Men at Work
Need an accountant? You won’t find one here. Meet three Greenwich residents who found success far off the beaten career path
For most of us, work is a fact of life. But if you love what you do, it can seem more like play. It’s easy to identify the folks who bring passion to their jobs. They have a certain look in their eyes. They move a little more briskly. And when they tell you about their latest project, their excitement is almost palpable.
A lot of those types live in and around Greenwich. They hold all kinds of jobs, some of which you may never even have imagined. Simply put, they found, or created, full-time occupations that fed their enthusiasm. Here, we talk to three such individuals. Take a few minutes to read their stories. Then get back to work. Your own dreams are waiting.
The Money Man
David Mickelson, Greenwich Research Inc.
“Gee, I wish you’d find me.”
That’s the response David Mickelson usually gets when he’s at a social gathering and he mentions what he does for a living. Everyone claims they would be happy to hear from the man whose job is to track down missing heirs, owners of unclaimed assets, and others who have unexpected funds waiting for them. But reality often plays out differently. “Some people are skeptical,” says Mickelson, who runs Greenwich Research Inc. “A few are downright suspicious.” Under his breath, he mutters, “I hate those people.”
And though you can’t blame folks for being wary, Mickelson (pronounced “Michaelson”) is the real deal. He has a friendly, unassuming manner, references galore, and a track record that says you should think twice before telling him to beat it. “It’s a wonderful business to be in,” Mickelson says, “to be able to reunite people with money they otherwise wouldn’t know they were entitled to.” Many times, a significant inheritance hangs in the balance.
Taking on assignments from probate attorneys and others involved in settling estates who are seeking relatives, known and unknown, of a decedent, Mickelson also finds missing creditors who have money owed them in long-running bankruptcy cases. And though he often works on an hourly basis, he accepts many jobs at his own risk, working out a deal for a percentage of the payout when and if he locates the person in question. “We’re not always successful, obviously,” he says.
Still, he’s had plenty of winners. Using private investigators and genealogical researchers from around the world, Mickelson has found grateful beneficiaries near and far, some of whom received a million dollars or more. When a person dies without a known heir, Mickelson and company become history detectives. Sometimes they pore through records from as far back as 200 years ago, then work forward, creating a family tree, and pinpointing the nearest living relative.
“It’s a big puzzle,” he says. “It’s very gratifying to solve these mysteries. And every story is different. Sometimes we come across families in which members haven’t been in touch or even know about each other.” (His wife, Shree, for her part, is a personal trainer at the Greenwich YWCA. Both have adult children from first marriages.)
He tells of one case in which his reconstruction of the family history of a Greenwich woman with no known heirs took him and his researchers through immigration-ship passenger lists, census data, cemetery records, musty registers in a small town in Slovakia, and even the horrors of the Holocaust. The search continued for three years. At the end of the trail, David and his people found a man who had been given over to the care of a family in Slovakia when he was just an infant while his parents, who were Jewish, fled and were soon murdered by the Nazis. In the end, that man, who came to live in Switzerland, received close to a million dollars from an American half–first cousin he never even knew existed.
Then there was the woman in Maryland a few years back who was overjoyed when Mickelson sent her $20,000 she had never expected. “She was a relative of somebody who owned property in Czechoslovakia and was entitled to reparations from the U.S. government due to some plan that the Allies concocted at the end of World War II,” Mickelson says. “Here it is, 2000 and something, and the war had been over for more than fifty years, and here she is getting a check.”
Pat Gallant, a writer in New York, received a letter from Mickelson about eight years ago alerting her to some unclaimed funds. (Typically, he will not reveal the amount up-front.) Everyone warned her this was probably a scam, but since Mickelson wanted no money beforehand, never requested any personal information, and had references, she finally gave him the go-ahead. Not long afterward, she had a check in hand, from a stock that someone else may have bought for her. “It was a substantial amount,” Gallant says. “It made an appreciable difference in our bank account.”
For some reason—Gallant says no one could explain why—the bank holding it was unable to find her or perhaps never tried. “Without him,” she says of Mickelson, “I don’t think it ever would have gotten to me.”
Occasionally, he does his job a little too well. Every now and then, David sniffs out someone who doesn’t want to be sniffed out. And try though he may, those people want nothing to do with him. “I can count those instances on one hand,” he says. “We never find out why they don’t want to be found, but it’s quite clear that’s what the situation is. Who knows who they’re running from? And it’s not as if we’re collecting money from these people. It’s the opposite.”
David Tolzmann, The Labyrinth Company
To understand how seriously David Tolzmann takes his business of designing and building labyrinths, consider the time that he found himself crawling around the floor of the Cathedral of Our Lady of Chartres at two in the morning with a tape measure in his hand.
He was in France with a tour group that was studying the medieval Roman Catholic cathedral, and after a workshop wrapped up for the night Tolzmann set about taking some measurements of the marble and limestone labyrinth that graces the floor. The Chartres design is one that Tolzmann’s customers—churches, hospitals, and retreat centers, to name just a few—frequently ask him to recreate. Besides its beauty and rich symbolism, those who tread its serpentine path, as with most labyrinths, are said to experience a certain meditative and calming effect.
“I wanted to get it right,” Tolzmann says. “I really wanted to study it. There were people with theories about how it was designed, and I wanted to measure it exactly and model it on a computer and see if they were right. It turned out most of them were wrong.”
Tolzmann, who lives in Riverside with his wife Lee Ann, rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, got his first taste of what would become his livelihood back in 1995. The Tolzmanns, who have two grown daughters, were living in Baltimore at the time, and some women from their church called to ask if he could make them a labyrinth. They wanted something the church could use periodically, rather than a permanent one. (A few years earlier, a church in San Francisco had begun using a labyrinth with the Chartres design, sparking a revival around the country.)
Tolzmann majored in medieval history at Dartmouth and had a knack for geometry, so he agreed to give it a shot. He produced a pretty fair representation of the Chartres labyrinth, on stitched-together canvas dropcloths, which his church would come to use in its parish hall and periodically lend out to others. Next thing he knew, Tolzmann was getting requests from other churches.
At first, he thought making labyrinths would just be a source of extra income. But demand grew to the point that he eventually closed his successful recycling business and went into labyrinths full time. And though his initial versions were all on canvas, he soon began building permanent ones, for outdoors and indoors, as well.
As of today, this one-man operation—Tolzmann contracts out installation work and other help—has created almost 4,000 labyrinths, making the Labyrinth Company the leader in an admittedly limited field. Among other steps he took to make labyrinth-building a viable business, he streamlined much of the process, doing his design work on his computer, creating kits of precut pavers for quick installation and printing his canvas models on a modified billboard printer.
Rev. Alice M. Jellema, vicar of an Episcopal church in Baltimore, has twice enlisted Tolzmann to create labyrinths for churches where she worked, including his first. “He takes great satisfaction in making really sturdy, durable, beautiful works of art,” she says. “One of my forebears said, ‘Blessed is the man who has found his work,’” and that’s certainly true for Tolzmann.
These days, he offers customers forty-six design choices, some of historic significance but most of which he created himself. (Labyrinths, it should be noted, are not to be confused with mazes, which have dead ends and walls.) “My specialty is creating replicas of the Chartres design,” he says, “and then everything else I do grew from there organically.” He charges anywhere from $99 for a small, backyard model on landscape cloth to a quarter-million dollars for a deluxe, cut-granite Chartres-style labyrinth.
Customers have ranged from Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center to Wesleyan University to the Betty Ford Center, as well as private individuals. Tolzmann’s labyrinths can also be found in public places. Avalon Park in Stony Brook, New York, for example, which isn’t far from the Long Island Rail Road, is popular with commuters, who walk it before or after work.
Many of his labyrinths, in fact, are considered public art. Yet Tolzmann has never heard of one being spray painted with graffiti. Even the vandals seem to respect them and the work that’s gone into their creation. Close to ten years ago, he says, he was hired to produce what would be a painted labyrinth for a church parking lot in a tough section of Baltimore. “Everyone was afraid that this thing would be defaced and all this other stuff,” Tolzmann says. “And that labyrinth has never been tagged with gang symbols.”
And though Tolzmann test-walks virtually every labyrinth his company puts out, he eschews having one for his own enjoyment, preferring another path to inner peace. “I get a lot out of just designing them,” he says with a laugh.
Land & Air
Alex Brash, National Parks Conservation Association
Not long ago, Alex Brash had one of those moments that reminded him that his job with the National Parks Conservation Association was well worth all the long hours and hard work. He was in the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, a unit of the Gateway National Recreation Area, walking alongside a pond with a group of New York City school children. There was plenty of chatter and a number of kids were mucking along in shoes more appropriate to city streets than a nature preserve, when a flock of snow geese suddenly appeared, cutting through the air just twenty feet overhead. White, with black along the edges of their wings, the magnificent birds had recently arrived from the Canadian tundra, and the snow geese were now making a big impression.
“This entire school group froze in their steps and stared up,” the Riverside resident remembers. “Almost every mouth was agape. I think every single kid was absolutely amazed—more than that, enraptured—by this flight of snow geese. You could hear the whistling of their wings. It was such an incredible exposure to nature. It was these kids’ sort of natural epiphany in New York City.”
As northeast regional director for the Washington, D.C.–based advocacy group, Brash gets less time than he would like in the great outdoors and the National Parks he champions. Yet from his five-person office in Manhattan, he is helping to make sure that the rest of us long have these treasures to enjoy.
Among his varied responsibilities, Brash sees that elected officials from the region remember the importance of the parks and their need for adequate funding. That’s no small job, given that the National Park Service usually has a $600-million operating shortfall, and the cost of work to be done on them hovers around $7 billion. All the same, Brash had a significant hand last year in the organization’s efforts—successful, as it turned out—to persuade Congress to increase the parks’ budget and provide stimulus funds.
Brash also takes a lead on policy matters and brings together disparate groups and individuals on behalf on the parks. Last Fourth of July, he took special satisfaction in seeing several years of work rewarded with the reopening of the crown of the Statue of Liberty, which had been shuttered since 9/11. Politicians got most of the attention out on Liberty Island that day, but without Brash’s persistence, it might have been years, if ever, before everyday Americans would again enjoy the spectacular view from Lady Liberty’s upper reaches.
“Reopening the crown was a symbol for reopening and maintaining our National Parks for the public, about not having private areas and not having things closed off,” Brash says.
Among other feats, Brash played a major part in putting on last fall’s public premiere of Ken Burns’ latest PBS documentary, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea, which drew a crowd of 10,000 to Central Park, and further spread the good word.
One significant benefit of Brash’s job is that it allows him to visit many of the 392 National Parks, forty-three of which are in the Northeast, in the call of duty. “On one hand, I certainly have had the opportunity to visit some of the most spectacular places in the United States,” he says. “On the other hand, in trying to build a movement on their behalf I’ve probably spent more time than I would like behind a desk or at least in meetings cobbling together coalitions and alliances.”
If pressed, Brash will reveal that Olympic National Park in Washington State is his favorite. But he has special feelings for all of the parks. At Weir Farm National Historic Site in Wilton, for instance, he remembers standing in awe in the onetime studio of artist J. Alden Weir, surrounded by his paintings and possessions. And at Gettysburg, he tells of watching his teenage son, Ian, now a freshman in college, run across the battlefield, then pull up in wonder at the valor of the men who charged across that same ground 147 years ago. (Brash and wife Jane, a real estate broker in Old Greenwich, also have a daughter, Emily, a freshman at Greenwich High School.)
Brash likes to talk about the epiphanies that so many folks experience in the National Parks. Witnessing nature in full flight or trotting in the footsteps of courageous men, he says, tends to stir reflection about one’s own values and priorities.
It was that very epiphany, in fact, that ultimately convinced him to leave his job as chief of the Urban Park Service in New York City and take on the cause of the National Parks. “I think that is really what made me so fascinated,” he says. “I began to appreciate what the National Parks Conservation Association was trying to do, and I was willing to put aside a nice career in New York and switch.” Wheels within wheels, epiphanies within epiphanies.