Paul Marsh, pioneer Patagonia rep from 1976 to 1995, lit out this Saturday on the road that cannot be mapped. He was 65.
I last talked to Paul in October; the litany of health problems did not sound good. Then came the e-mail in December. He was going off the road for his million-mile overhaul – hip, back, shoulder, knee. But he never went into the shop. The bloodwork turned out worrisome; the doctors at Emory worked for a couple of months to suss out what the numbers meant. On Saturday he had trouble breathing and thought he had the flu. Brenda took him to the hospital; his blood pressure was low and he died of sepsis that night.
In this space here you’ll find some appreciations of Paul from Mike Thompson, Steve Rogerson and Dawson “Chattanooga Does Not Exist” Wheeler, plus a roast I wrote that June Fox read aloud at Paul’s 50th birthday dinner and food fight. Please write your own line; this will be for Brenda.
[Bubba Sloan, Denny Mays and Paul Marsh, 1985: Three Georgia boys try out California’s biggest hot tub. Photo: First appeared in the Patagonia Quarterly, 1985. Editor’s note: Email your photo of Paul, with caption and photo credit, to thecleanestline[at]patagonia.com and we’ll add it to this post.]
When I got the call I was reading at a picnic table in Fort Mason by old battery guns once trained on would-be 19th century invaders of San Francisco Bay. A gorgeous day – blue, slight breeze, high fifties. High spring. You could see the boats out and the swimmers from the Dolphin Club. Spring followed us home to Santa Barbara. Yesterday morning I could see, could feel, the light play in the leaves of the old cork tree outside my window.
When I remember Paul, I remember him in motion: two in the morning on a hot, all-fans-on-high Georgia night, packing the samples and folding the racks for the next day’s trip, or out at dusk feeding his dozen scrambling rescued dogs. I remember being on the other end of the phone listening to the motion of Paul’s mind and in the presence of a spirit that sailed all day at a steady 20 knots.
He had a wry sense of humor, a developed sense of justice, intensity – he could chain-smoke while chewing on a Nicorette – and a passion to get it done, all that he had to get done in a day. He was never mean and the only lie I ever heard him say was, talking to his fellow reps, “You know, I never tell the truth.” He was relentlessly loyal to the people and animals he decided were inside his tribe; we were legions. Working at my desk yesterday, feeling the light play in the leaves I wondered where Paul might be, and not allegorically. All that spirit; where does it go?
Thirty-three years ago I met up with a guy in the Desolation Wilderness; he was a rugged and handsome bearded lad, and we came to know him as Paul Marsh. This was at a sales meeting – the kind that used to happen out of doors. The company was called Trailwise. Vincent Stanley and Peter Noone and few others would remember this iconic brand. Maybe if Colin Fletcher was still alive, he could weigh in as well. I barely remember the product talk at the time, but I vividly remember sneaking into Harrah’s in South Lake Tahoe with him to see Willie Nelson perform.
I lost track of our hero for a couple of years until we met again at Copper Mountain for the Fall ’80 sales meeting. A litany of saints was in attendance: Tex Bossier, the Foxes, Howard Sloan, Bill Kulczycki, Henry Barber, Ric Hatch and some others. Malinda was carrying around Claire, the newborn, in her arms. As Kris Tompkins recently said, this was an extraordinary bunch. Paul was the center of it all. This was a time when the entire company would attend the sales meeting and no microphones were necessary. Votes on color for the upcoming seasons could happen right then and there; Paul would always articulate the benefits of yellow as a core color for the line. He was also the only one with the vision to cut the sleeves off of his Baggie Jacket so that it could be worn longer in the south.
The South was who Paul was. His preferred food never made it on any health food go to list. Pork, desserts, hamburgers and more were the rule. Smoking; he was unrepentant. Besides his wife, Brenda, his passion was rescuing dogs. I would guess even he couldn’t recount the names of all the dogs that came into and out of his life. Some have speculated that he has had twenty or more at one time. I know that I personally saw fourteen run in and out of the dog door that opened into his office. An experience of both sight and sound that would happen on average every 20 minutes. He wouldn’t have had it any other way. Just two days ago, my wife Judi and I talked about how we would like to be able to have lots of dogs and the conversation went immediately to how Paul had just that.
This morning I got the notice from Dawson Wheeler that Paul had passed on Saturday. I was driving out into west Texas, a lonesome, arid and compelling landscape. There were not many distractions to take my mind off of thoughts of Paul, so I was able to think back through all of the years of our friendship. No music, not many phone calls, just reflection. In all a wonderful meditation on a friendship that I will never forget.
Paul Marsh. The catalyst. The ultimate connector. The reason I got started in the outdoor industry, met many of my best friends, met my wife, met all of you. The reason I love stray dogs. The reason I know so much about the south. The reason I know dogs eat pecans, right out of the grove. The source of quite a few bad jokes and cheesy metaphors. The guy you could always count on to talk your ear off and never bring you down.
I met Paul and Cutler Ferchaud at a boat show in Annapolis in 1984, and in 1987 I moved to Annapolis to work at Fawcett’s, all part of Paul’s plan. I interviewed with Vinnie and was hired by Patagonia at Paul’s urging, and ended up living with Paul and Brenda in Locust Grove for 6 months while he trained me to be a Patagonia rep. Many enjoyable hours in the van on the road, at home with the dogs and cats, and on the ski hill trying to figure out how to make tele turns. We traveled from PA to FL, hitting every Waffle House, and talking more about Ford trucks than two people should, and no matter what the weather, he always rolled down the window so the smoke blew out. I received a trial by fire when he blew his back out, and I ended up traveling the turf on my own, and with Jim Grace, who was another of Paul’s recruits.
I can’t believe he’s gone. Paul and I had been in touch via email over the past few weeks, catching up on his latest health woes, and as he always did, injecting a grim conversation with his characteristic humor and upbeat, matter-of-fact optimism. It wasn’t good news, but he always managed to make me smile. Still does.
When I bought the shop 23 years ago we (Rock/Creek Outfitters and Canoeist Headquarters) were an old Patagonia dealer, as in we had a file and a catalog but were currently closed. In the file we found a letter that had been sent bitching about Paul. When we went to the regional show and spoke with Paul we were green as grass. He marched us outside with few words to his van. He handed us the road atlas and asked us to point out Chattanooga. I flipped to the Tennessee section and saw that Chattanooga had been cut out of the map; there was a hole in the map. He looked us in the eye and said, “Chattanooga! It does not exist.” It took another season, a few shots, a brownie or two and a few packs of cigs for Paul to allow us back into the fold. Once there, he was 100% and cared more about us than anyone in the industry. He frankly was our light for years.
–Dawson Wheeler, Rock/Creek
A roast for Paul Marsh on his 50th birthday, as read by June Fox
Here’s a Paul Marsh story from the days before the earth cooled, about the transformation of a single human being and the death of a transmission. Paul has heard the story before, so, Paul, if you want to get up and leave the room, I’ll understand. On the other hand, since you’ve turned 50 now, you may no longer remember it. Or you may remember differently. Actually, most of you know this story. So you might all want to leave the room, except a couple of you, so June won’t feel so bad, if she’s the one reading it.
Yes, it’s true. I hired Paul for his first job in the outdoor industry, as a rep for Chouinard Equipment and a handful of clothing items that later became Patagonia. He was a decent man then. Of course I didn’t need a rep in central Alabama and the like to sell our ice axes. They sold themselves all over the south. The chain-gang guards needed them to maintain discipline. Southern ladies’ garden clubs favored them for aerating those wide stretches of Kentucky blue grass lawn. But Patagonia clothes, sadly, were not selling themselves at all. I badly needed a good rep to flog several thousand orange and black rugby shirts that had been gathering dust on the warehouse shelves for about a year and a half. Kris McDivitt had chosen the colors the night before she failed her color-blindness test.
Denny Mays was the one who recommended Paul to us. Denny was our first southeastern rep. He covered 16 states and made nine and half dollars in commissions his first year on the road. So when Bubba and Gerald asked Denny to come home and do retail full time for minimum wage and a foam pad bed in the store room, he leapt at the chance. I was devastated. Denny told me no problem, my good friend Paul Marsh will take over. To this day I’ve never figured out what harm Paul did to Denny that would make Denny do that. But they were climbing buddies. Paul must have sandbagged him.
Anyway, Paul came down from Oregon for an interview. That was his idea, not mine. I had already put his rep kit in the mail: a handwritten price list in pencil and instructions for opening a beer bottle with a carabiner gate. But Paul wanted to be professional, so I said sure: come to Ventura.
His visit nearly cost him his new job. In person, you could see that he wasn’t one of us. Most of our new reps hitchhiked in on the back of stakebed produce trucks. We’d have to brush the strawberries off their goodwill clothes and Lowa Triplex boots before we even let them inside one of the tin sheds.
Paul showed up in a rented Mercury Montego. Imagine that. Clearly he was an intelligent man; at least his eyes were clear. He was more fitness-oriented than my other reps at the time: he smoked low-tar cigarettes. He had short hair, with those chin-length Brady Bunch sideburns that were so popular in the mid-seventies, especially on men. He wore a sportcoat. He was clean and polite, had a job and skills; he sold for U.S. Steel and I think he made enough money to rent an apartment all to himself. When I saw this, my heart sank into my stomach like a Chesapeake Bay Retriever diving for a downed mallard.
[Paul Marsh, U.S. Steel sales rep (his last real job), c. 1975. Photo: Courtesy of Paul Marsh. First appeared in the Patagonia Quarterly, 1986.]
“I can’t use you,” I said, tears welling in my eyes, thinking about those unsold rugby shirts. I told him about our company in general, and about the southeast territory in particular: that I couldn’t have anyone so sane, intelligent, and presentable representing a line like Chouinard Equipment to our customer base. It wouldn’t be right.
But Paul won me over by demonstrating the skills that have made him so successful and well-respected by his peers in the outdoor industry. He began with an allegory. I can’t remember what the allegory was about, but somehow it involved a dog, a holy war, trenches, clothes that never saw the back side of a city-limits sign, a dollar stepped over to pick up a dime, the definition of true Floridian humidity, smoke not meant to be blown up anyone’s ass, the need for light colors in the southeast, and it all ended with another reference to a dog, but not the same dog he started with. It was a tale beautifully spun and it required close listening, a skill we are not taught here as children in our California schools. But I tried. Then I noticed Paul was no longer speaking. He had reached the end of his story, and was waiting for me to respond. I had been waiting for the punch line, then realized none would come. In fact, he had delivered about fifty punch lines, all as indirect and abstract and elegantly elliptical as quantum theory and I realized that somewhere along the way, I had become wrapped up completely in his story. Like Gulliver by the Lilliputians, I had been captivated. And I had been sold.
I admired that. I told him he was hired. There was no way he could make nearly ten dollars in commissions his first year out the way Denny had. After all, the pipeline was a little full. But if he’d rough up his personal edges a little, grow a beard and start to drawl, we’d take him on. And he must never again drive a Ford product on Chouinard company time.
Now in those days no rep had ever taken seriously a single piece of advice from me; certainly no one had ever followed a direct order. So you can imagine my surprise when Paul pulled up to the tin sheds in Ventura just two weeks later. He was sitting, uncharacteristically silent, behind the wheel of a beat-up, bondo’d, cab-over, 1963 Dodge Power Wagon with four-wheel drive and compound low. Hanging off the roof was a Phoenix kayak, and he had a drinker’s get-me-out-of-the-ditch winch mounted on the front bumper. The truck’s dominant color was a blue as faded as my inventory. It was a beautiful sight: Marshall Tucker tapes on the floor, upholstery slashed in all the right places; the foam blew like clouds through the cab and out the window whenever Paul double-clutched and ground the gearbox into second.
Riding shotgun was Paul’s chow, named Bear, who had luxuriant red fur all over his face. I put my hand through the open window and patted Bear on the head. I told him that he was a good dog. You can imagine my shock when he spoke. He said “I don’t mean to patronize ya, but I’m Paul. I grew that beard y’all asked me to. Bear’s the one sittin’ behind the wheel. I learned to drawl too.”
[Paul Marsh (on the right) on his first day at work for Patagonia, 1976. Photo: First appeared in the Patagonia Quarterly, 1986.]
I know about the foam floating through the cab and the terrible sound of the gearbox because I was to become a passenger on Paul’s first road trip. How can I describe that sound? Imagine someone being shot in the back by a .38, while gargling in Taiwanese, and running all ten nails down a chalkboard, all at the same time. That is the sound we made going into third, when Paul could get it into third.
We started off at High Country and made it all the way from Atlanta to D.C., mostly in second gear, stopping off at 142 ship-tos and collecting $2.36 in orders. Sometimes, especially in the mornings, it was easier to get the truck going in reverse, so we would just pull up backwards onto the interstate that way and continue, looking back over our shoulder, for an hour or so ‘til the tranny warmed up. All the while I coached Paul in what we used to call the “industry way” so that by the time we reached the Virginia border he was no longer a reasonable man at all.
Well, if anyone is still here in this room, don’t get up now. I’m nearly finished. The transmission made it all the way to Washington. Paul was now a thoroughly trained and a full-fledged rep. Our dealers were cliniced and serviced. We were on our way to drop me off at National Airport so I could fly home to California. I think we’d just been beat up by Hank Cohan but I don’t remember anything in detail except the shearing sound I mentioned earlier. We heard it just as we entered Dupont Circle at the rush hour peak: then the power wagon expelled its transmission with the force of Apollo 13 disgorging its thrusters. After that we heard a clink. We did not stop. Paul was standing on the clutch pedal; he pumped it hysterically every few minutes then would give up, then try again. I held my briefcase in my lap. As I said traffic was bumper to bumper so we were borne along by the other cars, circumnavigating Dupont Circle for three or four days; you see the weekend had just started and it would be Monday or Tuesday before we could lose enough speed to drift out of our orbit and finally both go home. Paul’s next vehicle was a Ford product but I never complained about it. Happy birthday, friend.
–Vincent Stanley, June 3, 1995
[Update 4/7/11 – A few more tributes from Paul’s friends and former colleagues.]
He was one of the early salesmen for Patagonia; and, the one who, despite his good old boy shtick, was, for me, one of the most professional and effective representatives Patagonia ever had. They say that a good salesman ‘sells himself’; maybe so, but too often this drifts into a sort of narcissism with the seller focusing on his own celebrity rather than on the products or company he represents. Even though Paul had a very personal style in his work, I never got even a whiff that Paul thought that he was the show.
Paul was easy to be around. He was who he was an old soul who used new tools and accommodated new people as they came in (and went out) but never let them force him off his own course.
He was a good man when I met him, and stayed that way – now that’s someone to remember.
I remember, as if it were yesterday, Paul explaining to me in the front room of Ozark Outdoor Supply the rationale behind taking the Patagonia (“it’s a place that Yvon went climbing and he likes the name”) clothing line out of GPIW and letting it stand on its own. I remember him being in the driveway, having spent the night in, if memory serves, his baby blue Ford Econoline van – a few dogs and an old Trailwise bag for comfort. I recall his explanation of the herding instincts of blue heelers – and that his had increased his flock of chickens by rounding up the neighbors birds and bringing them into Paul’s flock. I also remember him setting me up with Jim Grace to fish for baby tarpon in 10,000 Islands – I think the first time I ever wet a line in salt water. I remember him telling me that I probably should not even try it – too addictive. I remember him telling me that if freshwater fly fishing was neurosurgery, salt water was the demolition derby. I have sat down to a few cheeseburgers and brewskis with Paul and it is an honor to have done so. He will always be a mythical figure in the Outdoor Industry.
May Paul Marsh continue his journey with grace. His smile, and cigarette stained hands I will remember. It was Paul that gave me early guidance whence hired at the “House of Egos” (his phrase ). It was Paul who took the call when “newbies” had questions. It was Paul that had the gift to mediate conflict. I will miss him … as will we all. And a memory that some “roadies” will remember. Didn’t Paul take a stray dog home from a sales meeting at Nantahala Outdoor Center?
Peace, Good Will, and Safe Travels.
I too was so surprised (not in the loop on his health) and so saddened by this news. Paul always exhibited the highest degree of helpfulness, graciousness, hospitality, and insight to me in my early days at Chouinard E. It is a contemplative evening for sure.
A very fine man and held in the highest respects from this former colleague.
GOD BLESS HIS SOUL.
I can still hear the debate between Paul and Henry [Barber] about I want white and I want black. Damn good man, Paul Marsh.
–Peter K. Noone
Thank you for sending me all of the wonderful and hilarious musings about Paul. He was a gem. I last saw him at OR in 2001 or 2002. It was always so much fun to run into him. I was sad to hear the news.
My personal favorite Paulism is his claim that he was “busier than a 3-legged fox in a henhouse.” I remember the first time I heard him say that. It struck me so funny! I could not stop laughing. He was such a hoot.