BLACKSBURG — Looking at John Albright wasn’t going to tell you much about him.
The bib overalls, peddling his hand-made wooden wares at the Blacksburg Farmers Market — that wasn’t so much deception as a guy finding new passions in retirement. It was also marketing.
He also wasn’t going to wave his past life as a big city architect with an international resume in your face.
Those who knew Albright well, however, saw past all that to a generous, loving friend with a rich wit. Friends who knew him well and those who met him only in passing alike paid respects to Albright at his now empty booth at the market, which was set up as a memorial to him.
Albright, 68, died after being caught in a rip current near his seasonal home in Southern Shores, on North Carolina’s Outer Banks. He and his wife, Kathryn, an executive at Virginia Tech, were both caught in the current, but she escaped it. Local police said it was ruled a cardiovascular disease death.
“He was just a spark in everyone’s life,” said Lisa Olver, who stopped by the tent that featured some of Albright’s smaller handiwork — wooden bowls, a lazy susan, and candles burning in a candleholder he made. His chair was there, his overalls laid across it, and his regular cup of coffee from the stall of friend and fellow vendor, Deano Chlepas.
“We’re like a family,” said Pam West of West Farm in Lewisburg, W.Va., who added a bouquet of peonies to the memorial. “So it’s like losing a family member.”
The memorial was the idea of the market’s director, Ian Littlejohn, who said it just seemed like the most natural way to remember Albright.
Hansen Ball, president of the farmers market board, called it perfect.
Not only was Albright a fixture at the market, Kathryn Albright was described by many as the driving force behind creation of the market. She founded the non-profit that runs it.
Those who knew Albright only as a vendor under the name Sinking Creek Mill likely had no clue he had come to Blacksburg from Chicago, where he was a well-regarded architect.
“He was a brilliant man, very highly educated, but he never lorded that over you. He was really humble,” said a friend, Jeneen Wilson.
His sense of humor ran from bawdy to dry. “And if you gave him a glass of wine it got better,” said his close friend and neighbor in Blacksburg, John Olver.
Lisa and John Olver said Albright came about 10 years ago and immediately embraced a new life in a small town.
The Albrights bought a farm in the Sinking Creek section of Craig County near the Olvers Farm and John Olver taught his friend how to run it. Albright took up woodworking knowing little about it. He started only with an architect’s eye for function and design and taught himself how to shape wood.
“To be able to transfer a corporate business life in Chicago to this, it’s just amazing,” said Lisa Olver.
John Olver once asked Albright why he wore overalls to sell his work at the market.
Albright grinned. “I sell more,” he said.
Albright seemed to have an innate understanding of marketing. Friends Tim and Jeneen Wilson bought numerous items from Albright as gifts for friends.
“When you buy a piece, it would already have a story with it that made it special,” Jeneen Wilson said. Wilson wouldn’t hand it over until he told you all about the wood the piece was made from, why the grain ran as it did, what caused the dark veins across it.
Albright was “anal” about everything, Tim Wilson said. In recent years, Albright took up target shooting, Tim Wilson said. Soon he was loading his own ammunition and taking shooting lessons.
Albright and Chlepas bonded over being former Chicagoans, but also over their shared exactitude.
“You did it right and the best or you didn’t do it,” Chlepas said.
“That’s not a man who was nonchalant,” confirmed fellow vendor Jake Orzalli.
That quality rubbed some the wrong way.
Albright was known as a “grump” around the market for his impatience with others during set up in the morning and breakdown in the afternoon, said Orzalli, a chef whose Potted Plants vegan food stall was right next to Albright’s.
“I know what a sweetheart he was,” he said.
Just before he left for vacation at Southern Shores, Albright invited Orzalli and his family to the farm. He wanted to show Orzalli a hunk of maple from which he was going to make the chef a new cutting board.
They agreed to do it when Albright returned from the beach.
Those and other plans will be put off forever.
Saturday night, John Olver’s cell phone rang, indicating it was Albright.
“Hey John,” he answered it. But it was Kathryn Albright instead, with news that John was gone.
“It’s heavy, it feels completely unreal,” said Orzalli, looking at Albright’s untended stall.
But, said Patti Chlepas, “John’s spirit was so large that he’ll be with us for a long time.”