Face to face with fame


A friend has a fun pursuit with her brother-in-law, counting how many celebrities they’ve seen. They are both well over a hundred now. This has inspired me to recount my less frequent encounters with famous people. I am someone who has no use for autograph gathering, and I become pathetically diffident when near even favorite UVA athletes. But in the following instances I overcame myself to say hello. This is much longer than my blogs will normally be. I just had to do the subjects justice.

E.B. WHite: In the fall of 1973 I had a job doing yard work, painting, etc. for a family in Blue Hill, Maine. Everyday I would drive by the famed author’s house, distinctive in its pristine whiteness and a Mercedes out front. After a month of this, I found myself stepping out and knocking on his door. And, there he was. As he slowly opened the door, he had a shy, wary look. I can imagine him thinking, ‘Oh no, another English major writing about Charlotte’s Web.’

I quickly reassured him. I mentioned that I had once written to him about being his gardener. He responded drolly that he did not recall that letter. "I do receive a lot of mail". We went on to commonalities such as Williams College, where his grandson was a hockey goalie whom I remembered. Then, it was Naples, Florida where my parents lived and the Whites wintered.

He had been sitting on the stoop with me. He arose and said that he needed to tend to his ill wife and he was feeling a bit dizzy. Later, in reading about E.B. White, I learned that he and his wife were famed hypochondriacs. It had been a wonderful cameo visit and The New Yorker and Charlotte’s Web weren’t even mentioned.

Pete Seeger: This encounter did not go so well. While working at a bookstore in Cambridge, Massachusetts, I glanced out the window and there he was with guitar over his shoulder! My girlfriend worked for Clivus Multrum, a Swedish composting toilet manufacturer, and I knew that Seeger had purchased one… The hyper marketing manager found Pete aloof.

Mindlessly, I popped out of my chair and was on him. "There’s a Clivus Multrum owner!" One of my more regrettable moments. He was startled. He didn’t acknowledge what I said and simply said he liked perusing bookstore windows and then he was gone. Walking down Mass Ave. with guitar. A memorable image.
I would describe this great man as global but interpersonally uncomfortable (and I made it worse!).

George McGovern: One of my heroes. A plain spoken man of great character and intelligence. I had composed a letter for The D.P. proposing that someone could be a patriot and also against a war. At 22, George was the masterful captain of a B-24 that flew many missions from Italy over the Alps to Germany and, with as much patriotic zeal, opposed the Vietnam war.

He was appearing at the Barnes & Noble to talk about a poignant book he had written about his daughter whose alcoholism did her in. I was moved by the topic but I went to find out how many bombing missions he’d flown, a gap in my letter. I stood at the end of the line. He and Eleanor were about to depart, but he put back on his reading glasses and, right way, wrote in "35. Nice letter."

A very touching exchange happened before that encounter when a doctor who had helped their daughter many years earlier presented a letter she had written. "Eleanor and I will read this tonight," he said. I felt awkward in this context. A bit crass in meeting a hero. Two weeks later, on Thanksgiving Day, we were walking up Connecticutt Avenue in Washington D.C. and I said, "That looks like George McGovern getting out of that car." It was! And he was going into a bakery. Feeling more respectable with wife and daughter by my side, I introduced myself (i.e.
I wasn’t a stalker). I felt redeemed. Without this remarkable second meeting, I would have had a lifelong regret. Afterwards he stopped me in the bakery, and we had a warm exchange.

This did not end the connection. Much later, I saw an article denigrating George Ball, Under Secretary of State, who was a lone Cabinet voice opposing the war in Vietnam. This was a shocker. Who would know best but George McGovern? So I wrote to him.
His response pulled no punches. He nailed the accuser, for whom he had no use. At one point, he also referred to Richard Nixon as "Tricky DIck". Prior to 1972, McGovern had long loathed Nixon and losing to him was deeply humiliating.

Last week he was in the news. He was at his alma mater, South Dakota Wesleyan, where he once taught history and he had a fall. He is doing O.K. at 89.

Brooks Robinson: One of the great meetings of my life. Baseball and dogs were first loves. My favorite player is Brooks Robinson. A wonderful player with a heart of gold. I went to his induction into the Hall of Fame. What a celebration. I called it Woodstock Baseball. Attendance, mostly blue collar Baltimore, doubled the record.

Years later, to my great surprise, Brooks and other major league stars came to CHS for a clinic. It was so close I walked over. There was Brooks in uniform and he actually gave instructions. My fielding skills have been forever a work in progress, so I stood behind the 16 time Gold Glove winner as he told these kids, "On ground balls, keep your head down and keep your glove on the ground."

So that’s the secret after all these years… Afterwards, there was an autograph session. I went into retreat. I did not want an untoward moment with someone I respected so much. A tough love friend pushed me into the line and before I knew it, there I was with Brooks. I asked him, "You are always hearing about your fielding, but I know that you were a great clutch hitter, does it bother you not to hear about that?"

"No, but it is nice to hear that," he said. Brooks then went into a reverie, recalling a 3-run homer he hit off Joel Horlen to win a game in the heat of a September pennant race (I remember that homer and Brooks on the cover of Sports Illustrated). This was wonderful. I didn’t want to hold up the line, but he said that’s no problem you can just stand to the side and we can continue. Being so pleased as it was, I decided to move on.

Later that week my officious and appreciated friend gave me a photo of me shaking Brooks’ hand. Attached to it is a letter from Brooks written long ago saying that he hoped that we would meet some day.

Three of these experiences were special. People I held in high regard, and they lived up to it.