Friday, June 28, 2019

Goodbye, Verizon: Remember Our Names

My ghost
Here are three thoughts today as I leave Verizon (formerly Bell Atlantic, formerly NYNEX) after 34 years to begin a new chapter in my life.

1.  No one is truly gone until their name is no longer mentioned.

This is a universal truth, expressed in different ways in different cultures over many centuries by artists and poets and philosophers.

To put it another way, it's our duty to remember those who came before us.

Here are five names of coworkers who have died, and who still have a special place in my heart.

First, from NYNEX, is Tony Pappas. He is and has always been the soul of Verizon's media relations department.

Tony Pappas
Tony was one of my first bosses. He was a legendary New York City PR executive who was a trusted confidante of journalists like Jimmy Breslin, Steve Dunleavy (who coincidentally died just this week), Pete Hamill, Larry Sutton and Verizon's own Steve Marcus. Tony cannot be described in a few words. If you're a movie aficionado, as Tony was, think Peter O'Toole in "My Favorite Year."

Tony lived a long and happy life. He passed away a few months ago, and I attended services surrounded by his family at a graveside in Rutherford, NJ, where he's buried near the poet William Carlos Williams.

This is just to say how appropriate that is.

On a more tragic and somber note, I want to mention the names of contemporaries who all died much too young.

Robin Flowers
Robin Flowers was my great friend at NYNEX. I lost track of him when he became a vice president at AT&T, then heard the sad news that he had died of multiple sclerosis in 2012.

A big man with a booming laugh, we did our share of drinking together when we were very young. But, fortunately, we also had colleagues who made up for all the brain cells we may have destroyed.

One was Jamie DePeau, an incredible spirit who died of cancer in 2016. She was the smartest of us all.

Jamie DePeau
Jamie's wildly successful post-NYNEX second act – as a senior marketing VP for TIAA-CREF and then as CMO for Lincoln Financial – inspires me today as I embark on my own new journey.

At Jamie's memorial service, I marveled at the outpouring of love and affection among family, friends and coworkers that overflowed a church that morning in Ridgewood, NJ.

The fourth name, from Bell Atlantic, is Jeff Gluck. He died of ALS in 2012, leaving behind a wonderful family, including still-young children.

Jeff was my tech guru. We shared a love of software applications and gadgets. My fondest memory of him is one morning in the early 1990s, after he installed one of the first browsers to view sites on something called the World Wide Web.

Jeff Gluck
A group of us huddled around Jeff at offices at 1095 Ave. of the Americas in New York, as he taught us about the Internet. "Where would you like to go?" Jeff asked excitedly. "I can take you anywhere in the world from this keyboard."

Our colleague Carol Fessler said, "I'd like to go to The Louvre!"

So Jeff typed a few keystrokes – and as the page loaded we realized unexpectedly, embarrassingly, that we were arriving at a site selling pornography. That truly was an appropriate introduction to our brave new world.

The fifth name, from Verizon, is Joellen Brown.

Joellen Brown
We all mourned her sudden, accidental death earlier this year. Joellen was a kind and thoughtful editor, and she wrote speeches for CEOs Ray Smith, Chuck Lee, Ivan Seidenberg and Lowell McAdam, retiring before the Hans Vestberg era began.

This past April, at another memorial service in another town, I again witnessed a room overflowing with love and affection for a life well-lived. Current and former Verizon colleagues traveled from all over the country – from Texas and West Virginia and Florida – to pay their respects and celebrate Joellen's life.

The most meaningful personal tribute I've received in my career was written in a card a dear friend gave me before the going-away party for a group of us last night. She wrote that Joellen told her when they first started working together that "if you can't find me, go find Varettoni..."

I hope I never let you down, Joellen.

2. I will never forget the Verizon PR team, and I will always mention their names with respect and love.

I'm awed by how talented, hard-working and creative the Verizon PR team is.

Here's our secret: we know that as important as the work itself is, how the work gets done is just as important. The team has always been at its best when we've shown up for each other, and when we've known we could depend on each other.

The work itself? Verizon is a company that connects people and helps them communicate. It deploys and enables new and life-changing technologies and applications.

I truly believe that Verizon is building a better future for those who will come after us.

As a company spokesperson for most of my career, that belief has made my job very easy. All the journalists I've worked with know that everyone they talk to has an agenda.

My agenda has been transparent: to be an effective advocate for all the people who make up the heart and soul of Verizon.

To all the Verizon customer service representatives, field technicians and engineers; all the Verizon Wireless store employees, executive assistants and office managers, and sales and support people; all the IT, technology and finance professionals: I admire your talents and I appreciate how difficult your jobs are.

Mine was a privileged position. I hope I always honored those I represented. Whenever I spoke on behalf of Verizon, I always knew I was standing on the shoulders of giants.

Speaking of which...

3. Here's to Robert J. Varettoni.

Robert J. Varettoni
My Dad, who died in 2005, also worked for Verizon for 34 years.

He started in sales at New York Telephone and eventually became a customer service director at NYNEX, then Verizon. He got his job at "the phone company" in 1956 through the influence of his buddy on the U.S.S. Midway and in the Navy Reserve, John A. Coleman, whose own father had been chairman of the NYSE.

Dad claimed he had no influence in getting me a job here in 1985. I find that hard to believe.

Also hard to believe (and including the few years our careers overlapped): tomorrow morning, for the first time in 63 years, there will be no "Bob Varettoni" working at Verizon.


Finally, here's something we all can believe in, no matter where we work. It's something Dad discovered through his colleagues Vinnie Merrill, Eileen Vodola and Ed Small:

There are people working beside you today who you will love and revere for your entire life.

So ask yourself: How are you showing up for them?

Our time together is really very short and unpredictable and precious.

How will people remember your name?


About the top photo: Dad's office used to be at 1095 Ave. of the Americas, where Verizon currently has its NYC headquarters. I have fond memories of visiting Dad there when I was a boy, so I worked from "1095" one day this week. This is a reflection of myself waiting for the elevator home.

Saturday, June 22, 2019

Enjoying Every Sandwich in an Instagram World

On the waterfront
"Enjoy every sandwich," advised the late, great Warren Zevon.

No one takes this motto to heart more than I do lately.

I'm about to leave Verizon, where I have worked (if you count predecessor companies NYNEX and Bell Atlantic) for more than 34 years.

This past week, I've been savoring every routine moment of the work day: waving to the guards at the entrance gate, listening to the chatter of my colleagues in our open office, responding to reporters and sparring with a curmudgeonly editor, using the Thrive app to order my daily chicken sandwich and then running into so many well-wishers on my way to and from the Verizon Basking Ridge Cafe. Heck, even my last dry-cleaning pickup was free this week (thank you, Willow French Cleaners!).

I also took many photos: using my dash cam to capture the campus as it appears when emerging from the bridge over North Maple Avenue, recording a last log-on at the Verizon gym, trying for an Instagrammable second-story view of the new basketball court from the new parking garage.

In 2019, this is the way I enjoy -- and remember -- life: Taking cell phone photos.

In this way, I am very different than my wife of less than 33 years.

Nancy's view is that people these days don't really appreciate life's moments because we are viewing them through our cell phones. We then edit our lives and package the images for social media.

At the gym
Guilty. Just look at my Instagram feed.

Last night on the summer solstice, the longest day of the year, Nancy went on a sunset cruise around Manhattan with my sisters-in-law.

Take photos, I asked, before she left.

She obliged. She sent me one photo... of the three of them toasting their voyage.

No Instagrammable New York City skyline for me.

Instead, Nancy focused on the sunset last night, while those around her were losing their heads to their cell phones and cameras. She savored the moment with her own eyes, in her own way.

This lesson is not lost on me. This morning, before dawn, I rose to watch the sun rise. I didn't take my cell phone with me.

It was beautiful, and I enjoyed it.

Oh, I'll still be taking my share of photos. To each his own, right? And maybe I could have used just a little more sleep on this beautiful first Saturday of summer.

Still, as Warren Zevon also once sang:

I'll sleep when I'm dead.


PS - One sister-in-law stayed over last night, and this morning I asked if she took any photos. She said no, they were busy catching up and enjoying the view. Besides, she said, noting that they've done this annual outing for several years now, "How many bad photos of the Statue of Liberty do I need to take in my life?"

Sunday, June 16, 2019

Photos of Dad

16 photos in remembrance of Dad on Father's Day 2019.

And here are a few life lessons from these rare photos.

You can also view these at this Google Photos album.

Thursday, June 13, 2019

'Everyone Knows That Place Is Haunted'

Annie's Road in Totowa
According to local legend, there are at least two haunted roads in Passaic County, NJ.

One is Annie's Road in Totowa, where I grew up.

"Annie" is supposedly the ghost, dressed in white, of a teenager killed by a pickup truck as she tried to find her way to safety along unlit Riverview Drive. The story goes that she fled her boyfriend's car after an argument on Prom Night.

All the locals call this stretch of Riverview Drive "Annie's Road," and roadside memorials keep her legend alive. A Halloween tradition is to spill red paint on the blacktop and guard rails so that drivers will think they see Annie's blood.

Annie's Road snakes behind a cemetery and bypasses an alcove of small homes called, with no pretense of political correctness, "Midget Village." All this is not too far from what every teenage boy calls "Doo-fus Road" -- Duffus Avenue -- behind The Bethwood, a popular hall for wedding receptions and school reunions.

It's easy to find one online post after another after another filled with stories about Annie sightings.

It's harder to find if there's any truth behind these stories. In Totowa, everyone knows someone who knew Annie... but there's no obituary or news story or even a last name to verify her identity.


The second haunted highway -- Clinton Road -- is the setting of a movie by the same name that premieres this Friday, June 14, on premium video and in nine cities (none in New Jersey).

It stars Ice-T and Vincent Pastore, and tells yet a few more tales about the nearly 10-mile stretch of road that cuts through a thick forest in former iron-mining country in West Milford, in the less-populated part of the county.

Ghost stories abound about Clinton Road, and you've no doubt heard a few yourself if you grew up in the Garden State. As a character states in the movie trailer embed below, "Everyone knows that place is haunted!"

But is it?

A story a few weeks ago in the North Jersey Record is a little more skeptical. Reporter David Zimmer does a great job in detailing the backstory.

Is the truth really out there about either of these haunted roads?

Does anyone know what corroborating evidence exists?

I'm curious. I don't want to spoil the fun of a good ghost story, but I truly want to know, the next time I drive down Riverview Drive, if I'm guilty of whistling past the graveyard.

Sunday, June 2, 2019

Fatima in The Ironbound, A Love Story

Every time I tried to take a photo of Our Lady of Fatima Church a few weeks ago, someone would be standing in prayer in front of the statue above the main entrance.

Our Lady of Fatima on Jefferson Street
The church is on a side street in The Ironbound, a largely Portuguese neighborhood in Newark.

The statue is of the Virgin Mary, who appeared to three children in Fatima, Portugal, on the 13th of each month from May through October 1917. They saw what they believed to be the Mother of God hovering above an oak tree where they had been herding sheep.

Still today, it's a devoutly held belief among many people -- as I saw for myself in Newark -- that if you pray to Our Lady of Fatima, she will intercede with God on your behalf.

What do I believe?

I believe every picture tells a story.

For more than a year, I've been taking photos of churches in New Jersey to post on Instagram every Sunday:

  • Churches in Paterson and Jersey City that keep their doors unlocked to provide shelter for the homeless.
  • Awe-inspiring beauty inside the church where my parents were married.
  • A distant rural church with a gravel parking lot, where the pastor shooed me away and the sign on the front door read, "All Are Welcome."

In general, I think churches tell love stories.

Churches are monuments to the better angels in all of us. They challenge us, frustrate us, inspire us.

Even if you don't believe any of that, it's self-evident that they surround us. The iconography of faith is everywhere... even in suburban New Jersey.

On this gorgeous late-spring Sunday afternoon, I took a long walk around my home town. From front lawns and gardens on almost every street, I saw little statues of the Virgin Mary patiently waiting for our mighty prayers.

The Marys of New Milford, NJ