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Obituary: Al Wahnon, a true legend and one of the industry's greatest supporters

He never manufactured, distributed, marketed, sold or installed flooring, yet his impact on the industry will last for generations. For nearly 56 years he chronicled every facet of the flooring industry, sometimes crisscrossing the country to ensure no event went unnoticed. On Tues., Feb. 1, six days before celebrating his 91st birthday, Al Wahnon, the founder and editor of Floor Covering News, passed away of a massive heart attack.

By any standard, Wahnon was a true industry icon, a legend among legends, within and outside the flooring world. At one point he was the highest paid editor among all trade magazine editors in the U.S. Through his stories, editorials and columns he was the industry’s loudest cheerleader for more than half a century. Recognizing it was people who made the industry, Wahnon always made sure to put a face to the story, no matter the con- text and often when others wouldn’t.

His tireless campaign to promote the best the flooring industry has to offer, while preaching professionalism, honesty, loyalty and integrity at every level, made him a friend to manufacturers, distributors, retailers, installers, associations and so on.

From defending the industry as an expert witness before Congress to leading campaigns to rid unscrupulous retailers, from being credited with giving numerous companies and people their start on the road to success and fame to being the driving force in creating associations and charitable foundations, Wahnon’s passion, dedication and love for flooring will be felt far into the future and could be seen through the multitude of accolades, awards and tributes afforded to him.

Albert Wahnon was born Feb. 7, 1920, in Harlem, N.Y., shortly after his parents immigrated from Gibraltar. They eventually settled in the Bronx, N.Y. Growing up through the Roaring 20s and the Great Depression Wahnon spent his childhood in the shadow of Yankee Stadium and could often be seen waiting around the ballpark for hours to get an autograph and handshake from his idols in pinstripes—from Ruth to Gerhig to DiMaggio and everyone in between.

It was these contacts that helped shaped one of his principle views: No matter how big and successful a team, business or organization is, it is the people behind the name who make the engine run. And, from the biggest star— CEO—to the last man on the bench— installer—each play an integral role in a team’s success or failure.

When the U.S. entered WWII, Wahnon was not about to wait to be drafted. His love for America had him among the first in line to enlist so he could fight for his country’s freedom and safety.

Like his professional career, Wahnon’s time in the military was one of valor. He trained as a paratrooper and became a corporal in the famous 551st Parachute Infantry Battallion, which was attached to the 82nd Airborne Division and saw action in Africa and across Europe, particularly in Italy and Belgium where he and the unit were cited for numerous acts of Extraodinary Heriosm.

His patriotism earned Wahnon numerous medals and honors, including two Bronze Stars of Valor, though it did come with a cost, specifically the two Purple Hearts he earned, one of which came from losing half of a foot.

It was from his experiences on the front lines, oftentimes finding himself and comrades in hand-to-hand combat, that Wahnon’s principles of loyalty, trust and friendship were sculpted. It was often noted once he established you as his friend, he would fight by your side when needed, no questions asked. The one caveat: He expected—actually demanded—the same loyalty in return. One of the mottos Wahnon lived by was “It takes one hand to wash the other.”

After four years of military service he was given his honorable discharge. Back in the states, Wahnon would attend Long Island University and earn his Bachelor of Science degree in journalism.

On April 10, 1949, he married his life partner, Rose, and began what would be a 62-year relationship. They would raise three boys— Leslie, David and Shepperd— while Wahnon circled the globe covering the industry, oftentimes with his wife by his side. On Feb. 2, 1955, after gaining “a bit” of journalistic experience at a couple of publications following college, such as The Bronx Times, Wahnon found himself being interviewed on the 57th floor of the Empire State Building by Irv Genett, who was looking for a managing editor for his 3-year-old publication, Floor Covering Weekly. Five days after the interview he began his new job. Little did he know at the time, it would mark the beginning of a lifelong career revolving around the flooring industry. “I viewed the job as temporary,” he would say decades later. “In a sense, it was. It lasted only 31 years.” His early days at the publication were spent mostly behind the scenes. Wahnon was quickly developing a circle of friends, though, people who would go on to become industry legends in their own right, who recognized his creative talents and appreciated the straightforward wisdom he provided, not to mention his fun, outgoing personality. When the time finally came for Wahnon to step into the spotlight, no one was more prepared or took to it as naturally as he did. Over the next 40 or so years, he became a larger-than-life personality within the flooring industry.

During this time frame, no other person was more sought after than he was. Mills, distributors, retailers, suppliers, newspapers (from the Atlanta Journal Constitution to The New York Times) and even the U.S. Congress requested his presence at one time or another. Many times it seemed as if he was in two places at once as he would crisscross the country, actually the world, in order to chronicle every important event the industry had— pausing just long enough to switch suitcases at the airport with his faithful assistant.

At one point, he was deemed “The Marathon Man,” and was even given a pair of winged tipped sneakers as a way to highlight his frequent journeys.

When the industry needed someone to defend it in the face of outrageous claims and scandals, it was Wahnon who boldly and courageously showed up at hearings or took them to task with stories and editorials. And, when it came to supporting the industry, it was his name that was evoked to carry the torch—which he proudly did with grace, humility and a sense of pride no one has ever been able to equal.

While much of this may sound like hyperbole, consider that at one point in the mid 1970s Wahnon was not only regarded as the No. 1 editor among all trade magazines in the country, his publication was considered the model by which all others strived to duplicate.

Two more of Wahnon’s trademarks were generosity and caring. And, though he was looked upon as a celebrity himself, he used his status not for personal gain but instead to help others. A prime example that lives to this day came the early 1980s. Though he was never technically in the flooring industry, Wahnon cared enough about the people in it, especially those afflicted with a catastrophic illness or who suffered a life-altering experience.

Donating his office as the meeting place, he was part of a handful of people that included mill execs, distributors and retailers who formed the non-profit Floor Covering Industry Foundation (FCIF) in 1981. This charitable organization, of which he remained an active participant up until his passing, has donated approximately $2 million to allow industry personnel to live in dignity despite their tragedies.

Generosity was a mainstay of Wahnon within the industry and in his community. He was a longtime member of the Town of Oyster Bay’s Historical Society, donated to numerous causes including AIDs and local animal shelters, and even started an annual scholarship at his alma mater in memory of his eldest son, Leslie.

Short-lived retirement

In 1985, after 31 years as a flooring trade editor, Wahnon wrote what he thought was his last editorial as he prepared for retirement and the next phase of his life. However, retirement only lasted a couple of weeks as he was quickly besieged with letters and phone calls from retailers to high-ranking mill executives to association and event coordinators, who pleaded with him to come back. They said his was the one voice they trusted and could count on for honesty and integrity.

So, on April 7, 1986, Wahnon launched his own trade magazine, Floor Covering News. Most would have thought it ludicrous based on how powerful he built his previous publication. But that only drove him harder to succeed. Wahnon’s persistence and dedication to excellence prevailed, and he was fortunate enough to witness his David slay his Goliath in 2009 when it become the industry’s No. 1 trade publication—an honor it still holds.

His passion, devotion and love for the flooring industry truly had no equal and it could be seen through the myriad of awards and honors bestowed upon Wahnon over the years. Some of these include being part of the inaugural group inducted into the World Floor Covering Association All Industry Hall of Fame, becoming the second person inducted into the Long Island Floor Covering Association Hall of Fame—a group he helped found—a lifetime membership in the Chicago Floorcovering Association, the first person to be awarded the Carpet & Rug Institute’s (CRI) Pentaskelion award, along with other honors such as the FCIF’s Chairman’s Award for Lifetime Achievement, a Gratitude of Service honor from the Floor Covering Installation Contractors Association (FCICA), a Partner in Education honor from the American Floorcovering Association (AFA), and numerous Man of the Year honors from associations, organizations and companies.

A true testament to Wahnon’s relevance to the flooring industry came in April of 2005, when Floor Covering News published a special edition honoring his 50th anniversary as a flooring editor and publisher.

Many other honors were doled out by individuals and companies over the years as a way of expressing thanks. Wahnon’s kindness and compassion often came in the form of him writing a story, taking a photo and providing editorial space for a fledgling enterprise when no other would. When he wrote about a person or a company, the industry took notice. He may not have been the sole reason a company or person saw success, but he played an important part—especially in the early years of a career.

While it is easy to point to Wahnon’s love of the industry as a reason for all the accolades, what truly separated him from the pack was his mastery of the English language—both written and spoken. On the speaking circuit, no one was in more demand, because no one could command an audience like him.

But it was Wahnon’s writing for the reason the industry immortalized him. No matter the topic or tone, he was at his best when putting pen to paper: from scathing editorials against unscrupulous retailers who prayed on consumers with bait-and-switch tactics to informative, educational columns on sales and professionalism; from heartwarming anecdotes about a colleague to accurate, detailed accounts of meetings and conventions, and from tales of yesteryear to missives about industry people, places and events, Wahnon was a true master of the written word.

As good as he was, Wahnon also knew he was human, meaning he wasn’t perfect, and he allowed his editorials, columns and stories to be edited by his staff. He would even call upon his readers to ensure he and his publication got things right. “We have the professional staff, the dedication, the motivation,” he wrote in Floor Covering News’ inaugural edition. “However, we don’t pretend to know it all. We need the help of our readers to be certain we are on target, providing the services they require. We would like an open line between you and us. Your input on our performance will guide us, make our efforts more helpful to you. It’s a matter of helping each other; we can be no more effective than you allow us to be, but we will be rendered ineffective by your apathy.” When it came to Wahnon, it was never about the company, the product or the program—albeit these were the things that made up the vast majority of his stories and editorials—rather it was always about the people behind these things that mattered most to him, no matter their position in life. He spoke for the CEO as equally and eloquently as he would about the person who swept the floors. That is why those who would normally be combative of each other—manufacturers, distributors, retailers/contractors, salespeople and installers—all called him their friend, their supporter, their confidant. In what he thought was his retirement editorial in 1985, he wrote, “[I] believe happiness is people. How often has it been said that this is a people industry? [I] know it is. [I] have made so many good friends in this industry and shared so many wonderful times with them…It is difficult to separate [myself] from the people who populate this industry….Through the years, [I] felt [their] every emotion, every joy, every disappointment…[I] have always been part of the floor covering industry and the people who breathe life into it. And it will always be a part of [me].”

Generosity. Passion. Loyalty. Dedication. While each of these words, along with many others, have been used to describe Wahnon and the reason for his rise to greatness and ability to sustain it for more than 55 years, perhaps it is best left to Wahnon himself.

“Before we launch our new career, we must conclude this one in satisfaction of a persistent desire—to have the last word. Love.”

Wahnon was predeceased by his son Leslie. He is survived by his wife, Rose; two sons, David (Laura) and Shep, and two grandchildren, Daniel and Leah.

In lieu of flowers, the family asks donations be made in his honor to the Floor Covering Industry Foundation, 2211 East Howell Ave., Anaheim, Calif. 92806.

-Matthew Spieler