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John Lamb, Published November 29 2011

Lamb: ’Tis the tweed season

Any day now the Rourke Art Museum will name a new director to replace founder James O’Rourke, who died in March.

The organization isn’t waiting for the new blood to settle in before it cleans house – literally.

The museum started its holiday sale last weekend and among the expected items – Jon Offutt glass goods and Sara Jane Thompson jewelry – was something quite unexpected: a rack of O’Rourke’s signature Harris tweed jackets.

So what’s so great about Harris tweed?

“Harris tweed means a tweed which has been hand woven by the islanders at their homes … and made from pure virgin wool dyed and spun in the Outer Hebrides (islands in western Scotland),” the 105-year-old company boasts.

The jackets were O’Rourke’s year-round uniform, not only business attire but a symbol of his old-school attitude and his fastidious personality.

He encouraged Rourke staffers to find their own Harris tweeds, which made them look like a gang – as much as a group of tweedy intellectuals at John Alexander’s corner table for a two-martini lunch looks like a gang.

Harris tweed didn’t just get you in Jim’s good graces; the warm, wool jackets really helped you survive wintering at the Rourke, where Jim used heat sparingly.

On Christmas Eve 1991, I was shivering while working over a marble table at the Rourke Art Gallery when photographer/teacher Mark Strand came in with good tidings. He commented that the scene – Jim tucked away in his office, surrounded by stacks of paper, and me rubbing my hands together – was similar to Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” and I was Bob Cratchit, hesitant to ask for another lump of coal for the holiday.

While Jim could be frosty, he wasn’t completely cold. In fact, he downright warmed up at the holidays.

Years after I quit working there, he started treating staffers to a Christmas Eve lunch of pizza and wine. Gallery patrons on the search for last-minute gifts were invited to sit at the greasy feast, in the main gallery of the museum.

Visiting became part of my Christmas Eve routine. Drop in after noon with some cookies and a bottle of wine, grab a left-over slice (I’m still surprised Jim liked Hawaiian pizza), a glass of wine and sit down for a chat.

Sometimes Jim would produce a wrapped gift – generally a book from the gift shop. One year it was an elaborately designed pop-up cook book, ironic since the only thing Jim cooked was oatmeal.

As of this writing, I don’t know the new director and don’t know what her (the two finalists were both women) views are related to pizza and wine lunches on Christmas Eve. Or for that matter, what her threshold is for working over marble counters in the bleak midwinter.

She may ultimately have a warmer personality – that wouldn’t be too hard – than her predecessor, but she won’t have that same wooly charm.

Though if she hurries, I do know where she can get a great deal on Harris tweed jackets.

Readers can reach Forum reporter John Lamb at (701) 241-5533