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UPFRONT: The most fitting memorial we can establish to people like Bill Cravens is a commitment to following their example.

Posted On: 5/12/2007

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In last month's column I spoke about the importance of mentors, not realizing I would soon lose one of my nearest and dearest. At this year's Amusement Showcase International in late March, the industry was stunned and saddened by the sudden loss of a charismatic leader, Bill Cravens. Bill was one of my first mentors in the amusement industry, and a very special friend.

As many of you know, I cut my teeth (or "made my bones," as Allan Gilbert likes to say, quoting The Godfather) in the amusement industry. When I made my first trip to Northern California in the early 1990s, Bill was working for Capcom. He sat me down in his office and asked, "Who's giving you trouble? Who isn't running ads in Vending Times? I'll get them on the phone right now." He took me under his wing and helped me make my way in the music and games business. He watched me grow up and scrape my knees, personally and professionally. I felt as though he was as proud of me as if I were one of his own.

He was always the life of the party, a congenial host with a heart of gold. Sure, there were times when he pushed the envelope -- he was incorrigible, maybe even misunderstood by some -- but you couldn't help but love him. I loved him.

He also was the sort of man that our industry needs, now more than ever. Bill was fearless and witty, and he always understood that the long-term success of the operator is the necessary starting-point for the success of manufacturers and distributors. He did not mince words and he did not suffer fools gladly. But, as plain-spoken as he was, if he ruffled anyone's feathers, it didn't last very long. He had many, many friends and very few enemies.

Bill went back many years with my father, the late Vic Lavay. I think on some level his loyalty to my dad was bequeathed to me, and became part of my "rite of passage." He served as a big brother during my initiation into the coin-machine business -- which for many of us is not unlike a fraternal organization.

As I got my sea legs, Bill used to call me regularly to catch up on how I was doing. After my father died and life became a lot more complicated, I didn't always return his calls. I used to joke with him that some of us had to work for a living, and that he had too much time on his hands. I always figured I would catch up with Bill at the next trade show. It had become a tradition to have dinner together at industry events, or if he found himself with some time in New York City -- which happened quite often.

This year, I ran into his son Todd in the lobby after the exhibit closed on the first day of the Amusement Showcase International. That prompted me to call Bill and ask him to join me and some mutual friends for a drink. He was having dinner with his other son Ryan. We agreed to meet at his booth the next day. Bill died early that morning.

I'm sure glad I called him that night and had one last opportunity to speak with him, but I also regret those times when I was too busy to make time for him. I think there is a valuable lesson to be learned here.

Bill always read and remarked on my monthly columns. It saddens me that his death and my regret is the topic of this one. I realize that many of you who are not involved in the amusement industry did not know Bill Cravens, but we all know someone like him. And, at times, we all are guilty of getting caught up in the daily grind and neglecting the things that are most important. As the old Joni Mitchell song put it, "Don't it always seem to go/That you don't know what you've got till it's gone?"

I remarked to my colleague and friend Nick Montano, "Aren't you going to miss those times we had with Bill over the last 10 years?" Nick replied, "It's the next 10 years without him that I'm going to miss."

I feel very fortunate to be part of an industry where I have I made so many friends. Not just business associates; I'm talking about valuable friendships. This became apparent to me when I lost my father. The outpouring of heartfelt sympathy and sincerity helped a great deal in getting through a painful time. I know that Doug Skor of Wurlitzer Jukebox & Vending Co., who recently lost his father Fred Skor (World Wide Distributing), agrees with me about this. It isn't the norm for many businesses; we are a unique group. To what other audience could I convey such personal feelings in a magazine column, knowing that they will be thoughtfully received?

We all work hard, and we're lucky to enjoy this fellowship as part of the reward. Sure, business is important, but if you're not enjoying yourself, is it really worth the effort? Another second-generation veteran, Gene Lipkin of Face Place, said of Bill's untimely death, "We can't control how we die, but we can control how we live." Bill knew this better than anyone.

I only hope that my words, along with support from the industry, will in some way ease the pain of those Bill has left behind. I hope that knowing we all truly share in this loss will help his family as it helped me.

It has been said that man's best monument is to be remembered with respect and affection by those who come after him. We have been blessed with many independent-minded individuals in our industry, people who have provided strong and distinctive leadership. I only hope that the next generation will continue this tradition.

This is why I believe that the most fitting memorial we can establish to people like Bill Cravens is a commitment to following their example, trying our best to assist and encourage others. It also is very important for us to maintain the tradition of camaraderie that is such a great fringe benefit of working in this industry.

I suppose most of us, at some level, continue to mourn someone who made a difference in our lives. Let's act on that, try to make a difference in someone else's life and not forget to have fun while we're at it. That was Bill Cravens's style, and the lesson that he tried to teach us.