told him about Sylacauga’s impressive stone and about the annual Marble Festival. He planned to come in 2020, but it was cancelled due to the pandemic, and he was unable to attend in 2021. This year he registered at B. B. Comer Library on a dark and stormy day, ready to go to work.
It so happened that as sculptors selected their work stations, Bill set up right beside Robert Larson. Noticing his name, Robert commented on Bill’s unusual last name and how there are not many Ushers. Bill mentioned that his family is from Connecticut; to which Robert, somewhat surprised, responded, “I grew up in Connecticut, and had a childhood friend named Howard Usher, but we called him Howie.”
“Howard is my Dad’s name, and he attended school in Plainville, Connecticut,” was Bill Usher’s excited reply. “His friends called him, Howie.” Bill then called his dad, and the two old friends reacquainted by phone. while all three men joyfully celebrated the miraculous way this reunion occurred here in Sylacauga. Howie now lives in Wilmington, North Carolina. He was in the Air Force as a Navigator, served in Vietnam, and retired as a major. Robert Larson has lived in Shalimar, FL, where his career of teaching and sculpting took him. Robert and Howard laughed and recalled the things they did during their decade as playmates. (1942-1952).
The boys met in first grade and enjoyed the fantasies of building forts, playing pirates, and raising five ducklings who grew up and followed them around as they played. Surrogate parents to the ducks, the boys sheltered them in Howie’s cellar on cold nights.
Like most boys, their parents were not aware of everything they did. After Howie’s father tore down their unstable playhouse, the boys salvaged a side, buried it, and made an underground getaway cave. The boys used the wall as a roof and its window as the entrance to their underground hideout. It was located at the edge of a big field beside Robert’s father’s World War II Victory Garden. The window served as a trap door to a cavern about three feet deep with tunnels extending out from this entrance. They had a close call when a man plowed the garden, but their secret cave held up undetected.. Adding to the pirate mystique were candles in Italian Chianti bottles. These boys had great imaginations and built a Rube Goldberg machine of old scrap metal and bicycle wheels.
Now, age 85, the men fondly remember a girl named Nancy. “She’s still around,” Howie said, “Her husband has passed, and I am sure she would love to hear from you.” Hearing that, Bob’s delightful wife, Chris, who is here in Sylacauga, too, chimed in, “You should give her a call!!”
Just like it still does, those wonderful years of being young pass by quickly. Robert moved on to St. Anthony High School in Bristol, Connecticut, and Howie stayed at Plainville High. They both have children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren of their own; and now Robert Larson sculpts with Howie’s son, Bill Usher, in Sylacauga, AL, at the Magic of Marble Festival….and God winks.