Before collaborating with Oltman on many articles for Motorcycle Consumer News (MCN) magazine, I knew him as the slightly curmudgeonly Honda Goldwing expert who dispensed advice to riders in the GWRRA (Goldwing Road Riders Association) at their monthly meetings at Chompie’s Deli on Shea Blvd. in Scottsdale, AZ. Stu’s level of mechanical and electrical expertise surpassed anyone else’s by a margin as wide as that between a 5-year-old attempting to fly like Superman from a hump of dirt in his backyard and a pilot of a military jetpack. He held frequent technical sessions in his garage, holding forth on a variety of maintenance topics, demonstrating the right way to change fluids, install accessories and tackle a variety of small and large repairs. Stu’s wife, Hilo, would serve coffee and snacks, and riders would watch and talk, often slack-jawed in wonder at how one guy could know and do so much.
Stu was the Technical Editor for Wing World Magazine and his monthly column (“Work Bench”) was one of the main reasons people subscribed to the magazine. He also wrote “Downtime Files” at MCN. Oltman was on-call as a consultant to Honda America. He’d fly to dealerships around the country when local mechanics had given up on fixing a perplexing problem and the factory guys had run out of ideas. Honda did not want to replace these motorcycles, they wanted to learn the root cause of the failure. They trusted Stu to find out and he did.
Our collaborations typically came when I’d bring Stu an idea to evaluate and test a product for a review in Motorcycle Consumer News. The editor, David Searle, was an engineer and a stickler not only for good writing but solid scientific approaches to testing and process. Sitting in Stu’s garage/workshop, replete with better tools and test equipment than any dealer’s service department, Stu would listen for a few minutes, then pepper me with questions, most of which I couldn’t answer, and then tell me all the reasons my idea was ill-advised, lacking in merit and most likely impossible. Then he’d look toward the house to make sure Hilo wasn’t heading our way and light a forbidden cigarette from a pack hidden in the far reaches of his desk.
We’d sit in silence for a while. I knew enough to stay quiet and say nothing. Eventually, he’d snub out his half-finished cigarette and say, “You know what we ‘could’ do that might work?” He would then proceed to outline a far better and more impactful variation on my idea than I’d considered. And we’d get to work. While the final published piece bore both our bylines and we split the money, I always felt guilty as he’d done the heavy lifting brainy bits. Later this process helped me do my own tests on a variety of motorcycle gear. More like a great Sensei Master than a Wise-ass on the hill, he always graciously helped me whenever I ran into difficulty.
Stu was an exacting tester and a good writer. He never hid his dislike for those who were lax in caring for their bikes or did stupid things without bothering to learn what a task required, follow the correct order or just being naïve. God, did he hate stupid. He’s been called crusty and opinionated, but that was mostly because he was always right. I loved being around him and talking to him. I miss not turning onto 124th Street from Shea Blvd. and dropping in without notice before or after one of my Mayo Clinic visits. I miss spending ten minutes on the phone before finally agreeing on a place to have lunch, when once there, we forgot the food and the place minutes later, but the conversation stuck in our heads for months. I am sad he’s not available for me to call whenever I have a dumb question.
In my head Stu’s always been one of my “riding buddies,” but we didn’t ride motorcycles together. Stu preferred week-long rides or longer, just he and Hilo, not in a group, just the two of them. Sure, he did longish day rides, but then again, it was nearly always alone. We loved sharing stories of the various places we’d ridden, domestic and international. We both had fond memories of New Zealand and considered it to have the best motorcycle roads in the world. We owned and appreciated many of the same model bikes just never road them together. In 2014 he bought a Moto Guzzi Stelvio and emailed me that he’d bought it as a “recovery bike,” as he’d just had back surgery. Go figure.
It wasn’t until after his death I learned the details of his service to our country. He never spoke about it. I recall walking around the annual swap meet at MMI (Motorcycle Mechanics Institute) in Avondale together. There were lots of veterans wearing military T-Shirt, ball caps, and patches, but he never talked about his service or theirs. Stu never told me about joining the Army in 1967, becoming an officer, and flying helicopters in Vietnam in the 227th and 229th battalions in 1969-70. While I’ve read our military used 12,000 helicopters in Vietnam and over 5,000 of them were destroyed making it one of the most dangerous spots imaginable, until reading his Obituary, I didn’t know about his Air Medal w/Valor, Purple Heart Medal, Bronze Star Medal, Vietnam Service Medal with 4 Bronze stars, Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal, Army Aviator Badge, 2 overseas service bars, Army commendation Medal and National Defense Service Medal. He’d never said a word.
I loved being his colleague and friend. I will miss him.