Works in progress remained just that on a recent afternoon at the Eliot School for Fine and Applied Arts.
Under celebratory balloons, saws sat still and silent. Trays of pastries punctuated by potted mums occupied tables usually used for sanding and hammering. Before rows of tool-scarred stools stood an electronic piano. There would be song in the shop. Not just any song - opera, live opera, a longtime love of Charlie Sandler, whose 40 years of work at the Eliot were feted by dozens of family and friends, students and neighbors.
"The Eliot School wouldn't be the Eliot School without Charlie," said Howard Shrobe, who spends his days working on artificial intelligence at MIT and many of his nights in the woodshop that sits a stone's throw from the Jamaica Plain home he has occupied for 20-plus years. "In fact, JP wouldn't be JP without Charlie. He's one of those unique characters who define a neighborhood."
A decade ago, Shrobe walked into the shop knowing little to nothing about woodworking. Under Sandler's tutelage he picked up the craft, discovering in the process an outlet, an expressive medium, and a friendship. Two years ago, he made the transition from student to teacher, a path down which Sandler has led many.
"Charlie is this strange blend of live wire and patience," said Shrobe, 60. "He knows how to slow down, yet he knows how to get things done. It's inspiring and instructive. I think of him as an old salt - and that was before I heard that he learned his trade in the boatyards of Boston as a teenager."
Sandler spent his early years in Dorchester's Codman Square, followed by nine years in Hyde Park. His early work as a cabinetmaker gave way to a job in vocational education, which halved his 1966 salary of $13,500, but left him determined to make up the balance.
"Shortly after becoming a teacher with the Boston public schools, I started working at the Eliot. I also did my fair share of construction on the side and enrolled part-time in five college courses," said Sandler, who holds a master's degree plus 45 credits. "This place has been like a second home, though. It still is. I'm here at least three times per week; it had been five day a week before I retired from the Boston schools."
Since 1973, Sandler has lived in Stoughton, filling his commutes to Boston with cassettes of Puccini, Rossini, and Verdi. Friends and students were surprised to hear of Sandler's enthusiasm for opera, and guess that his Italian wife had introduced him to it. Not so.
"It goes back to 1952, when I was in the Korean War," said Sandler, 71. "I was sent to Japan for some R and R, and saw my first opera. It was beautiful! The colors, the spectacle, the women - it was all women, geisha girls.
"Even though I couldn't understand a word of the Japanese, something spoke to me. I've loved it ever since."
Sandler sees opera and woodworking dovetailing. "To appreciate one is to appreciate the other," he said. "Both involve balance, symmetry, mathematics, beauty, patience, and vision. First you put something together in your mind, then you find a way to bring it into the world."
A chance to make the intangible tangible has drawn many students to the Eliot School, which opened in 1676 and has attempted, in the words of its early 20th-century trustees, "to satisfy that instinctive desire of human beings to create." Depending on donations and volunteers, today's Eliot offers courses to students of all ages in everthing from stained glass to theatrical make-up, upholstery to digital photography.
"As a computer programmer," said Shrobe, "you build things, but you never see them. With woodworking, it may take time to complete something, but each night in the shop you get to see and handle another piece of the project."
Mike Molinari, Sandler's friend, fellow instructor, and neighbor, agreed. "I'm not surprised that we get dentists, accountants, and lawyers coming in here to build something. It's reality, and it's theirs. Even if it has a bunch of mistakes, it's theirs," said Molinari, 67. "We all see the imperfections in our own work. I've been at it a lifetime, and I still do."
Balancing pastries and cups of cider, people made their way to seats at the rear of the shop, where testimonies preceded opera on the impromptu stage. Three generations of Sandler's family occupied the front row. Daughters, grandsons, a son-in-law, students, and friends delighted in stories of Sandler's generosity, work ethic, talent, and singular humor.
Joe Stanwyck lauded Sandler as "an exceptional teacher, mentor, and gentleman," then took issue with the woodworker's weakness for the punishing pun. "I asked him what he wanted for lunch one afternoon and he requested a honeymoon salad," recalled Stanwyck, 62, of Roslindale. " 'What's that?' I asked. 'Lettuce alone,' he said."
When Sandler's daughter mentioned that her mom and dad met at a dance, Sandler pounced on the moment.
"It was an Italian dance," he said as he shimmied in his seat. "You know, disco here, disco there."
The humor balanced the more poignant moments: a lifelong friend and colleague saying in Italian-inflected English, "Charlie, he make my life"; an Eliot school administrator noting how "lovingly" Sandler took care of the shop, its old machines, and his students.
Mark Whitlock was among those students. And on this day, he sat behind the piano, which stood no more than 10 yards from the chest he had made with Sandler's help - a piece whose butterfly dovetails were admired by master and novice alike. Whitlock's bandaged finger (minor shop accident) did not hinder his deft accompaniment of Sabrina Learman and James Liu, whose alternating arias enchanted Sandler and many others.
Before Whitlock packed up his piano, he looked at his completed chest. "Those little butterfly joints - they were like practicing a piece on the piano over and over again. It's a matter of tenacity, slight insanity, and the occasional glass of wine."
His attention then turned to Sandler, who stood on the other side of the room, laughing with one of the few remaining guests. "Charlie really cares about people," said Whitlock, 46. "We trust him and the good people he attracts. That's why we keep coming back here. That's why this place works."