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Chuck Jordan memorial: A car life well-lived

Mon, 31 Jan 2011

Family and friends gathered at the GM Heritage Center in Warren, Mich., to celebrate the life of the late Chuck Jordan, who retired as General Motors vice president of design in 1992 and died on Dec. 9, 2010. While many of the 200 or so present remembered working with Jordan during his career that began at GM in 1949, the ceremony also made clear that he'd lived a rich and active life in retirement.

Many vehicles built to Jordan's own designs or under his leadership were highlighted in the Heritage Center's vast display space, including the 1955 Chevrolet pickup, the 1956 Buick Centurion concept car and the 1959 Cadillac Eldorado.

"To say Chuck 'retired' doesn't mean he quit doing any of the things he'd always done," said Ron VanGelderen, with whom Jordan founded the League of Retired Automotive Designers, an informal group that staged five art exhibits.

Among other speakers at the event, emceed by TV journalist John McElroy, were students from the high school auto-design classes Jordan taught as a volunteer for seven years, friends such as Crain Communications chairman (and AutoWeek editor-in-chief) Keith Crain and GM design chief Ed Welburn, fellow GM retiree Jerry Palmer, Jordan's son, Mark (who designed the original Miata at Mazda), and daughters Deb and Melissa, his four grandsons, fellow Ferrari collectors, and Eyes on Design founder/chairman Dr. Phillip Hessburg, one of the last to visit with Jordan before he died.

Nearly every speaker recalled Jordan saying, at one time or another, that one should "never trust a designer who talks too much; the design should speak for itself."

Welburn told of taking Jordan on a tour of GM's design programs recently, and how he was still excited by fresh designs and ideas in his 80s.

"The real magic came in John Cafaro's studio," Welburn said. "A circle grew around him there, and Chuck was preaching the gospel of design. Anyone who'd worked with him has heard him do that, but there he was, with these younger designers, preaching it. It was a special moment I will never forget."

Family and retired friends also noted that Jordan often said he preferred to be around young people, rather than just staying among those his own age, whom he called "old." He clearly engaged and inspired the high school students he taught at schools near his Rancho Santa Fe home in Southern California. Two from La Costa Canyon High were invited to speak at the memorial.

Carter Rogers--who said his ambition was to become, in Disney speak, an "imagineer"--told how Jordan had taught him and others "to put our ideas into perspective--literally. He never had us write an essay or explain, he just had us do hundreds and hundreds of sketches. In the end, we felt accomplished."

Fellow student Michael Saggese said Jordan told him, as other speakers also mentioned, that he considered himself fortunate to have a job and a career he loved and that he'd inspired them to pursue their own dreams. Saggese quoted Jordan as saying, "The only thing I'd do differently would be to buy more Ferraris."

By Kevin A. Wilson