A Tofu 2.0 Post
Originally published August 21, 2013
I lost a dear friend last week, when Bernie Lipovich died after a brief illness. I last spoke to her in June, after my mother had passed. As was typical, we spoke on the phone for about three hours, talking about virtually every topic under the sun, until the battery finally ran down on my phone, and we had to hang up. I’d fully intended to call her on her birthday, July 26th — even charged up my phone so that we could jabber — but with my night schedule, once the middle of the week rolls around, I tend to lose all track of what day it is, and I completely forgot. Next thing I knew, I woke up to a voicemail from one of her nieces, asking me to call her back. I remember thinking, “This can’t be good.”
I was one of the lucky ones. I was one of her close friends and confidants.
I met Bernie back in 1986, when we were both working for MCS, Incorporated, the software firm that took a quarter of a century out of my life, and even more out of hers. I was Patton to her Ike on what the firm referred to as “The Glasrock Project” — a large-scale development of a customized version of MCS’s flagship product, MestaMed, for a large client (Glasrock Home Health Care) who wanted more feature functionality than what MestaMed was offering at that particular time in the product’s lifecycle. There were ten developers on the Glasrock team, and sometimes it seemed as though Bernie and I were the designated adults. It was an eclectic group, no two ways about it, but in spite of a lot of bumps in the road, we produced some fine code.
We really got to know each other during 1987, when Bernie and I — along with Harry Fowkes, another analyst on the team — spent most of the year essentially commuting from Pittsburgh to Atlanta, where Glasrock’s headquarters were located, in the northeast suburb of Norcross. We’d catch the first flight out of what was then called Greater Pitt on Monday morning (it was literally the first flight – the 5:50am Delta flight from Pittsburgh to Atlanta was the initial flight out of the airport on Monday mornings), and would come home on Friday nights. And then, for me at least, there were the weekends at home, updating the four DIGITAL VAX computers on the cluster (one each in Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, and Costa Mesa, California), using a dumb terminal connected to a 1200 baud modem over my home phone line for hours and hours at a time (I remind you, this was 1987). This all left me with very little time for a life, which was probably a good thing, because my life up until I started at MCS involved a lot of drinking and other vices that I was starting to get a little long in the tooth for.
Those weeks in Atlanta consisted of some very long days. We worked with the Glasrock personnel in the daytime, but our nights were spent shaking the bugs out of the batch process we had designed that updated the database with all of the transactions that had been done during the day, printed the bills and statements, and produced reports enough to fell a national forest per month. As this was being designed and written as we were going along, it was riddled with bugs, natch, all of which had to be ferreted out. The other seven programmers were in Pittsburgh coding away, pretty much without supervision, while we were down in Atlanta. At around 6:00pm, I would pull down from Pittsburgh all of the changes they had done that day, and compile them into the system. Bernie, Harry and I would then sit in adjoining cubicles and work into the wee hours, with Bernie running and testing the programs, and yelling over the cubicle walls what the problems were, and I would go into the code and fix them (or would write fix programs when that was necessary).
Anyone who happened to venture into the area where we were working would marvel as Bernie and I spoke to one another over the walls of the cubicles in a language that was bizarre to the uninitiated, to say the least: “The DDLs in MCS Util are duped again”, “Form build’s arrays went past proc”, “BP Star isn’t linking to the SMG globals”, “Make me an FDL for PBA header”, “Zone A’s locked. Do you have it?”, “Bill daily isn’t chaining”, “I think Bup Diddly is looping,” and so on. Often we’d just spell out program and file names to one another, which probably made it sound as though we were speaking in rapid-fire staccatos of random letters. I suppose we were, actually.
Nick, our company president, would come down to Atlanta from time to time to see what was doing, and to his credit, would stay up all night with us as we worked, rocking on his heels and listening to the gibberish that Bernie and I were speaking to one another. He’d just shake his head and smile. He knew we were trying to work a miracle.
We’d do this until about 2:30 or 3:00 in the morning — sometimes as late as 4:00 — , then stop at an all-night Applebee’s on the way back to the hotel, try to get some shut-eye, and then be back at Glasrock at 8:00 to start the whole thing all over again.
You can take the measure of a person when you’re down in the trenches with them long term, and Bernie and I found that we shared both a sense of humor and an utter disdain for people in high positions who were essentially empty shells — and Glasrock had its share of empty shells in those days. Their work ethic, in as much as it was an ethic at all, was clearly not in line with the more traditional approach to working that Bernie and I were accustomed to.
We’d planned to “go live” on the new system at the end of July, a goal that would not be met, partly because of ongoing problems, and partly because of the unending stream of system enhancements Glasrock was submitting that were not covered in the original specs. Still, when 4:30 pm on July 31st arrived, and Bernie, Harry, and I were sitting in our cubicles, hammering away at our keyboards, we suddenly heard, “pop …”
And then, “pop … pop.” And “pop”, “pop … pop …”
The champagne had started already started to flow to celebrate the fact that we had “gone live” with the new system, even though in reality we were weeks away from even considering such a thing. Still, to the Glasrockers, the designated day had arrived, and so it was time to celebrate. Bernie would have none of this nonsense. When Ken Davis came over with a glass of champagne for her, she didn’t even look up at him.
“Oh, c’mon,” Ken said, “you people work too damn hard.”
“You people don’t work at all,” I told him. “By working too hard, Bernie and I are restoring the cosmic equilibrium. You wouldn’t want to upset the balance of the universe, now would you Ken?” Bernie broke out in one of her hearty guffaws at that, and Ken slinked off to join the other partiers. Bernie was too kind a person to say anything mean to someone’s face. She wouldn’t have dreamed of engaging in anything like directly insulting another human being. I, on the other hand, would dream about such things all the time. Thus, as it was a role that I was naturally inclined to, and as Bernie was incapable of filling it, I seized the opportunity. Bernie would be the nice one, and I’d be the … well, the other one. Watching from the sidelines as I took no prisoners, Bernie secretly and thoroughly enjoyed even my most caustic observations.
And Glasrock, of course, was fertile ground for caustic observations. Bernie and I had never seen anything like it. People would disappear for hours on end for long, expensive lunches all on the company tab. The bottom panel of the pop machine slid out to reveal a fully stocked bar, which was open for business most of the workday. For old-school people like us, it was a little difficult to deal with.
And, of course, from time to time we would have to participate. They were the clients, after all, and were paying the bills. Good business dictated that we at least maintain friendly working relationships with them, even though the term “working” rarely entered into it.
Accordingly, there would be lavish dinners at some of Atlanta’s finest restaurants, with as many as a dozen people attending — again, all on the company tab. Once we even took in a road company performance of the play, Greater Tuna, which had just completed a smash run on Broadway. God only knows how much those tickets must have cost for the 15 or 16 people who went that night. And while both Bernie and I appreciated a good meal at a great restaurant as much as the next person, these affairs were a bit much for us, especially since it meant we were falling behind on the work. Ken Davis, Glasrock’s flamboyant project leader, would generally preside over these bacchanals, directing everything from the head of the table, even down to the dinner conversation.
The topic on one of these occasions was, “What did you want to be when you were growing up?”. Ken went around the table, prompting everyone to relate for the rest of us what they thought they would be doing with their lives when they were kids. Bernie didn’t have any more use for trivial conversation than I did, but when her turn came around, she dutifully and cheerfully participated, as was her nature. At which point, Ken turned to me, and said, “Now David, what did you want to be when you were growing up?”
I glanced across the table at Bernie. She got that twinkle in her eye that she would get when she knew I was about to say something outrageous, but didn’t have a clue as to what it might be. I took a long, slow sip from my Scotch.
“Rita Moreno”, I gushed, gently laying my hand on Ken’s. Bernie disintegrated into waves of laughter. For years afterward, she would remind me of that evening.
There were lots of other Glasrock-related adventures that summer, of course, including the Friday of July 4th weekend, when all of the flights out of Atlanta to locations north and east were delayed due to widespread severe thunderstorms. The Pittsburgh flights kept getting pushed further and further back into the evening, until around midnight, when the last flight to Pittsburgh was cancelled, effectively stranding Bernie, Harry and myself in the Atlanta airport on a holiday weekend. Bernie didn’t do well when she was inconvenienced, and this was an inconvenience of Jovian proportions.
I don’t remember now if it was me or Harry who noticed that there was a flight to Cleveland leaving in about half an hour. But we came up with the idea of flying there, renting a car, and driving to Pittsburgh, which is what we ended up doing. We got to Cleveland around 3:00 am, picked up the rental car, stopped for something to eat at the only place we found along the Interstate that was open (a donut shop), and headed out for a long, wild, and zany ride to Pittsburgh, with Harry behind the wheel, me riding shotgun, and Bernie in the back seat. We got back to the airport in Pittsburgh and our cars right at daybreak. It was another night to remember, but I’m saving that one for my memoirs.
I said she was kind, and she was. She was the most thoughtful, helpful, generous person I think I’ve ever known. She was never too short on time that she could not take a minute to help someone. She remembered birthdays, anniversaries, and other special events. She cared about peoples’ families, she’d send a card or call with good wishes when someone was sick, she’d somehow anticipate favors so that you wouldn’t have to ask.
The only thing I’m aware of that she actually hated was stupidity, which is another thing that bound us.
And there was plenty of stupidity to go around when, in 1998, MCS’s parent company (Mestek) got the bright idea that they could “grow the company” better than the quite considerable growth that we were generating all on our own, with Nick keeping them at arm’s length. Suddenly, Nick was out, and the first in a succession of waves of increasingly inept CEOs, along with their equally inept management teams, appeared on the scene, like a small carcinoma, which, over time, grew into a full-blown metastatic cancer that eventually did the company in.
As incompetence, arrogance, and downright skullduggery reigned supreme at a company whose name changed almost as regularly as its CEOs, Bernie took it all very hard. She had a traditional approach to her career, and came to work every day in order to work, dammit, and “these kids are just playing games, like they’re still in high school,” she’d say. As the increasing corporate stupidity started trickling down to where it began to interfere with her ability to do her job efficiently, it became more and more difficult for her, and she started talking about retiring. Still though, she seemed to double-down on working, keeping her head down and just focusing on the job at hand.
In this, she was much wiser than I was, as I felt the need to mix it up, throwing the occasional Molotov cocktail at corporate management, as I did when one of our more notorious CEOs was sent packing by the board of directors, and I sent around an email to all employees, saying how this was “a great day” for the company. I paid for that one, of course.
When she finally did retire, in early 2007, we threw what was probably the most enjoyable shindig in the company’s history, at D’Imperio’s restaurant. People who had long since left the firm came back from out of the woodwork when they heard that it was Bernie’s retirement. It was a very special evening, with food, drink, speeches, and young Jim Sirianni getting somewhat inebriated and being quite entertaining, as I recall.
Bernie was at the center of a great outpouring of love that night, and deservedly so.
Some of us were worried about her actually retiring, though, because her work was always so important to her. We needn’t have. She threw herself into her retirement with the same gusto that had served her so well during her work life. She did some traveling, she got to spend more time with her beloved nieces and nephews, and all of their children, and sometimes she did absolutely nothing. “Dave,” she would tell me, “I just never imagined I would like retirement so much. You really ought to try it.” It was clear that she was enjoying this new phase of her life.
She was one of the most naturally intelligent people I’ve ever known. She coupled this with a genuine compassion for others, a wicked sense of humor, and an innate ability to cut away all of the bullshit to get to that little ticking thing at the center of everything that really matters.
She was one of the core group of readers of my first blog, One Man’s Tofu. She especially loved my caustic political observations, and would call me when I wrote one that struck a particular chord with her. When I finally hung up blogging last year, after five years of almost daily output, she would tell me how much she missed reading it. I started this new blog on the very week that she died, so she never saw it. But I’m sure that she would have been checking it out today to read whatever I might have written, had this particular essay been unnecessary.
And I wish that it had been.
She went far too soon, at 69, and just six and a half years into her retirement. She worked too hard in her career for her victory lap to be so short, and she certainly deserved to spend more time in the loving embrace of her family, which meant the world to her. It’s not fair — to her, or to the rest of us.
But Bernie would be the first to tell you that life isn’t fair. She walked this earth with her eyes wide open; taking life as it came to her, with few expectations, and no delusions. She had a lasting effect upon anyone who wandered into her sphere of influence.
At the cemetery, her niece, Kathy, gave a moving eulogy, about what it was like to grow up with “Aunt Bernie”.
“It occurred to me that everyone should have an Aunt Bernie,” she began, and went on to describe her first-hand experience as a wide-eyed little girl entering the exciting world of her aunt on those occasions when she would spend extended periods staying with Bernie. She spoke of all the fun they had together, of entering Bernie’s inner sanctum, and what an adventure it all was for her. She choked back the tears several times as she spoke of that inescapable kindness and generosity that were that were woven into the vary fabric of Bernie’s DNA. “Yes, everyone should have an Aunt Bernie,” she said in conclusion. “But the real lesson, I think, is that everyone should be an Aunt Bernie to someone in their own lives.”
I said a lot about Bernie in this essay, but I wish I’d said that.
Those of us who were lucky enough to have had Bernie Lipovich in our lives had the very personification of kindness, generosity, humor, thoughtfulness, and love right in our midst. This is not a bad list of qualities for each one of us to strive for in our daily lives. Bernie showed us the way every single day.
For myself, all I know is that Bernie Lipovich enriched my life in ways that I am unable to express, and self-expression has never been a problem for me. I’m going to miss her terribly.
I suspect I won’t be the only one.