By Rick Newcombe
Bo Nordh gave new meaning to the concept of making lemonade out of a lemon. Faced with being a paraplegic as a teenager after a motorcycle accident, he could have spent a lifetime feeling sorry for himself, cursing his fate that life had been so unfair to him!
But instead, Bo reached for the stars, and as a pipe maker, he managed to touch a few. Bo's commitment to excellence was unsurpassed. He created some of the most interesting shapes in the history of pipe making. They were also some of the most copied.
Bo's pipes are unquestionably among the greatest smokers ever made, and he never lost sight of the fact that he made pipes to be used and not just displayed for their beauty.
Bo spent hours and hours on the smallest detail. He also spent years mulling over possible new shapes before he settled on one.
If the marketplace is the measure, then Bo, without a doubt, was the most successful pipe maker in history. Who else has seen one of his pipes sell for $12,000? Just the thought of such a price tag was unfathomable a generation ago.
But Bo never cared about money. In fact, he usually described himself as "a poor man who can't even afford to smoke my own pipes unless they have flaws in them."
Bo loved nature. One of his most popular shapes was the snail, and in his studio he displayed a picture of a snail alongside his snail-shaped pipe.
Many of us who visited Bo's house near Malmo have sat outside with him, smelling the neighboring wheat fields, or watching Bo as he carefully examined the roses in his garden.
During the most recent pipe show in Chicago two months ago, I ate lunch with Bo almost every day, and I was always impressed by the way he paid attention to small details. For instance, at our first meeting, on the day before the show started, I had lunch with Bo and the man who truly had become his best friend in the pipe world, Per Bilhall, along with Bonnie and Jess Chonowitsch, Chicago collector Vic Griseta and Sykes Wilford of smokingpipes.com.
We had lunch at Pizzeria Due's, which is one of Chicago's world famous deep-dish pizza restaurants. Politicians, celebrities, athletes and ordinary people from all over the world pay homage to Due's when they are in Chicago.
I sat next to Bo and was curious to hear what he thought of the pizza. Now with Bo, everything was concentration. Once he started studying something, he gave it his full attention. He chewed for a few minutes, looked up and smiled and said, "The sausage is better than the cheese. Now I know why Chicago is famous for its sausage. The cheese is mozzarella from a cow when it should be from a buffalo. But it's still pretty good!"
When we had lunch at the Pheasant Run Resort during the Saturday and Sunday of the pipe show, Bo always ordered French onion soup, and he savored each spoonful. Then we would go outside, where the air was clean and crisp and the weather was beautiful both days.
"Listen," he said, cupping his right ear with his right hand.
"I can't hear anything," I said.
"Shhh! Just be patient."
I kept listening but couldn't hear anything, and then all of a sudden, I realized that a little bird was chirping.
"Isn't that beautiful?!" Bo asked, with a big grin on his face.
The next day something similar happened, only this time it involved the first green buds on a tree that I failed to notice until Bo pointed them out to me. They really were beautiful.
"I love the spring time," Bo said. "It's the start of something new -- a new beginning."
Bo also loved music -- classical music and rock-and-roll, but his all-time favorite was jazz. Bo bought hundreds of CDs when he and Per toured Chicago in the days before the pipe show.
During the actual show, Bo did several things that revealed he had no idea that he had cancer. First, he ordered a three-year subscription to Pipes & tobaccos magazine. And second, when he found a certain type of aged Virginia tobacco that he liked, he bought enough to last him many years.
I do remember at one point when we were having lunch, Bo looked at me with that wry smile of his and said, "Can you believe that I'm 65? I feel very lucky."
Bo took pride in exercising and keeping himself as fit as possible, given the confines of the wheelchair. He always wanted to get around on his own power and only asked for a push if it was absolutely necessary, such as on a very steep incline.
When Bo gave a lecture, accompanied by a slide show with photographs of his beautiful pipes over the years, I sat in the audience between Lars Ivarsson and Jess Chonowitsch, two of Bo's closest pipe-making friends. They both were impressed by Bo's extraordinary progress as a pipe maker over the years and by his achievement of excellence during the course of his lifetime.
At the same time, Bo always kept his sense of humor, which was totally contagious. Bo could make anyone laugh, and that's what I remember most about him -- laughing alongside Bo. Once he discovered the internet, he became unstoppable! Bo loved reading and then forwarding jokes. When he discovered these internet jokes, he always reminded me of a big kid who had committed a minor infraction and was sneaking around the house, hoping his parents wouldn't catch him.
Bo told me his all-time favorite joke on the internet was a cartoon showing an elderly woman on an elevator. A beautiful younger woman gets on, and the elderly woman sniffs perfume in the air.
"Romance by Ralph Lauren," says the younger woman with a haughty air as the elevator doors close. "$150 an ounce."
A few floors later the elevator stops again and another well-dressed young lady gets on, with the same routine of the elderly woman sniffing the air and the younger woman, as condescendingly as possible, saying: "Chanel No. 5. $200 an ounce."
A few more floors and the elevator stops. As the elderly woman is about to get off, she breaks wind as long and as loudly as possible and says, "Broccoli ... 49 cents a pound."
Bo just howled and howled!
I think he liked those types of harmless jokes because their humor provided a great release from the stress he placed on himself to come as close to perfection as possible in his pipe making. He had intensely loyal customers in Europe, America and Africa, as well as in China, Japan, and Russia -- all over the world -- and they always expected the very best, because Bo had spoiled them over the years with his fantastic creations. He also raised the bar for every pipe maker in the world.
In the end, what we will remember most is that Bo Nordh achieved greatness in his lifetime, and he made all of us so much richer because he lived.