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A Renaissance Man

From finance to feathers, Secretary Lawrence M. Small brings diverse talents to the Smithsonian

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It was no idle daydream. Small found a flamenco teacher named Fidel Zabal, a clerk at ITT in New York City, and commuted scores of times from Providence to the old man's walk-up flat. The kid was good, all right, but eventually Zabal told him, "You will never be famous unless you go to Spain."

So Small made plans to go to Spain. Alan Trueblood, a professor in the Spanish-Portuguese department at Brown, put him in touch with a Smith College overseas program. Now a sophomore, Small audited a Spanish course in addition to his regular load and squeaked by on a competency test. He then flew to Granada two months before the program was to start. By the time the other students arrived, he was miles ahead of them, speaking Spanish fluently. Meanwhile, he kept working on his guitar.

"Then I made a list of the top ten flamenco players in the world," he said with a wry smile, "and they were all Spanish gypsies, all 5 feet 6, with bronze skins, all child prodigies. And here I am, 6 feet 3, a suburban kid from New Rochelle, New York."

The dream changed, but not much. He loved living abroad and his language skills were very marketable, so he decided to work for Citibank, which was expanding in Latin America. Professor Trueblood was appalled: business was taking one of his best Spanish literature students ever. But he wished him well and, at a graduation dinner, gave Small a volume of Wallace Stevens' verse, which included not only the famous poem "The Man with the Blue Guitar" but the appealing tidbit that Stevens, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, had also been an insurance executive.

With the bank job as his passport and his fluency in Spanish, Small took a position in Chile. And there he met Sandra, an American student, also fluent in the language. Today she is an interpreter in the federal court system in Washington. The Smalls continue to explore languages (he also speaks Portuguese and French) and the world itself, traveling whenever and wherever they can.

The couple's daughter, Amy, is studying fine arts in the Midwest, and their son, Martin, is a law student in New York (and a rock guitarist). Small's mother, former dean of Walton High School in the Bronx, still lives in New Rochelle, and his stepfather, a retired finance executive, is a painter. A striking abstract expressionist work by him hangs over the mantel in Small's living room.

Family is very important to Larry Small. "When I came to Fannie Mae in '91," he said, "I commuted from New York to Washington for 23 months, rode the shuttle 300 times, because my son was entering 11th grade in New York City and we just didn't want him to have the stress of moving right then." Small was planning to retire two years from now "and devote my life to music, art and languages," but when the Smithsonian asked him to consider becoming its 11th Secretary, Small realized that this would be a perfect assignment. "It's not work, it's total enjoyment."

He has a similar attitude about his guitar. When asked if he practices, he replies: "I don't practice, I play." He might play for 15 minutes, or he might play for two hours, running through a phrase 400 times. Learning from old records, he sometimes puts an impossible-sounding guitar passage on slow-time until he can learn all of the notes. "I lose myself in it. It's not taxing a bit."

He played for me, his amazingly extended, elegant fingers — the nails on the right hand are extra long — rippling over the fingerboard, pecking the surface to imitate the clack of heels, producing the fiery flamenco music as rich, exotic and intricate as Moorish filigree. Maybe it wasn't the tenth-best in the world, but it was good.

"I have no misconceptions about how well I play," he said. "It's not important. I just want to keep working."


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