Dustin Hoffman recounts a barroom conversation he had as a young man with the great thespian Laurence Olivier. Mustering the courage to call him “Larry” as Sir Laurence insisted, Hoffman asked why Olivier thought actors like themselves chose to suffer the slings and arrows of such of a demanding profession fraught with painful rejection and sacrifice. The elder actor, with stern-faced gravitas, leaned in close to Hoffman nearly rubbing noses. He solemnly stage whispered, “Why, it’s quite elementary, my boy.” Hoffman, wide-eyed, held his breath in anticipation of what surely would be words to remember for his entire life. Without warning, Olivier began maniacally waving his hands a on both sides of Hoffman’s forehead while squealing in a falsetto voice “Look at me! Look at me! Look at me!”
Name dropping. I’ve never thought of it as a pejorative, especially when I’m the fellow doing it. I’ve long recognized the habit to be an occupational side-effect for a broadcast journalist who has spent any time trading “war stories” with colleagues in some dimly lit bar late at night. A well-known secret is that in order to succeed in a profession such as ours, one must be unabashedly ego-driven. Seasoned broadcast news guys rarely see this as a negative trait, but rather as an essential skill set. Talking about one’s encounters with celebrity certainly creates a pleasant illusion we’re somehow special and privy to inside secrets. It helps stimulate that “look-at-me” muscle. Who wouldn’t want to be like that advertising icon “The most interesting man in the world?”
I began working with the Indiana State University Speakers Series when I came to ISU in the late 1990s. This followed a career as a bartender at an exclusive hotel in the big city, country club manager in St. Louis, radio talk show producer and host, broadcast journalist and television news director. Through my work I had already crossed paths with many well-known and interesting people. They included former and future presidents, writers, entertainers, and other notables. But it was the ISU Speakers Series that offered some of my most memorable personal encounters.
The series began modestly with only two featured guests in 1980. The first was James Dewey Watson, the discoverer of the structure of DNA and author of “The Double Helix.” Since that time more than 130 speakers have visited our Terre Haute campus. The earliest speakers tended to be academic and a bit parochial. Later the series would begin to sample a taste of popular culture. Early fare offered the likes of conservative poster-boy William F. Buckley, whistle-blower Ralph Nader, and paleoanthropologist Richard Leakey.
I was in the local media for one of Leakey’s two visits and sat down with him for an informal interview. His presentations often triggered some predictable controversy within the community regarding science and evolution. In 1986, as today, op-ed pages were peppered with scripture-laden letters supporting the “just a theory” tenets of religious conservatives.
I naturally tackled the topic immediately, citing the oft-repeated arguments used to oppose the science Leakey endorsed. Leakey was obviously tired from travel and maybe of redundant questions. He sighed. Grasping an ashtray, he raised it to eye level and dropped it. It struck the end table with loud crash without breaking. The noise reverberated throughout the large paneled room. I sat in stunned silence. Leakey grinned sheepishly and then said deliberately, although a bit testily, “That’s evidence of gravity. It exists… just as the fossil record is evidence of evolution. Theory of gravity attempts to explain how gravity works, not if it works. You can fill in the rest, I assume.”
I had the incredible good fortune to assume the chair of the University Speakers Series just as its defined mission was being tweaked to include an increased focus on community outreach. There were perceived benefits in promoting a more inclusive and welcoming campus environment to the general public. To that end, an increased emphasis was placed on subtly introducing speakers whose topics may have much broader appeal to a general audience while still demonstrating scholarship.
The first speaker contracted under the new guidelines in 2002-2003 was a perfect fit. Dr. Robert Ballard was a respected scientist and professor of oceanography whose most popularly recognized achievement was the discovery the Titanic in 1985. I had the opportunity to shuttle Dr. Ballard between Terre Haute and the Indianapolis airport. These trips enabled me to have one-on-one conversations with most of our speakers without interruption or distractions. They provided some special insights and even surprises I may not have had otherwise.
I was fascinated by the Titanic discovery and had done a few talk show segments on the topic when it happened. I was anxious to ask the man himself about it. “Is the problem with discovering the most famous shipwreck in history figuring out what the hell you do for an encore?” I asked him from behind the wheel. To my complete astonishment, Ballard shrugged and deadpanned without a hint of insincerity, “You know, the Titanic was pretty simple to find. That’s nowhere near the top of my list. Expected to find it because we knew where it was. Discovering new life forms you didn’t expect existed… giant tubeworms! Now that’s something else!”
I felt embarrassed because I hadn’t done my complete homework on the speaker. He really had discovered “new life” on earth where most scientists had theorized no life could exist. Ballard’s team had examined thermal fissures on the ocean floor that supported the new life forms. The species required an alternative to photosynthesis in the light-deprived depths of the sea. His classroom sessions and general presentation in Tilson Music Hall were among the best presentations I have ever seen.
Throughout the years I have been surprised at the number of famous visitors who have ties to the Wabash Valley. Carole Simpson, one of the first African-American television anchors, revealed in 2003 that she spent many a summer with relatives in Terre Haute as a child. This was unexpected and I was anxious to hear more about her time in the Wabash Valley. “I was shuffled off to get out of the big city,” she remembered with a smile, “I really hated it. I was a city girl and Terre Haute was, well…” I told her that her honest but slightly disparaging revelation “kills any chances of your being featured in the Chamber of Commerce newsletter.”
Vincent Bugliosi, the former Los Angeles prosecutor who authored “Helter Skelter” and helped convict Charles Manson, proved to have an astounding photographic memory. He could remember details of events, citing names, dates and places unlike anyone I’ve ever met. Bugliosi told me he was puzzled by the continuing public fascination with Manson. He considered the wild-eyed killer whose face now graces T-shirts to be “just a small man, a second-rate con man and a coward. He’s not worthy of our attention.” However, Bugliosi did remember from his preparation for the Tate-LaBianca trial that Manson had once resided in Terre Haute at Gibault School for Boys. As we drove into town, he asked exactly where the school was located, noting that Manson had said it was one of the few places he felt he had been well-treated in life.
It was the commander of the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission, James Lovell, who provided one of the most unexpected and memorable surprises during our drive from the Indianapolis airport to Terre Haute during the 2000-2001season. I sense the word “hero” has been diluted to such a degree within our popular culture that I’m hesitant to use it. But in the case of Lovell, the appellation fits like a glove. The story of “Apollo 13” has been well-chronicled in a book co-authored by Lovell and also in Tom Hanks’ award winning film of the same title. Lovell’s planned 1970 moon landing was aborted when the three-man spacecraft was nearly a quarter million miles from earth. An oxygen tank exploded, critically damaging the support module resulting in the dramatic real life-or-death struggle to get back to earth. Lovell’s cool head under incredibly stressful circumstances is the ultimate adventure story.
Lovell was impressed at how accurate the film was in depicting the actual events. He said, “Sure, Tom took some minor things and compressed them for dramatic effect. Like the tenseness between the guys was a bit exaggerated, but it was as close to perfect as you could get. Truth is stranger than fiction…one critic complained about a scene where my wife lost her wedding band down the shower drain. He said it was kind of a hokey attempt at foreshadowing or something. Except it happened just that way! What they didn’t show was the plumber retrieving it the same day.”
About ten miles from Terre Haute, Lovell says matter-of-factly, “I wonder if my old house is still there?” This is a complete surprise to me. I had no idea he knew where Terre Haute was before today. He explains that as a youngster he lived in the Edgewood Grove neighborhood with his aunt for some time after his parents divorced. “I went to school just around the corner and was in the Boy Scouts… some good memories there.”
Several minutes later I’m piloting Commander James Lovell through the winding streets of the Grove eyeing the quaint cottages and family homes for some sign of recognition. After searching without success and knowing that our time is running out to make it to a scheduled media opportunity on campus, I’m about to abort this mission. “Stop! There it is! I’m sure of it,” Lovell says excitedly, “Pull over, and let me have a look.” I watched as a man who has been around the moon twice–a hero who calmly orchestrated the greatest space adventure in history—instantly transformed into that 12-year-old boy he once was, excited to be outside his former bedroom window. A moment later, Lovell is all smiles on his cell phone with his wife. “You’ll never guess where I am right now,” he says with unbridled glee, “My old home!”
The legendary Andy Rooney came to Terre Haute as a result of a letter I had written inviting him to come and speak about his World War II tent mate, Ernie Pyle of Dana, Ind. The speech was moved to the Hulman Center in anticipation of a huge crowd. I was a bit anxious picking Andy up at the Indianapolis airport considering his popular reputation of being a difficult curmudgeon. He ambled out of the baggage claim area with a valise in hand. He was much smaller and appeared frailer than I imagined. His famous snow white hair had a mind of its own and his ample eyebrows sprouted from his multi-furrowed brow with equally wild abandon. I greeted him and directed him to the car in the airport garage. He said nothing short of a grunt and a nod.
The airport had a brand new system called “Easy Exit” where one could pay for parking at an automated machine. It only took cash at that time. While Andy sat in the front seat I walked several feet to the “Easy Exit” machine and inserted my money only to have it zip back to me in rejection. I pulled bill after bill out of my wallet only to have it rejected. I’d sneak an occasional glance at Mr. Rooney over the several minutes of frustrating efforts. I sensed he was getting steamed. “This is a hell of first impression I’m making,” I thought. I was down to my last attempts, when a woman savior came up and offered to exchange some nice new bills she had from the bank. It worked!
Rooney stared ahead in complete silence. I started the car drove around the loop and onto the Interstate. I could hear my heart beating and nothing else. Andy was tiny, but his silence was intimidating at that moment in time. The first words I ever heard Andy Rooney speak in person were delivered in that familiar sing-song cadence we’re all so familiar with from his CBS commentaries.
“Did you ever wonder why they thought to call it ‘Easy Exit’?” Rooney mused, “It sure as hell doesn’t seem very damned easy to me!” I laughed out loud. Knowing full well what he had done, Andy laughed too.
He proved to be one of the most generous and accommodating speakers I’d met. He filled the theater wedge of the Hulman Center and presented a moving first-person account of lessons he learned from Ernie Pyle. He told tales of the Allies marching into Paris, witnessing bombing missions over Europe, and even an encounter with Ernest Hemingway whom he considered a “bloated blowhard.” Although he was well into his 80s and had serious problems with arthritis, Rooney signed more books and took more time with audience members than any other speaker in 30 years.
Amazingly we ended up closing down the bar at the Holiday Inn after the incredibly long night for all of us. Moving to the hotel’s indoor garden area with Makers Mark firmly in hand, he spent the hours telling stories not suitable for his book, reminiscing about his close friend Senator Moynihan who had passed away that very evening, and revealing “Walter Cronkite is my best friend in the world, but my God, he is the cheapest guy I ever met in my life. He’d never buy a drink! “
Mark Edwards is the emeriti director of marketing.