In Memoriam: Mr. Bill

On February 6, 2017, we lost an incredible volume of living history: letterpress instructor, mentor, and friend, Bill Axenroth.

I'll never forget walking into his shop on the second floor of Lincoln Mill, before it was reduced to a basement room. Golden sunlight streamed in through the half-painted floor-to-ceiling windows and illuminated press after press in the gigantic room, like a turn-of-the-century industrial museum. The great metal machines seemed to rise out of the tide of paper scraps that covered the floor and rustled underfoot. Ink-encrusted knives balanced on open cans by several of the presses. Stacks of blank paper sat by the thousands on rolling carts, awaiting their turn to be printed, foil stamped, or die cut. He demonstrated each machine with the patient confidence that comes with a lifetime of expertise. I shared in his excitement as he exclaimed over the "gorgeous typeface!" of the intricate cursive wood type he'd from his grandfather. On one visit, he took me to a storage space on the 3rd floor; a chain link fence surrounded 100-year-old cabinets, with type cases stacked as high as I could reach, and galley trays full of metal type filling the shelves of industrial rolling carts. He let me explore and pick whatever struck my fancy--I remember exactly the elaborate borders and unusual typefaces that established our collection.

When I had first approached him after a tip from a friend and explained why I wanted to purchase one of his presses, I was a little taken aback when he dismissively told me that these weren't what I wanted; after all, they were for printing business forms, and had nothing to do with making art! My persistence paid off, and not only did I convince him to let me buy that first press (our beloved 1914 Chandler & Price) along with the equipment and supplies to outfit the entire letterpress portion of the shop, he also took me under his wing and taught me how to use every bit.

A 3rd generation letterpress printer, Bill started his own printing business, Solatec, after retiring as an engineer. He had watched the industry die over the decades, replaced by offset printing, typewriters, mimeograph, photocopy, and finally desktop printing; in his words, "The same work that was once a well-paying, highly skilled union job done by a room full of men can now be done by one girl on her laptop computer sitting at home in her pajamas." He was a wealth of knowledge, and while he continued to apply it to his daily work, I believe he felt that it had lost its value to the rest of the world. At my urging, he finally agreed to teach a class at Green Pea. I knew what he didn't yet know--that letterpress was experiencing a hot revival in the art world, and that there was a broad, interested audience who would appreciate learning about the craft.

He ended up teaching that class every other month, on average, over the past six years. The class was divided into three sessions, with an optional fourth session: a field trip to Frost Printing Co. to see a working linotype machine, followed by Mr. Bill's own shop, where he would demonstrate how he built custom dies for cutting, his large foil stamping press, and give a tour of the shop. When he was particularly fond of an attentive student, he would often give them the first letter of their name in type to take home as a memento; once, he threw in an entire empty type drawer to display it with as well.

I was only one of many lives he touched during his time (he received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Huntsville Rotary Club just before passing), and I feel fortunate for the knowledge he imparted, and the memories made. However, his humor is what most endeared me to him; he had a storytelling style reminiscent of Mark Twain, and his deadpan delivery often caught me off-guard in the beginning, thinking he might just be a grumpy old man, until I caught the twinkle in his eye and out came the rascally chuckle. He will be dearly missed.