One day in the summer of 1966 my father was opening the company mail when a letter caught his eye. It was from a woman at the Harvard Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass. writing to say that her boss, Professor C. Conrad Wright, wanted more records. The natural sounds of the sea, forest, and brooks were reorienting his thinking about the world outside of Harvard. She, on the other hand, wanted to say that the bird records were lighting up her life which had been nothing more than a subway commute between office and home. “You, Mr. Kilham, are doing a marvelous job!”
She was Dorothy Packard from Dorchester, Massachusetts, never married. She had one brother and a nephew. My father must have been intrigued by her writing and her compliments and he promptly answered with a thoughtful letter. They became attached through their correspondence. Finally, he called her and, he recollected, he proposed over the phone and she accepted. They were married on August 20, 1966, in a civil ceremony with Dr. Wright as the witness. Peter was 59 and Dorothy was 52.
Dorothy moved into my father’s bachelor apartment in Providence. I was traveling all around the country on my first job so I had not yet met Dorothy nor did I have any idea what she thought of Peter’s apartment. She previously lived in a simple apartment in greater Boston and didn’t have a lot of furniture or other belongings, so it probably wasn’t a great adjustment. We may assume they were like a new young couple just starting out in life.
Dorothy was a tireless correspondent and she wrote marvelous letters This was especially timely because the bird records customers were writing many letters both of adoration and complaint. If their letters were answered in a non-corporate, personally concerned way, they remained loyal customers.
She was also very perceptive about people’s thoughts and true motivations. This was very helpful to the business because at that time a lot of record sales were through small shops specializing in bird products. Many of them couldn’t pay their suppliers, or if they could, stretched their payments out for months. Dorothy quickly ferreted out the deadbeats and politely but firmly cut them off. She loved to comment, “That old so-and-so. He doesn’t fool me.” My father wouldn’t have picked them out, or if he did, he would have fallen for their stories and continued deliveries to them.
In his 1966 annual report, my father wrote:
Financially the year was a hard one, and would not have come out very well without the help of Dorothy Kilham who became a stockholder and worked very hard for Droll Yankees without receiving any pay. She wrote hundreds of letters to school authorities, and as a result, we have had personal contacts with most of the Educational Directors in 50 states, have received a visit from the chief of Audio-Visual Education for Texas, and are now having our records on the air on the Los Angeles Educational Network. Besides this many school principals, librarians and teachers have sent in orders due to her efforts.
So it may not have been by coincidence that the company reported a decent profit in the following year. Sales in 1967 were $211,388 in 2018 dollars and the net profit was $28,411. Sales were about the same as the early 1960s but now there was a profit. In addition to being a charming wife, Dorothy was a great help in the business.
1968 was a momentous year as well. My father welcomed my visit home with, “We received a loan from the bank and the SBA (U.S. Government Small Business Administration) for $24,000. Now we can pay off all our liabilities and invest in new records and equipment.” There was a huge roast beef, a Dorothy specialty, and wine instead of the usual beer on the dining room table.
“What do you think?” Dorothy asked wih a Boston accent. “Is it time for us to get a house?”
“Of course!” I answered, and then without much tact I asked, “But how are you going to pay for it?”
She winked at me and said, “We have our ways.”
Later I learned that the house was in joint ownership, so probably Dorothy invested her savings in it.
Located in Barrington, an upscale suburb of Providence, this one story Cape Cod style house gave them the breathing room they wanted. It was a ten-minute walk to a beach on Narragansett Bay, and they hoped the moderately wealthy neighbors would be interesting to know.
The business would remain at One India Street in Providence, at least for inventory, shipping, and receiving. My father’s office was in the basement of the new house. He managed to install in the space a small machine shop and a small press to print brochures, mailings, and record jackets.
I visited them at their Barrington home on a freezing winter day. It was warm and snug inside. Dorothy welcomed me with a hug and said my father was downstairs in his office. We had talked on the phone and exchanged letters, so we didn’t need to spend a lot of time catching up. I was having a hard time keeping up with her as she was alternating between the kitchen where dinner was cooking and an alcove where she was finishing up paperwork.
Dorothy was short and trim and always had a warm smile. She shared my father’s general optimism about life and pessimism about politicians. She had almost no apparent possessions such as family pictures or jewelry and only a few changes of clothes.
She and Peter rarely ventured out except for a walk to the beach or a trip to the post office, bank, and supermarket. No theater, dinner engagements, or trips to far away places. They referred to themselves as “mom-and-pop in the record business.”
I ventured down to the basement where my father was engrossed in new record jacket art and lettering. He showed me around reminding me not to hit my head on the pipes overhead. He pointed out a large air compressor in the corner. “Let’s go upstairs and I’ll show you what it’s for.”
On a window ledge behind the dining room table, he showed me a brass train whistle about six inches tall. It was screwed into a pipe going downstairs, and there was a cord on it for pulling from the engineer’s cab to activate its valve.
He put on a red bandana and a gray striped engineer’s cap and pulled the cord. The whistle screeched as he shouted above it, “All aboard!” Dorothy was peeping around the kitchen door, smiling. On the walls hung the large Currier & Ives engravings of passenger steamboats on the New England coast and the Hudson River that were in his work area in One India Street. Odds and ends of Victorian bric-a-brac completed the decoration. The whole scene was charming and they were very happy.
Over dinner, they told me that John Chafee, who was now the Republican governor of Rhode Island, had visited earlier in the week at Dorothy’s request. She was concerned about the pollution of Narragansett Bay and wondered what he was going to do about it. They got into such a spirited conversation that he stayed for dinner. He had resigned from the Droll Yankees board due to the pressures of his office. He remained a close friend and was an ardent environmentalist. This would stand my father in good stead when Chafee went on to be a U.S. senator.
After dinner when I was trying to get to sleep, I heard feet running around and laughing and talking. It sounded like a teenagers’ pajama party. Then I realized that the honeymooners were having the fun that they so far had missed in life. In a sense, they always remained honeymooners.
The next morning, Dorothy and I had coffee before my father stirred. I couldn’t get her to reflect on her personal situation. She kept backing away from that conversation, saying that she was happy to be here but my father and I should discuss the big issues. She always was in a secondary position in business and had no family life, so maybe that was why she was not assertive about her thoughts and philosophies.
She did say, “I love your father’s attitude. He is not afraid of the future. This is what makes him so young in spirit. Don’t waste time worrying about what may never happen. No matter what happens in life, there is always a new start, a new tomorrow, or a new minute to begin again. Remember that and always keep your sense of humor. Peter does.”
Just then, my father appeared, looking for breakfast, He sat down at the rickety kitchen table that I think came all the way from Plainville and began making a drawing on a pad. The object was taking shape in two views with a few dimensions.
He looked out of the window. The snow was falling again and he nudged Dorothy. A couple of bright red cardinals were trying to loosen some food frozen in a bird feeder. He looked intently at them and then studied his drawings. I knew his imagination and creativity were working on a new idea.
Larry Kilham is an award-winning author who has traveled extensively overseas for over twenty years. He worked in several large international companies and started and sold two high-tech ventures. Larry has written books about creativity and invention, artificial intelligence and digital media, travel overseas, and four novels with an AI theme. He looks forward to hearing from readers at firstname.lastname@example.org.