Whenever Robert Valade embarked on a commissioned piece, or simply took his hammer and chisel to cut an exquisitely fashioned design into a gift for a friend, he first bowed his large head and prayed to God to help him finish the job right. It was a simple ritual Robert performed some 14,000 times during a 45-year career as a master engraver, a calling that followed his adolescent adventures breaking horses, riding bulls, and flying small planes in and around his birthplace of La Grande in eastern Oregon. Like many others, in time I was lucky enough to receive an elegant silver ID tag with my initials etched on one side and, more importantly, the trademark “V” on the other, along with a card that hoped I “wouldn’t mind” Robert sending “this trinket, which comes with my best wishes and affection.” The charm and generosity of this note, not to mention the gift itself, were typical of a man who was sensitive, honest, patriotic, God-fearing, monogamous, plainspoken, and humble, and thus in every way the antithesis of the self-esteem crowd who have so thoroughly hijacked our culture.
Robert Valade passed away at age 75 on November 1, 2016.
While most engravers turned to quicker and easier machine methods, Robert stuck with the old ways of hand-cutting designs into guns, knives, saddles, jewelry, belt buckles, and just about anything else that people cared to bring him. He was well aware of the responsibility that came from working on irreplaceable family heirlooms. “When you do your own stuff it doesn’t matter so much if you mess it up,” he once remarked with a soft chuckle. “But when you work on somebody else’s keepsakes—like guns that have been passed down through generations—well, golly, you don’t want to foul it up.” That “golly” was as rich an intensifier as Robert ever allowed himself. I shall always treasure the sight of his deeply weathered face, not unlike that of the actor Buddy Hackett, his glasses rapidly pushed up or down, rapt with concentration, crouched over his workbench like a blacksmith among his hardware. There was something wonderfully incongruous about the way Robert went about his business. The delicate, almost doll-like tools of his trade seemed absurd when gripped in hands the size of bear paws, which tended to shake when idle but which became perfectly poised and still when at work. There was no easy shortcut once Robert began a job, and certainly nothing accomplished while thinking about something else. It was an indication of his character and integrity that he never rushed what he did, and that he gave every new customer the clear and highly congenial impression, no more than the truth, that their property mattered to him more than his own. It was a classic case of the infinite capacity for taking pains. Something about the whole scene had the timeless appeal of watching a master craftsman patiently and expertly pursue his trade.
Robert grew up in the American West of the 1940’s and early 50’s, in a little town with a sugar factory and neighborhoods full of neat picket-fenced houses with American flags fluttering aloft, a child of his times and place in every sense. To be religious, patriotic, and uxorious is nowadays to invite public ridicule, but to Robert these flagrantly unfashionable qualities were as natural as the Pacific air he breathed. In 1964, he married Joann, his high-school sweetheart, and they were inseparable for the remaining 52 years of his life. She once told a reporter of the “rather lonely” young man and aspiring artist she had married. “He was a nervous guy, very shy, and sometimes his hands would shake. And then he would put his brush on the canvas and he was perfectly still,” she said. Robert told me that he had wanted to become an oil painter for much of his 20’s and 30’s, “but I was no good at it”—a typically modest assessment that the work itself refutes, shot through as it is with depths of coloring and a tension between depictive realism and pictorial convention that conjures strange hints of Turner. Yet it remained a hobby, as for many years did engraving. “Kids would bring me their Zippo lighters, and I would scratch something on them, but I never thought of making any money with it,” Robert remembered. Another aspect of his unusual ability to efface himself, to remove his own ego from any exchange, was his determination that, “If I don’t have anything to say, I don’t say anything.”
One night in 1968, Robert’s elder brother Pat traded a guy in a bar a few beers for a set of old hand-engraving tools. Pat asked his brother to engrave an elk on one side of his Winchester 94 rifle and a deer on the other in exchange for the tools. “I guess that’s when it all began,” Robert recalled. “Pat showed people and they liked it, and they started bringing me things and they paid me.” He still seemed surprised by this turn of affairs 40 years later. At around the age of 30 Robert was receiving regular commissions from the Gerber Legendary Knife Co. in Portland, and soon numbered the likes of Chuck Yeager, John Wayne, and Roy Rogers among his celebrity clients. All this happened within the space of one and the same year. Later Robert worked on a pair of Colt Single Action Army revolvers that he engraved for Ronald Reagan, at the time he was first running for the presidency. He thought Reagan was an American hero. “Boy, was I nervous at that first cut,” Robert laughed fondly.
In the early 1990’s the Valades moved from the small town of La Grande to the even smaller one of Seaside, about 300 miles away on the northern Oregon coast. A few years later someone invited me to speak to a book club there, and that’s how I met Robert. His craggy face and rumpled, beachcomber’s garb made for a welcome contrast to the subject under discussion, which as I recall was either Mick Jagger or Kurt Cobain. Neither of these individuals would seem to have been features of Robert’s natural habitat, but I remember him sitting there front and center, smiling encouragingly up at me, and being first in the admittedly short receiving line afterward. He was there the next year, too, and the one after that, and pretty soon we were occasional correspondents—I wish it had been more often—and he ended the last letter he sent me by saying, “Fondest wishes to my favorite writer.” I don’t suppose for a moment I was, but I warmed at the amiable thought. At the very least, I reflected, I had one of those exhilarating consolations that are among the chief rewards of the minor author’s life—an unsolicited note of commendation from someone whose opinion really counts.
I went back to Seaside in the late fall of 2016, and for once Robert wasn’t there. In time the obituary page of the local paper confirmed the worst. A commonplace man enough, perhaps, except when he had his artist’s tools in his hands; Robert Valade was a quiet American of the very best kind, modest, God-fearing, brave, loyal, and generous almost to a fault—and I might add palpably present while I have been remembering him, I hope to his honor, here.