Butterfly and Bee

A reflection on the passing of Van McLeod

When I was about 13, my father asked me who in the world I most admired. I think my answer broke his heart a little.

He wasn’t fishing for adulation. He and I had a healthy bond. He was just curious about whom I wanted to emulate with my life and future career. Without having to think, I told him I wanted to be like Forrest J. Ackerman.

Now, chances are you don’t know that name (unless you were a 13-year-old boy sometime in the early 1960s), but “Forrie” Ackerman was the editor of Famous Monsters of Filmland, which just happened to be my favorite monster magazine. He also owned the most incredible collection of sci-fi and horror movie memorabilia on the planet. His Los Angeles home was a museum of the coolest stuff imaginable (to me).

I’ve had other peculiar heroes in the years since that father-son conversation. In fact, one of them left the planet since the last time I wrote one of these notes.

Van McLeod, longtime commissioner of cultural resources for New Hampshire, was given a heroic memorial service, pews packed with a blend of elites and commoners, at St. Paul’s Church in Concord on July 22. It was just a few days after the state was shocked to learn of his death. He kept his latest illness quiet. He’d endured the ravages of cancer earlier in his life, and it left his face scarred. This troubled him not so much because he was vain but because he detested the idea that an illness might define him in some way. Van revealed his true self in the things he did, the family he loved and the state he enriched with his talents, wisdom and humor.

I first got to know Van when I was serving on the charter board of NH Made, a group created to help brand New Hampshire products (long before the locavore movement). He came to most meetings but wasn’t an official member, as I recall. Over the years, I realized this was his MO. He’d drop in to a planning session or organizing committee, offer some wisdom or advice, then disappear for a while. I came to view him as a pollinator, drifting from cause to cause, without ever landing for too long. As NH Commissioner of Cultural Resources — a role he essentially created — he had a lot of  blossoms to pollinate.

His actions reminded me of the catchphrase of another hero of mine who died recently — Muhammad Ali. Ali described his prize-fighting style thusly: “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.” Van would float from one cultural project to the other, but he always knew just when and where to deliver an effective “sting” to wake folks up, get things going or redirect wasted energy. He was so prolific that it’s hard to name a single thing of cultural importance that’s happened in the Granite State over the past quarter century without his mark, blessing or name attached to it.

Anyway, I think if my dad were here to ask me that same question today, I’d be able to say that, when (and if) I grow up, I want to be like Van McLeod — a pragmatic champion of the arts, an idealistic builder of community, a Scotsman who loved Ireland, a hippie in a suit and tie, half-butterfly and half-bee — and I think he’d approve.


Categories: Editor’s Note