Here is my July 20, 1995, column from The Providence Journal about my father and his best friend, who both were city planners. The images are photographed from an old copy of the column, so I apologize if the expressions on their faces are not entirely clear.
Pictured above are two men at their desks. The man on the left does not have the same “let’s get this over with” look evident in the smile of the man on the right. Perhaps this is because the man on the left had not yet become, when his picture was snapped, what both eventually would epitomize: the “old Washington hand.”
Both men were very dear to me. On the left, with the map of Chicago on his office wall, circa 1953 [the year I was born], is my father, William K. Brussat. To the right, with the southeastern U.S. on his wall, circa 1960, was my father’s best friend and my own best friend’s father, Hugh Mields Jr., who died two weeks ago. His son, Steve, and I attended the funeral last week. After the ceremony, we sat around telling old stories of Hugh, and also of Bill, who had died 17 years before.
We talked not of how much they had improved society, but of how much we, as kids, trembled at the prospect of exciting their displeasure. Gregg Watts, a buddy of ours from grade school who was at the funeral, recalled the time when Hugh discovered that Gregg and Steve had left telltale marks of boyish anger on the Mields’s new ping-pong table in the basement. (Whether the actual event or the retelling was, in fact, the more harrowing, I don’t know!)
Gregg noted how curious it was that all of us had remained so close to our friends from grade school – a phenomenon doubly odd, presumably, in our hyper-transitory hometown. He said he would write a book about that someday. That is a threat Gregg makes regularly. “But, Dave,” he added on this occasion, “why don’t you write about it in your column?”
Well, Gregg, I don’t want to steal your thunder (and, nota bene, this column goes out on the wire, so now the world awaits your book!). So I will address a question of greater interest (I suppose) to readers of this column: Did my father’s line of work, together with Hugh’s, influence what I write about?
My dad was a city planner in Chicago when I was born. He moved to Washington in 1955 to take a job as project manager for a development firm with big government urban-renewal projects. He was involved in the redevelopment of Southwest Washington and of Society Hill, in Philadelphia, to name just two. Not long ago, in fact, I found a copy of the Providence 1970 Plan among his papers; he was not involved, but evidently he was interested.
Bill and Hugh came to Washington at the same time. Mom recalls that the two husbands went job hunting together while she and Hugh’s wife, Irene, went sightseeing. Toward evening, they visited the gallery of the Senate, and noticed two men snoozing several rows down – Bill and Hugh, natch.
Hugh found work as assistant director for urban renewal at the National Association of Housing and Renewal Officials, and ultimately filled important posts at the National League of Cities, the U.S. Conference of Mayors and the federal Model Cities program before becoming partner, for 27 years, in a firm that lobbies on behalf of state and local agencies.
In 1963, Dad joined the U.S. Bureau of the Budget (now the Office of Management and Budget). He developed and administered a program called A-95, designed to ensure that, say, a state highway and a federal airport aren’t built on the same land.
Well, that’s how he simplified it for my young ears. Growing up, about all I knew was that he went to work after breakfast and returned for dinner. So far as I recall, none of his professional interests interested me. By the time Dad died in 1978, I aspired to write opinion columns on political issues. By 1985, I was doing that for the Journal-Bulletin. It was only by pure happenstance that, in 1991, I started writing about architecture and urban development.
The careers of my father and his best friend flourished in the heyday of urban renewal and modern architecture. I never heard them utter a syllable against either “glass boxes” or “slum clearance.” In those days, that’s how urban development was done.
I was going to end with some flapdoodle connecting a shift from modernism back to traditionalism in urban design and the family, but I beg off.
My mom always says she thinks Dad must be pleased that I’m writing about what interested him. If I have the ability to write well about architecture and urban design (as Mom insists), perhaps it is in my genes. My dad always used to say he didn’t care what his children did for a living so long as we tried our best to do it well. I’m sure Steve would tell me his dad said the same thing. Don’t all fathers say that?
I can only hope that if my dad and my dad’s best friend are, in fact, pleased at what I write, that their smiles are of the indulgent variety. I have little doubt, however, that if they’ve read this far, they are rolling their eyes and saying “Let’s get this over with!”
Two decades later I don’t really have much to add to that, at least for now, thought there surely is much more to say. My mother once told me, as we were passing through Alexandria, Va., on the Metro, that Dad disliked the George Washington Masonic Temple Memorial, which we could see out the window. Not enough evidence to go to trial on that, it seems to me.