Writer's Block: My Friend Otis

Occasionally the loss of one person ripples through the entire community. We saw this with the passing of Juliet Bernstein in November; she touched so many people during her long life that just about everyone in town was affected by her death.

Otis Russell arguably touched even more local folks. “Served” might be a better verb. During his decades as bartender and night manager of the Chatham Squire, Otis interacted with so many people that it would be impossible to quantify. His affable demeanor, infused with humor and humanity, left an indelible impression. For many, he was the Squire.

But Otis was much more than a good bartender skilled at engaging the clientele. He was one of my best friends, for one. He was incredibly generous and creative. As the guiding force behind the Art of Charity Foundation, he helped raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for Monomoy Community Services, Boy and Girl Scouts, the Chatham Teachers Fund and many other local programs and organizations serving the town's young people. He was always game to take things to the next level – coming up with unique items to auction off or get attention for Art of Charity events (anyone remember the Cape Cod boxer shorts he gifted to then-Congressman William Delahunt?), challenging people's expectations and turning his visions into reality, like “Sammy Finds a Home,” the children's book he published last year.

I have no clear memory of meeting Otis. He's just one of those people who have been in my life since I came to the Cape decades ago. We discovered many things in common – politics, comic books, movies (especially bad ones) and a somewhat skewed sense of humor. Something of a polymath, Otis was comfortable discussing any subject with anyone – fisherman, landscaper, musician, merchant, CEO or Shore Road summer resident. He was one of the smartest people I've known, and I always felt like he could do better than tend bar or help guests at the Wequassett Inn, his post-Squire career. But to Otis, the interaction with people that those jobs entailed was everything, and it was his joyous personality and ability to connect at any level that won him many instant friends.

Otis was also courageous. Actor David Carradine became a regular at the Squire during the filming of “The Golden Boys” in 2007. One night, not long after the town banned smoking in restaurants and bars, Carradine was preparing to light a cigar when Otis turned up next to his table holding a fire extinguisher and warned the actor that he'd have to use it if he lit up. “Do you have a death wish?” responded Carradine, who was skilled in martial arts from his “Kung Fu” days. Otis stood his ground. The actor backed down.

In the early 1990s, Otis came up with the idea of holding a roast of the Chatham selectmen as a fundraiser for Monomoy Community Services. Otis, myself and some invited guests took turns skewering board members in the tradition of the Friars Club. With his insight and quick wit, Otis's bits were always hard to top. The one that stands out in my memory: he dropped a huge book – think one of those comprehensive dictionaries you find in libraries – onto the podium with a loud thud and proclaimed, “The collected letters to the editor of Juliet Bernstein!”

The roasts morphed into the Art of Charity auctions, a concept that was all Otis: invite people not known for making art to contribute a piece they create to be auctioned to raise money for local kids' groups. He even created the logo we continued to use for the next 25 years. Jean Young was enlisted to handle the physical setup of the auctions, leaving Otis and me to wrangle the art and artists. We would spend months before every auction inviting established artists, prominent residents and everyday citizens to donate. Otis often used connections he'd made through the Squire, as well as his copious charm, to get donations from far and wide – a Dilbert tie signed by cartoonist Scott Adams, a guitar signed by Carlos Santana, a sculpture by a local shop owner – and was usually the brains behind unique auction packages. Otis loved to cook and talk wine, and every year he contributed a special catered dinner. My favorite was an evening of fine dining in the Eldredge Public Library, something only Otis could arrange and pull off with style.

We put on the auction the last Saturday in June for 11 years. My favorite time was huddling with Otis, decked out as always in his Japanese fireman's jacket, right before the event and coming up with our schtick for the evening. Although we were co-hosts, there was never any doubt in my mind that I was Abbott to his Costello, Martin to his Lewis, Carl Reiner to his Mel Brooks. When Otis riffed on something, I stepped back and let him go. He kept the auctions fast and funny, much to the benefit of hundreds of local children.

The Art of Charity kept going with annual fundraising drives, another live auction in 2012 to mark the town's 300th anniversary, and a final, abbreviated event in 2019 to thank our supporters over the years before a lack of time and dwindling returns convinced us to close the whole thing down. When we started AOC, neither Otis nor I had kids; by the end, we had three between us, and in many ways we could no longer indulge our passion for talking comics or watching bad movies, and the kids we were now helping were our own. We were all sad to see it end, no one more than Otis. Although he would deny it, the Art of Charity was his baby, and the good that came of it something he was very proud of.

But it's not his greatest legacy. That honor goes to his wife Monica and son Nick, and to those of us who were fortunate enough to know him, whether through a decades-long collaboration or a casual conversation over the bar.

Otis was an avowed atheist. So strong was his spirit, however, that I know he's out there in the ether somewhere observing us all and making smart, pithy comments. I wish were were all able to laugh along with him again.