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Opinion >  Column

Doug Clark: Gordon Vales tore his way into our hearts

One of the gentlest souls I’ve ever met went to sleep in his South Hill apartment last week and didn’t wake up.

Gordon Vales. He was 79.

If the name doesn’t mean anything, the nickname that thousands upon thousands knew him by just might.

Vales was Spokane’s famed Silhouette Man.

Maybe you saw him at Expo ’74, his debut public venue.

Or maybe you caught him at the Spokane Interstate Fair, where he did his thing for a run of 53 years.

His otherworldly talent once took him to Japan where Vales won an art award. He traveled to New York City and awed the hordes at Central Park.

Jean Pickett, Vales’ closest friend, summed him up in a word.

“Magic,” she said. “He was magic.”

You’ll get no argument from me.

The Silhouette Man never needed more than a quick glance at any subject.

Then manipulating his agile fingers, adding just the right amount of nail pressure, he’d tear a black piece of paper into a dead-bang silhouette likeness.

Vales wasn’t restricted to the human form.

Airplanes and warships. Action heroes. Cartoon characters. Birds and beasts …

You name it. He’d tear it.

Experts in cognitive phenomenon diagnosed Vales as an “autistic savant.”

One in a zillion is how I’d put it.

I got to know the small, polite man when he tore a silhouette of me outside Manito Park’s Park Bench Cafe in 2003.

I was captivated by his childlike innocence as he talked casually about his love for Zorro and the Hulk and old TV shows.

Two decades earlier, he had made a silhouette of my son, Ben, during an outing to Riverfront Park.

Vales immortalized Chris Weber’s miniature poodle Snickelfritz a few years ago.

“Unbelievable. Looks exactly like my dog,” said Weber, who befriended Vales as a resident in the same apartment complex.

“It’s already lonesome without Gordon around,” she said, “being pushed in his wheelchair and hearing him say, ‘How are you doing, how are you doing?’ ”

And that, perhaps, was the real magic of Gordon Vales.

“His compassion for people was unending,” added Pickett. “He’s very, very deeply loved.”

It didn’t start out that way for Vales.

After interviewing him for my 2003 column, I remember digging through an old file in the newspaper’s library.

I learned that Vales was institutionalized at age 4.

A story about his silhouettes from the early 1950s stopped me cold. It gave a glimpse into the societal Dark Ages, when people with autism were branded “retarded” and largely misunderstood.

“During the summer months, when he is not attending school, he forgets everything he has learned the previous winter,” said L.F. Mason, Lakeland Village superintendent.

“He apparently has no ability to retain anything for long.”

The future for such a special lad would have been grim had it not been for a hero named Rhoda Williams.

A part-time teacher at Lakeland, Williams saw potential in Vales. She took him to her farm home to help with chores and to expand his horizons.

Sure enough, Vales began to blossom.

Williams’ six kids loved him. Vales became part of the family, attending Sunday school where he learned to love Jesus and tore silhouettes of his classmates.

Gradually, Vales began to see the possibilities of a real life ahead.

In 1980, he took a bold step and moved into his own apartment.

He treated his silhouette making as his way to pay the bills. Plus he loved the attention he got from a legion of astounded patrons who gladly paid a few bucks for a piece of art and an unforgettable experience.

“He just touched so many souls,” agreed Pickett.

After being roughed up by some punks at Riverfront Park, Vales found a safer home near the cafe at Manito Park.

Day after day, rain or shine, summer after summer, Vales walked 5 miles from his North Side apartment to the park where he would wait for someone who needed a silhouette to come along.

Vales eventually cut his long walk to a happy stroll by moving to an apartment on 29th.

When engaged with a customer, he’d talk freely about his guinea pigs or his obsession with old Hollywood. Blessed with a photographic memory, Vales could recall dates and events and people he’d met with incredible accuracy.

Illness confined Vales to his apartment for the last year. Breathing became difficult and he needed oxygen.

Eventually “his old heart just gave out,” said Pickett, adding that his “prayer was that people would be better to each other and to know God loved them.”

The Silhouette Man will be honored in a 4 p.m. service on May 26 at Manito Presbyterian Church. Umpqua Bank on 30th and Grand is setting up a Gordon Vales Memorial Fund for donations. Pickett said the fund will be used to create a public memorial in his honor.

Vales left the world not asking for much, said Pickett.

“He wanted nothing more than to have people go to Manito Park and sit on a bench and remember he was there.”

Doug Clark is a columnist for The Spokesman-Review. He can be reached at (509) 459-5432 or by email at dougc@spokesman.com.

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