A week ago last Friday, I had an interesting conversation on the last leg of a cross-country flight to visit my daughter and grandsons. My seatmate for that stretch had worked on the documentary Blackfish with director Gabriela Cowperwaite.
The film was being shown the next day at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. When he learned that I live in Durham, North Carolina, he asked if I had ever been to the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival held there each April, which of course, I had.
As the flight crew interrupted to announce preparations for landing, my attention turned to the snow-covered peaks of the Wasatch Mountains that frame Salt Lake City from the east and I began thinking about how serendipity such meetings and conversations can be.
It brought to mind a time nearly 40 years ago when I headed up the newly-created community-destination marketing organization for Spokane, Washington, and became acquainted with two very accomplished inventors, Ray Hanson and Luke Williams.
Hanson, who passed away a few years ago, was another Idaho native who, while studying engineering at the University of Idaho, had invented an automated self-leveling attachment to enable efficient harvesting of wheat on the steep hillsides of the Palouse region.
This was just one of over a hundred patents for products he manufactured in Spokane and sold in 50 countries around the world. At the time we met, Hanson was even more famous for having invented equipment that laid down entire highways and dig huge canals with the motto of “a mile a day.”
Little did either of us realize that the next move in my career would be Anchorage as we discussed the invention he used to help construct the just-completed Trans-Alaskan Pipeline.
Ray also planted the bug that led me later in life to learn to ride heavy motorcycles and take flying lessons. He had owned a WWII era P-51 Mustang fighter and introduced me to a friend and former airline pilot in Spokane who at the time rehabilitated WWI era Boeing-Stearman biplanes, which became a part of Spokane’s eclectic appeal.
I first met Ray while snow-skiing a new area, one of several in a 50 mile radius of Spokane, that with his support had been re-built in the 1970s and rechristened 49 Degrees North. In part, he may have even been an inspiration for a Ski The 51st State promotion the organization I led produced.
Luke Williams, after graduating from the same high school where I would later spend my sophomore and junior years, had returned from World War II to found a neon sign business with his brother.
In 1951, the Williams brothers invented the electronic time and temperature signs which rapidly became ubiquitous outside bank branches. Luke believed signs such as that needed to serve a public purpose as much as capitalism.
The invention helped evolve their company into the huge American Sign and Indicator Corporation in Spokane but by the time I met Luke in the mid-1970s the company had moved on to developing stadium scoreboards, again marrying public service to signage.
He took an interest in my career in community-destination marketing because the organization was intended to leverage the success of Expo ‘74 into long-term visitor-centric economic and cultural development.
As part of the World’s Fair, Luke had been instrumental in persuading the state to construct an opera house and adjacent convention center and then then after the Fair to give it to the community for a dollar.
Luke definitely planted a vision for me that while tourism development has commercial aims, it should significantly also leverage historic preservation, the arts and unique sense of place.
Shortly after I left Spokane for Anchorage, Williams’s sold American Sign which was was relocated to another state and later dissembled. In 2004 Luke passed away.
As the wheels touched down on my flight, it occurred to me as it often does now in retirement, just how we gain from even brief encounters with the people we meet during our lives.
And by the way, the day before my return, I read that CNN Films and Magnolia Pictures had partnered to secure distribution of Blackfish. The documentary will be in theaters by summer and air on CNN sometime during the year.
The film covers the same 40-year span, one in which Orcas have been captured and trained for commercial tourism purposes. As the CNN release notes, “ultimately, it is a story about the life and death consequences of a spectacle that has thrilled millions.”
It also illustrates a type of tourism that is very different than the place-based tourism endorsed by the two inventors I came to know at the beginning of my career.