Some individuals are so much larger than life they cast a shadow over others. Wally Byam was one of these people. But having known Art and his family, I have no doubt about his strength as a leader and the important void he filled after Wally’s death in 1962. Without his knowledge, and without the lessons he learned as Wally’s protégé, Airstream’s survival is doubtful.
The two met at a time when Wally was general manager for travel trailer manufacturer Curtis Wright. They weren’t hiring, but Wally met with Art anyway. Suddenly they were interrupted – a worker needed a driver to pick up windows, but all were busy. That’s when Art volunteered to go.
Wally respected not just Art’s ingenuity, but also his personality. Art was hired as a line worker, driver, and utility worker. Wally left Curtis Wright in early 1947, with Art joining him at a reopened Airstream factory. In the years that followed, Art went from worker to foreman to plant manager to president.
After Wally passed, The Caravanner published a memorial issue. Art eulogized his friend and mentor, sharing his feelings about their close relationship.
“My 17-year association with Wally Byam was a tremendously thrilling experience. It was more than an education and much more valuable to me personally than anything money could buy.
“In one way, at least, I am one of the most fortunate guys in the world: I had in effect two fathers. One father, my own, reared me as a little child and taught me to grow up properly to manhood. The other, Wally Byam, inspired me to realize some of my most cherished dreams and ambitions.
“There is no end to the things that Wally taught me: how to get things done, for example. But basically he taught me proceed through life with faith, not fear, and that has been the greatest thing in the world to me.”
Leadership is learning, participation, and acceptance. Airstream continued on without Wally Byam, but without Art Costello, the company’s story may have ended during those days.
At a time when we needed a leader more than ever, Art moved the company forward.
Dale “Pee Wee” Schwamborn has silver in his blood. Each week, Pee Wee shares one of his many stories, including his experiences on the iconic Airstream Caravans, his time spent working in the Airstream factory, and the many Airstreamers he’s befriended, far and wide.