Off Beat: Mapmaker’s kids measured up during family trips

By Tom Vogt, Columbian science, military & history reporter

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Conversations can take off in unexpected directions, and a recent example involved a process that actually should keep people on course. It was a chat about mapmaking.

Longtime local cartographer Phil Arnold, who died on Jan. 14, was honored a week ago by the city of Vancouver. His family was at City Hall when a nearby street was renamed Phil Arnold Way.

After family members gathered outside council chambers, Phil Arnold Jr. was asked about growing up with a mapmaking dad.

When Phil and Helen Arnold piled into the car with the kids, what was it like having someone at the wheel who knew all the street names and shortcuts? Someone who could tell you what was around the next corner, and the corner beyond that?

Well, his dad did certainly did know his way around town, Phil Jr. said. But what he recalls about those family drives was stopping at new buildings so the kids could measure them.

When it came time for Arnold to update a map with that new building, he wouldn’t just represent it with a generic dot or square. “He would draw it to scale,” Phil Jr. said.

Phil Arnold’s whimsical approach to street names has already been discussed in this column. He occasionally would lend the names of friends and family members to unnamed stretches of road. In part, it was a way to detect copyright infringement if somebody copied his work.

It’s all academic

A look at an Arnold map of downtown Vancouver showed an eye-catching name: Providance Academy. The landmark built by Mother Joseph is Providence Academy, so was that another example of copyright protection?

No, his daughter said. As a prominent textile artist, Janice Arnold said she knows how one particular part of the creative process can override other aspects.

“You’re thinking visually,” she said. “You’re not thinking about editing.”

As a result, she said, her dad was a bad speller.

Off Beat lets members of The Columbian news team step back from our newspaper beats to write the story behind the story, fill in the story or just tell a story.