Columbus Dispatch - October 8, 2000
TO LIFE THAN WORK
Chuck Borsari stood above his latest stained-glass creation, a tangerine-and-cream tableau. The work, featuring a longhorn steer superimposed atop an outline of the Lone Star state, was commissioned by a Texan transplanted to New Albany and trying to hold onto a few mesquite memories.
While the artist studied the almost-completed window, the catch-throat strains of Patsy Cline's Walkin' After Midnight floated up to the rafters of the 1904 English classic barn that Borsari employs as his studio and shop.
Splashes of afternoon sunlight dappled the broad-planked floor through 39 windows Borsari notched in the barnwood walls when he remodeled.
Grinning, he recalled, "The locals said, 'That's that guy that went and ruined a perfectly good barn.' "
In the late '70s, the barn was but one aspect that made the pony-tailed Borsari suspect when he arrived in Morgan County (about 90 miles southeast of Columbus) with his partner, Emily Matusek.
When he approached a local banker for a loan, the fellow observed, "Let me get this straight: You want to buy this farm and make it into a stained-glass studio. You want the money in 24 hours. You don't have a job, and the woman you're with -- who has a job -- isn't your wife."
Somehow, Borsari persuaded the lender, who ultimately would serve as best man when Chuck and Emily tied the knot.
The marriage, she suggested, was a transaction some old-timers viewed with skepticism. "For the longest time, they wouldn't believe we were married because I was one of those '60s-era women who didn't change her name," she said.
They dropped their guard only when she reminded them of apple-pie examples of similar unions.
"Oh!" one said, "like Roy Rogers and Dale Evans."
Borsari cackles at the anecdotal evidence of his uneasy welcome to rural Morgan County. Truth be known, he and Matusek had little to laugh at when he abandoned the hard-earned comforts of his Columbus job with the Ohio AFL-CIO and headed for the hills.
A descendant of immigrant coal miners in western Pennsylvania, Borsari recalls from his childhood the day his grandfather hauled him into the family's Latrobe kitchen to marvel at a newly purchased refrigerator.
"John L. Lewis got us that refrigerator and don't you ever forget it," the old man advised his grandson, invoking as demigod the heavy-browed czar of the United Mine Workers.
Borsari was able to avoid the coal tattoo that branded his kin and find work in journalism. He knocked around from newspapers in Latrobe to Ashtabula, Ohio. He was news editor at the now-vanished Columbus Citizen-Journal in 1963. The tragedy of Nov. 22 forced him to blow the dust off enough ancient and massive wooden letters to fill a front page with the somber message "JFK DEAD."
Borsari quit the paper in 1967. He took his blue-collar birthright and liberal sensibilities with him to direct public relations for the Ohio AFL-CIO.
"It was one of the most turbulent times in Ohio politics," he said. "The Republicans controlled the state legislature, the Ohio Supreme Court and every statewide office."
Borsari was in the thick of political races and legislative frays, working behind the scenes for union-supported candidates and laboring to get the AFL-CIO's agenda before the Ohio General Assembly.
Yet even with the hefty salary, the car and the expense account, he soured of it all within a decade.
"I'd had my fill of politicians," he said. "I was beginning to see that some of the people we helped get elected were as bad as the ones we dumped. I was supposed to write wonderful things about people I didn't believe in anymore.
"I was in a rage. I hated going to work. I ached all over. I had knots in my back, headaches."
To make matters worse, he found himself in the midst of a power struggle within the Ohio AFL-CIO. He was thrust between two powerful and strong-willed union executives who loathed one another. He was trying to referee an ugly knife fight in a very small elevator when he decided he had had it.
"I said to myself, 'I gotta get the hell outta here. They're going to kill me.' One day after I was vested in the pension, I told them I was quitting."
For a few years before, Borsari had studied the work of stained-glass artisans and tried his hand at the craft. His newspaper-design skills were an asset in his new interest. He noted that there are many parallels between constructing the glass for a window and laying out Page 1.
Matusek volunteered to pay the mortgage with her teaching job until the business caught on -- provided they could find a place in the country suitable to convert to a studio.
The two pored over real-estate guides and studied potential sites in 26 states. Some locations were ruled out for reasons that had nothing to do with the view or the price.
Borsari explained, "A long-haired, pony-tailed Democrat in rural South Carolina? I didn't think I'd make it very long down there."
He despaired of finding the perfect place when he happened upon a newspaper ad for the Morgan County farm.
The first few years were lean. Borsari converted and refurbished the barn while trying to sell stained-glass jewelry boxes out of his van to shoppers in McConnelsville.
It was a tough sell, he said. "This is one of the poorest counties in Ohio, with one of the highest unemployment rates. There's only 14,000 people in the whole county.
"I cooked, cleaned house, did dishes," he said.
Progress was slow, yet he eventually graduated from a mainstay of $25 jewelry boxes to larger, more elaborate works.
When builders began relying on the counsel of design centers for artistic touches in upscale homes, Borsari pitched his work and landed more lucrative commissions.
By the early '90s, he could reassure himself that he was not going to end up like some central-casting cliche of a middle-age, back-to-nature hippie who goes belly up trying to sell candles.
He did it his way, steadfastly refusing to jump on the craft-show circuit, fearing that he might find himself 60 and still camping out in a sleeping bag under a display table.
Out of it all, not only did Borsari realize his dream, but also his partner launched Emily's Gift Emporium next to the barn. The cottage business specializes in pet-related gifts and art.
For a man who was supposed to have chucked the rat race, Borsari yet rises at 4:15 each morning. He is hard at work in the barn by 4:30 with a Dwight Yoakam CD cranked up loud enough to raise the dead.
"My wife thinks I'm crazy," he said. She says, 'Only people who are plotting the overthrow of the government are working at that hour.' "
By the time the sun is setting on Morgan County, Borsari's energy level has begun to plummet at the rate of a tractor piston dropped in a barrel of molasses.
"The key to success in my former life was to provoke people," he marveled. "We were always in an antagonistic position at the union. You look and you wonder, 'Isn't there more to life than this?' "
Yes, there is.
It's flanked on one side by the vista afforded by a nearby nature refuge, on another by a line of pines fronting the low ground where Holsteins once grazed. Just over the way are the apple trees of a neighbor's fruit farm.
On a clear day, you can hear Patsy Cline halfway to the orchard.