Old-timers at Grace Baptist Church in Windsor Farms said they'd never seen their cavernous sanctuary so filled. Ushers scurried up and down the aisles looking for more hymnals. And all who attended the service at dusk on Friday, March 23, would probably agree they'd never heard such how shall we put it delicately? colorful tributes uttered in a house of the Lord.
But then, the man being eulogized, Ed F. Paxton, had an open-armed, tell-it-like-it-is persona that could fill a room in death as well as in life. The talented art director and marketing whiz was pushing the envelope before Chuck Yeager made the expression famous. One person who rose in tribute declared it was too bad the deceased was missing the gathering: Paxton loved a party and hosted quite a few. But not this time. He had succumbed to cancer on March 20, at age 53.
Paxton had a loving family and a slew of friends. He had a big heart, tremendous reserves of energy and great common sense. He was perennially thinking toward the future, and his attitude often bordered on devil-may-care. He was also deeply religious: His faith had evolved since growing up as a Baptist in hardscrabble rural Oklahoma.
As one of Richmond's most respected and celebrated art directors, Paxton was a high-concept person who believed in the power of a strong, simple idea or image. When he first moved to Richmond after college, he worked as a graphic designer at the Baptist Foreign Mission Board. Then, in the 1970s, he hung his own shingle in the 100 block of East Cary Street in the midst of what was then a happening district for public relations and advertising agencies, designers, photographers and architects.
Becky's and Poor Richard's restaurants were neighborhood watering holes where creative folk gathered regularly. But come springtime, Paxton and his staff entertained clients and colleagues at lively parties on the brick terrace behind their building.
Paxton's creative work was visually clean and direct and beautiful. When I first met him, in the sometimes-dreary 1970s, it was a time of inflation, gas shortages and Jimmy Carter's talk of a national malaise. Paxton saw things differently and created images that made Richmond see things differently, too. For a June Jubilee downtown, he started the tradition of creating high-impact, collectable posters for downtown's warm-weather bash. For one, he presented a bold, blueprintlike image of old City Hall with an electric-orange moon floating past the clock tower. The message was celebratory at a time when officials wanted to demolish the empty building.
Another year, the poster included a huge box of popcorn to promote a pops concert. Later, for a June Jubilee evening called City Lights, he commissioned a neon sculpture in the shape of Richmond's skyline. Vintage Paxton, melding image and word for double impact. (More recently, a campaign he devised for the Girl Scouts carried the tagline "Smart Cookies.")
In the late '70s, when Best Products, the catalog-showroom retailer, celebrated its 20th anniversary, I was amazed when Paxton devised an annual-report-cum-birthday-party kit, complete with nostalgic photos, balloons and confetti. "We're gonna take the party to them," he announced in his characteristically high-pitched, twangy voice. Shareholders smiled and sometimes cursed as red, yellow and blue confetti fell into their laps and onto their shag-carpeted floors. But they remembered it! No malaise of spirit for Paxton.
In their eulogy, Paxton's two sons said their father gleefully talked about his high school years as a drum major, how he could arch his back as he tipped down the field so that his fancy high hat touched the ground behind him. What an image. But whether wearing a trademark baseball cap or with bald head shining, he always arrived exuberant and confident and ready for the next challenge.
"Richmond really can't afford to lose spirited talents like Ed," I said to a friend immediately after the service. I was corrected: "The world can't afford to lose spirited talents like Ed