Remembering John K. Bestor
December 15, 1921- October 5, 2008
It's a bright, cool morning in the summer of 1944. For reasons I no longer remember, if I ever knew, we are ambling toward downtown. It’s not far; Plattsmouth, Nebraska—about 18 miles from Omaha—is a small town of perhaps 5,000 residents. I'm six, he's 22 and a first lieutenant in the Army Artillery, but about to get captain's bars. In a few days he will be in Germany and, in the spring of '45, sit on the very tip of the Allied spear aimed at the heart of Berlin and Victory in Europe. But on this day he's letting his nephew tag along, treating him like a person instead of a kid.
"Whaddaya wanna talk about?," says the lieutenant. "I dunno," replies the kid. "Well then, how ‘bout God, man, woman and the universe?" And so began a conversation that lasted for 64 years and covered sports, politics, music, food, wine, the stock market, computers, and most of all, European travel—especially Germany. It all came to an end very early Sunday morning, October 5th, in a Kansas City, Missouri, nursing home. To be completely accurate, the actual talking stopped several years ago when the Alzheimer's began in earnest to do its awful work on his fine brain (he was a high school valedictorian who never cracked a book, top of his University of Nebraska law school class, and senior partner in what, at the time, was middle America's largest law firm outside of Chicago).
I’m talking about my uncle, John K. Bestor, without whom there would be no Gemütlichkeit travel newsletter, no Gemut.com.
While growing up, I never dreamed of travel in Europe, especially on my own, and especially in Germany. I knew no language but English and I pictured Germany to be the bombed-out, rubble-strewn place I had seen in newsreels. But in 1973 Uncle John introduced Liz and me to independent European travel when he convinced us to meet him in France, where we toured by car for a few days together, visiting Bordeaux, Burgundy (Liz and John at Moulin-a-Vent, 1973, photo right) and Alsace. He taught us the Michelin Red Guides, detailed maps, and the backcountry byways he called "Yellow Roads" (their color on maps). Then, at my uncle’s urging, using our newfound travel skills, the next European destination was Germany where he had been going annually for several years. I was immediately captivated and, somehow scraping up the money, we returned year after year.
We didn't travel much with John, managing only a few times to connect with him for a day or two. He liked the solitude of his little rental car and the backroads, stopping at tiny inns where he could speak German and drink beer with the locals. On his last few trips he rented flats in the Partenkirchen end of Garmisch-Partenkirchen where he basked in the Bavarian country culture and the slow pace of village life. Regrettably, his first wife, Fritzi, who died in the early ‘90s, didn't travel. I am sure it was one of his life’s joys that his second wife, Lorena, accompanied him on those last visits.
Over the years 1965 to the early '80s, my jobs with professional sports teams took me frequently to Kansas City. When I came to town with the Oakland Raiders, John would prepare great feasts for me and my colleagues and friends in the media. He was an adventurous cook and had what must have been one of the town's best wine cellars. Long before movie stars and dot.com multi-millionaires drove up the price of French wines in this country, John was laying down case upon case of classified growth Bordeaux, and top-of-the-line Burgundies, both red and white. For us, he poured Chateau Latour 1962, '59 Chateau Palmer, the fabulous dessert wine of Sauterne, Chateau d'Yquem, the great ports of the celebrated '63 vintage, and his favorite bubblies, Moet and Cristal.
Some of my friends became his friends. The late Bill King, longtime San Francisco Bay Area football (Raiders) baseball (A's)and basketball (Warriors) broadcaster, hooked up with John for lunch or dinner every time he was in Kansas City.
There was nothing John would rather do than practice law, often saying it was so much fun he’d do it for free. Among his clients were several Fortune 500 companies. His specialty was labor law, and he lived for the negotiations; the ultimate test of his experience, knowledge, wit and nerve. At his funeral, his son-in-law, Les, told me he had seen a newspaper article that listed the midwest’s top attorneys as rated by their peers; John was number one in the labor category. He kept the same clients for decades, only stepping down when, at the onset of Alzheimer’s, he realized his mind might fail him—and his clients—at a critical moment.
It wasn't just how to travel in Europe that I learned from my uncle. Looking back over the past 40 years, it's clear he was a pretty hip guy. He told me about Warren Buffet in the mid ‘70’s. He managed his own investments, pouring over Barron's, the Wall Street Journal, Investor's Business Daily and Valueline. He eagerly anticipated personal computers and in 1983 purchased one of the first IBM PCs. With a pioneer investment software called Dow Jones Analyzer, he monitored his stocks and made buy-sell decisions. A wise and prudent investor, he made millions in the market.
Being a well-heeled, sought-after attorney changed my uncle not a bit. He belonged to a country club but never went there. Kansas City society bored him. Instead he spent much of his free time, probably too much for his marriage and family, in Luigi's, a small restaurant and bar that, for a time, ran a wide-open bookmaking operation, posting odds on a chalkboard behind the bar. Its owner, Luigi Bonura, who became perhaps John’s closest friend, was rumored to be “connected,” a notion my uncle dismissed. On Sunday mornings after Mass, John would visit his mother (my grandmother) and then drop by Luigi’s for a beer. Kansas City’s “blue laws” prevented the sale of alcohol on Sundays, but Luigi did paperwork on Sunday and discreetly hosted two or three of his favorite customers. Among them was a tiny, shabbily-dressed man who owned a number of office buildings in the Kansas City area. One morning this eccentric, five-foot tycoon choose me to complain to about the runaround he was getting at the local power company. “In life,” he said in his thick mid-European accent, “one God, one wife, but not one power company.”
My uncle was also, of course, a member of the so-called "greatest generation;" those men who risked their lives for an ideal, got the job done, and never talked much about it afterward. I did coax one story out of him, however.
As U.S. forces moved eastward across Germany in early1945, his assignment was to fly in a light plane over the German lines and assess their positions and strength. On one mission he and his pilot were forced down in the no-man's land behind the retreating Germans, but ahead of the advancing U.S. Army. There was no choice but to spend the night with the airplane. At dusk, a handful of thin, raggedly-dressed men materialized in the gloom about 50 meters from the airplane. Gesturing toward a bucket on the ground before them, they beckoned the Americans to approach. With great caution and drawn pistols, my uncle and his pilot slowly advanced. The scarecrows were, of course, DPs (displaced persons), Eastern European forced laborers, abandoned by the Germans to survive on their own. Cool white wine sloshed in their bucket. They led the way to a nearby cave where a river of wine splashed onto the cave floor from the open spigot of a huge cask. Needless to say, a good deal more wine was drunk that night than the currently recommended, heart-healthy glass or two per day. Though the language barrier prevented meaningful conversation there were many toasts and much laughter.
Very early the next morning, my uncle and his pilot awoke, no doubt massively hungover—an affliction John claimed he never suffered from—in a rain puddle under the airplane’s wing. The small cask of wine they had rolled from the cave was too heavy or too large to fit in the plane so they hid it in brush, hoping to retrieve it later. They never found it.
The day the war in Europe ended, John watched the celebration from a rooftop in Stuttgart. A German man tried to shake his hand but, with the fresh memory of a liberated concentration camp, he refused. It was one of the few acts in his life he regretted.
He remained in Germany for several months after V-E Day, living with several other Army officers in a house in Heidelberg (2 Helmholtzstrasse, it’s still there), near the Neckar River. He came home on a slow troop ship, playing poker constantly during the eight-day crossing. But something in Germany pulled him back and he returned many times.
Not many people got close to him, and I count myself fortunate to be among the few. He was a mentor whose advice I frequently sought. “What would Uncle John do in this situation?,” is a question I still ask myself—a sensible exercise because he was perhaps the least impulsive, slowest to anger, clearest thinking person I’ve ever known.
“Iron-ass” was the joking term John sometimes used to describe a category of people he admired. Iron-asses never break their word and never compromise their values. No matter how hard the winds blow, they stand fast. But most of all, regardless the circumstance, they can always and absolutely be depended upon. I’ve only met a handful who meet those qualifications, and sad to say, as of October 5, 2008, there’s one fewer than there used to be.—Bob Bestor