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Gordon B. Lankton: From Industry to Russian Icons

By Bernie Whitmore

Driving through Massachusetts’ towns, it’s common to see mills in advanced states of decay, a constant reminder of the decline of manufacturing.  But Clinton is different.  Its industrial district of sturdy stone structures is well-maintained and swarms with activity.  Overlooking it is the Museum of Russian Icons, whose elegant galleries contain one of the world’s foremost collections.10312010_31icons.4

Why is Clinton so different?  I suppose there are several factors, but chief among them is one man:  Gordon Lankton.  Fifty years ago, Gordon, a friendly and gentle man, came to Clinton with idealism, respect for people, and an entrepreneurial vision for plastics.  He is the chairman of Nypro, a maker of nylon products and one company that, thanks largely to Gordon, has managed to thrive in Clinton.  He recently welcomed me into his office ~ a museum in its own right ~ packed with icons, African wood    carvings and cast iron toys, and began recounting both his story and the history of his business endeavors.

I came to Clinton fifty years ago.  At that time, Leominster was still considered the plastics center of the United States.  So the plastics industry in Clinton is really an outgrowth of Leominster.  At one time, there were a hundred different companies doing plastics just in Leominster.  Now, with the exception of the automotive plants around Detroit, Nypro is the largest manufacturer of precision plastic products in the United States.

I didn’t found the company; I came here about five years after it was founded.  During that period of time nylon was invented.  It was a material that could be used to make gears and bushings ~ mechanical parts that would last.  Prior to that, plastics were all, more or less, decorative ~ they didn’t have the capability to be industrial components.  Fred Kirk, my predecessor and founder of Kirk Molding, introduced nylon into the factory but had a terrible time showing people how to handle it ~ it was brand new and had peculiarities.  He finally gave up and set up in another building here in Clinton and called it Nylon Products ~ where they didn’t do anything but nylon…which was an intelligent thing to do and the company prospered.

When I graduated from Cornell, right after the war, it was a time when an engineer could write his ticket anywhere in the United States.  I hadn’t ever given plastics any thought, but I saw two companies, Dow and DuPont, and this new material, and thought, ‘Hey, this is brand new and it’s going to be successful!  I think I want to get into the plastics business.’

DuPont hired me, but I had to go in the army for two years.  They said, ‘OK, just come see us when you get out.’  The army sent me to Germany for two years as a lieutenant.  After that, I decided to spend another year on a motorcycle trip around the world to come home.  I went to Austria, Yugoslavia, Greece, Turkey, Iraq and Iran, and all the way to Burma, Ceylon, and Japan, and then back home.

pb060905So three years went by and I went to work for DuPont.  I liked DuPont, and thought it was the best big company in the US.  But I didn’t like big companies; I wanted to be in a small company.  So I went to Stanley Tool in Connecticut and ran their plastics company for three years.  Then I felt it was time to go into business on my own.  DuPont got wind of this and suggested I go to Clinton to look at Nylon Products.  It looked like a nice opportunity; Fred Kirk was a sharp guy and his partner had just become ill and wanted to sell his shares.

Gordon managed to leverage his five thousand dollar salary into part-ownership and subsequently grew the business.  Seven years later he was soul owner.   He renamed it Nypro and took it international.  In characteristic modesty, Gordon boiled his success down to these factors: risk taking, luck, and good accounts.  However, as he continued, I realized his success was also based on innovative management practices.

I had my own ways of running a business, [including] making the hard-working people part of the ownership.  I had learned that on my motorcycle trip.  I loved the working people I met on the way because they asked me in at night and gave me meals… all around the world.

When I discovered Russia twenty years ago, I was beginning to think it was time to retire because I was sixty years old.  I’d already announced I was thinking about my future.  I didn’t want to retire and probably never will.  But I wanted to do something different and I wanted to bring along young people.  So I set about to make a transition…

I wanted to work down on the factory floor with the machines and be near my employees.  Then I started giving stock to the most conscientious of them, the most valuable employees. Each year I’d give shares.  Fifty years later we still do that.  All the shares have been given out, I have one percent of the shares instead of one hundred percent.

That’s my history at Nypro.  We have profit sharing every three months based on performance of the different divisions.  We’ve had some really good years and good customers and made a lot of money.  That’s how I got this museum. gordon-in-gallery

…Which brought our conversation to Russia, icons and the Museum.  Gordon described his path from industry to fine art.

We were setting up factories all over the world.  But Russia wasn’t available in the early days because of their system.  Then in 1989, the Soviet Union broke up and finally we could set up a joint venture in Russia.

The start-up was going OK and I was visiting the plant every four months to make sure it was all right.  I got to the point where I had enough spare time to go out and look around.  I wanted to see the art and the people.  It’s quite an artistic country.  Americans didn’t know Russia at all… I didn’t know Russia at all but I found I liked it a lot and the country appealed to me.

I went to a flea market one day and saw this thing lying on the ground.  They said it was an icon.  I didn’t understand what it was, but I picked it up and I took it home with me.   I began to read about icons and found them fascinating: Russian religion, history and art are all combined in icons.  The first thing that attracted me is that they are primitive art.  I like primitive stuff and I like anything that’s made of wood.

From there, I knew I had not been a great Christian.  I went to church as a Protestant all my life but never read the Bible.  So I thought this gave me an opportunity to get a bit into religion.  Icons represented a whole new society and new interest.  I just loved their histories and reading stories from the Bible.

Gordon proceeded to explain the history of Russia and Christianity and the role of icons.  In his office, surrounded by examples of the art, he picked up a couple icons and related their Biblical stories.  I asked him how he’d built his collection.

They had been banned when Russia was communist and didn’t believe in religion.  Before 1920 every home had an ‘icon corner,’ a small icon  with a little candle burning above it.  The Soviets ordered the people to burn their icons in the city square. To a large degree they did.  Some icons were hidden in attics and barns, but most were destroyed.img_0923

Larger icons were in monasteries and churches. Under Communism, churches were closed and nobody was allowed into them.  But they were never destroyed; they were left empty, sitting with their icons.  The windows would get broken and after a few years the soot and dirt covered the icons.  They’ve since developed a technique for removing these layers.

It was illegal to take icons out of Russia, but the rule was that if it were worth a hundred dollars or less, you could take it.  The guys at the airport never knew what they were worth, so I took my chances.  Three times they stopped me and took my icons away from me.  Then they gave me a paper that said unless someone claimed the icons I could get them back after three months.  I got them all back.

Then I quit trying to carry them out.  I was building a pretty good collection and I didn’t want anything that wasn’t proper.  Since then I’ve been buying them in Western Europe.  In 1937, Stalin sold truckloads of icons into Western Europe to raise money.  They’re in collections all throughout Europe.  Germany is where I find most of mine.  I don’t even attempt to bring them back from Russia any more.

Gordon explained the transition from one dusty flea market icon to a fine collection and museum.

When I discovered Russia twenty years ago, I was beginning to think it was time to retire because I was sixty years old.  I’d already announced I was thinking about my future.  I didn’t want to retire and probably never will.  But I wanted to do something different and I wanted to bring along young people.  So I set about to make a transition; it took about eight years but I got out of the job… pretty much.  I’ve always been chairman of the board and still have the position but have gotten rid of the work.g2e22e2000000000000b2b8dbaecfd2641a37110b88183a0e52a73d9eec

The museum has four permanent positions: me, a curator, and two really smart young ladies who are educated museum people.  We also have twenty-five extremely devoted docents who give tours.

Indeed, it’s most amazing how devoted and generous Gordon is in sharing his love of icons.  This generosity is most evident in the museum itself, a jewel box befitting the art it houses.  Its galleries and radiant contents could grace any of the world’s finest museums.  As he showed me around and interpreted some of his favorite icons, we were joined by a couple of locals who consider it an honor to listen to a man who is so rich in experience, knowledge, and spirit.

Before leaving, he handed me a book composed of the journal entries from his motorcycle trip.  It tracks his experiences with people and cultures that hadn’t yet been trampled by the communication miracles of the twentieth century.  Here’s a passage from a point near the end of his trip where he allowed himself a philosophical moment:

July 25, 1957 Tokyo:   I felt satisfied about the trip.  I consider myself an excellent traveler, if nothing else.  I learned to travel cheaply and gain the most from the experiences.  I’ll never be in a position to travel in this manner again, so this education won’t be worth much, but I have hopes that I learned other things too.  The future will tell that.

Museum of Russian Icons
203 Union Street, Clinton   (978) 598-5000

Author’s Note:  Although it was not the focus of our interview, Mr. Lankton has also recently opened his Gallery of African Art, which showcases his personal collection of 200 primarily wooden artifacts, in the Sunshine Boutique in Clinton.  The collection ~ amassed over 60 years of Lankton’s international travels ~ includes stone, wood, clay and bronze tribal masks, figures, sculpture and artifacts from 32 tribes, and includes Dogon, Baule, and Bamana art.

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