Oh, the famous faces I have seen ...
(Editor's Note: I wrote this in late 2003.)
By Charlie Haeffner
ODESSA -- I got to thinking recently about fame, and how I'll never have it (nor really want it, I guess, though some of the money that often accompanies it might be nice).
And then I got to thinking about how many celebrities I've encountered, and whether those encounters left any sort of impact. At first, I came up blank -- I literally could think of no famous person I had met, which of course would indicate that if I really had, they had left no particular lasting impression.
But the mind is a curious beast, and I knew mine was just playing games with me.
Why, just recently, I soon recalled, I had had occasion to -- if not meet -- at least pass within an arm's length or two of William Shatner. I have long admired his work, but on this day -- Labor Day, down at the Seneca Pier, where he was wrapping up a fund-raising visit to our area -- I admired little. He was brusque, and abrupt, and turned away from photographers who had been awaiting his arrival in a chilling rain for an hour.
He was, in a word, not exactly full of the warmth and humanity that his Captain Kirk often displayed. In fairness, I suppose, I should say that an acquaintance who happened to sail out on Seneca Lake with Shatner and a couple dozen other folks relayed word later that the actor did warm up in due course, and even autographed a couple of items that he had brushed past on his way to the boat in question -- the Malabar X.
Not too many weeks before that, I was in the presence of -- did not really meet, but rubbed elbows with -- a slew of NASCAR drivers up at the Watkins Glen International track. And ran into former Buffalo Bills quarterback Jim Kelly out in a camping area near the track's media center. And saw the TV folks, such as Benny Parsons, who accompany the race circuit. And saw some local TV personalities -- though I will refrain from classifying them as celebrities.
I'd seen NASCAR drivers before, as well -- the year before, and several years in the past. But this summer was the first time I had encountered Paul Newman at the track since 1979, when Formula 1 ruled around here. Back then he was middle-aged, and fit, and quite striking. This time, I didn't recognize him when he climbed from a Grand Am car that he'd taken for a practice spin in preparation for a race he was co-driving. This time, I saw an old, bedraggled looking, profusely sweating man -- and as I glanced away from him, something stuck in my mind: his clear blue eyes. Slowly, my vision returned to him, and I uttered this: "Geez. Newman."
I didn't talk to him, though. He's notoriously cranky about talking to the media when he's working on his racing -- and I was media, working as a photographer for the track and for myself, for this website. A fellow journalist years ago encountered Newman in the WGI garage and engaged him in conversation, and it went well until Newman noticed the man's press badge.
"Hey. You're media?" he asked.
"Yeah," said the journalist.
Newman walked away. End of conversation.
Both times I encountered the actor/driver -- in 1979 and this summer -- I took pictures of him, which he can't really avoid if he's out in public like that. The latest round of photos -- a couple of which made it onto this website -- evinced this reaction from a relative of my wife's: "I wish I could get that close to Paul Newman."
Then there was the time that my writing hero, Kurt Vonnegut, was speaking at Ithaca College. My wife and I went, and were early, and I took advantage of the wait to head for the rest room. As I rounded a corner and spotted the "Men's" door at the end of a short hallway, the door opened and a tall, curly-haired, mustachioed man with kind, crinkly eyes walked through.
"Hmmm, familiar," I thought to myself, and as we passed, he smiled and nodded to me, and I to him. Only when I had grabbed hold of the door handle did it dawn on me that I had just had an encounter with Vonnegut himself.
Turning back the years, I had occasion some 30 years ago to interview Dennis Weaver, of "Gunsmoke" and "McCloud" TV fame, as he stumped in Northern New York on behalf of George McGovern's bid for the White House. I remember little of the talk, but do recall the similarity between the real-life Weaver and his fictional McCloud. Same wry approach, same Southwest colloquialisms, same accent.
That happened up in Watertown, where I worked for a daily newspaper. A bunch of us reporters were at a local bar there one day in 1975 when we decided not to bother going over to another bar a couple of blocks away to see a presidential candidate who was in town. That's because he didn't seem to be a particularly viable one -- some guy from Georgia who was visiting The Rebel Room Saloon. And so I missed my chance to see and meet Jimmy Carter.
I can go back to childhood and claim friendship with a major league baseball player named Bubba Phillips, but anybody outside the world of baseball probably doesn't recognize the name. He was a good ballplayer -- in the majors for 10 years, and in a World Series -- but he was a journeyman, bouncing from team to team, which often mitigates a player's identifiability. But he was important to me, and so I include him here.
Through Bubba, I got to see -- not meet, but bump into -- various other ballplayers. They were Detroit Tigers, since that is the team Bubba played for when I knew him. After one game, I saw, as he visited with friends in a waiting room under the stands, a Tigers pitcher named Phil Regan, and I noticed Detroit's first baseman, Norm Cash, walk by the room's entrance. They were both notable figures in Detroit sports at the time.
And I was given a bat one day in 1963 by the great baseball slugger Rocky Colavito when he was with the Tigers. He had just finished batting practice, and called out to me and a friend of mine who had shown up early at Tiger Stadium to watch the players warm up. We had entered the stadium with tickets Bubba had left for us at a gate. We raced down to where Rocky awaited us at the railing near the third-base dugout, and were each handed a bat Rocky had just used in batting practice and no longer wanted. My bat looked scuffed but otherwise perfect, and was used for years in softball games in my neighborhood. My friend's bat was cracked. He didn't appreciate the disparity.
Years later, while spending the late '80s and early '90s setting up at memorabilia shows along the East Coast as a dealer, I had occasion to see many famous athletes -- present to sign their names for a fee. On occasion, one would come to my table and look at my wares -- baseball and football and basketball and hockey cards, primarily. One was Rollie Fingers, who possessed the single most impressive mustache I've ever seen -- a handlebar arrangement that defined Fingers' dash and daring.
I could list dozens of star athletes who appeared at those shows -- significant ones like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bart Starr and Paul Hornung (who I also encountered in agitated conversation on a pay phone in my hotel lobby one night) and Warren Spahn and Whitey Ford and David Cone and Al Leiter (to whom I spoke, early in his pitching career, taking from our conversation the knowledge that he is a very nice man) and Phil Rizzuto and so on.
And speaking of Rizzuto, I also had occasion to meet the great Pee Wee Reese, like Rizzuto considered one of the two best shortstops of their playing era. This was not at a show, but in the apartment of friends of my parents in Venice, Florida. My father had just died, and I was staying down there with my mother for awhile to help her past the rough time, and these friends set up the meeting with their friend Pee Wee at their condo. He was a few minutes late, but I was actually surprised he showed up at all. I mean, it was not exactly a command performance. But he came in, and sat down, and chatted with me -- and my mother, who had decided at the last minute to attend -- for an hour. Pee Wee was a thoughtful, kind man -- polite, and interesting, and interested. He flirted mildly with my mother, which helped her tremendously, considering the horror she was going through.
I saw Pee Wee once more, at a Hall of Fame induction ceremony in Cooperstown three years later. I didn't speak to him -- had no opportunity -- though I did manage a photo of him sitting next to Rizzuto (here it is: Reese is on the left). Pee Wee died a couple of years later -- of the cancer that he had been fighting for years, and was fighting (I knew) at the time of my visit with him. As I said, kind man.
That Hall of Fame ceremony and several others left me in the company -- or at least the vicinity -- of dozens of baseball legends. I went to Cooperstown three times with a Pennsylvania friend named John Selsam who I had met through memorabilia shows. We had both set up as dealers at a couple of different shows, had struck up conversation, and had developed a friendship.
John was retired from the Little League Museum in Williamsport, where he had worked as an accountant, and he was able to obtain passes each year to the Hall of Fame Induction weekend that got him -- and me, since he had an extra ticket each year and asked me -- into the Otesaga Hotel, where the Hall of Famers stay.
Autographs were discouraged at the Otesaga, but not a little elbow-rubbing. Oh, the greats that I saw there: Ted Williams and Joe Morgan and Yogi Berra and Tom Seaver and the aforementioned Fingers and Joe Garagiola and Johnny Mize and ... well, the list is fairly long.
And John's passes also got us into the Hall of Fame party they held back then for Hall members in the museum itself. There was a free bar, and a buffet, and various famous men: Al Kaline, and then-Commissioner Fay Vincent, and Harmon Killebrew, and ... well, the list was long there, too.
At one of those parties, I wandered into the Hall of Fame Gift Shop, which was closed to all but the select-few partygoers. I meandered about for a few minutes, turned a corner to where replicas of old baseball hats were on display, and encountered Peter Gammons (right), Boston journalist and ESPN commentator. Sidling up, I stared at the display much as he was, and finally asked: "Got a favorite?"
"No, not really," he said. "I just like to look."
And that was that. Conversation complete. Elsewhere in the hall, in a display room, I turned a corner and encountered Joe Falls, a Detroit journalist who I grew up reading. This was a man I had long admired, and I gathered the courage to tell him so. He was gracious in response, and reaching down to a briefcase at his feet, extracted a baseball. Pulling a pen from his pocket, he signed the ball and handed it to me -- one of the few autographed items I've saved over the years.
Alas, that kind of access came to an end. John Selsam died one winter, and I stopped going to the inductions. It just wouldn't be the same. There was the loss of the pass, of course, but far more important was the loss of a cherished friend.
I have been at many LPGA Corning Classics over the years -- and so have met quite a few of the players through interviews. But the woman who stands out most was one I encountered in a different fashion.
I was studying some large golf photos (of previous Classics) on the wall in the old Corning Country Club clubhouse -- years before the impressive present clubhouse was built -- when I realized there was someone standing next to me, studying a photo immediately to my left. A quick glance told me it was a woman -- dark haired and a touch on the heavy side, but quite pretty.
"Wonderful stuff," I said of the photos, not really thinking she'd respond. But she did.
"Yes," said Nancy Lopez. "It really is."
And then she moved on.
I was covering a PGA tournament in 1985 in Greensboro, N.C. -- the Greater Greensboro Open, tracking the fortunes of Southern Tier favorite Joey Sindelar -- when I encountered several celebrities. They were there early in the week, as part of a Celebrity Pro-Am: Tim Matheson (of Animal House and West Wing fame), Ernest Borgnine, Craig T. Nelson. And of course all of the pro golfers. And I followed Sindelar that year at the U.S. Open, and so saw some of the big names who bypass tournaments like Greensboro: Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson ... that caliber. I remember thinking, as Nicklaus passed by within two feet of me in the media tent, how he wasn't nearly as big as I had imagined. And I couldn't understand how he -- being of fairly regular proportions -- could hit the ball so incredibly far.
And there were probably other occasions, other celebrities I've encountered -- ones I've literally put from my mind. (I could include a couple of contestants I've known from TV's Survivor, but have decided that artificial celebrity such as that doesn't count.)
Wait ... a couple more just occurred to me.
I met John Kenneth Galbraith (at right) -- famed economist, ambassador, social philosopher and advisor to presidents -- while riding my bike in Watertown, New York, when I was a young adult. I was living and working there, my destination straight out of college.
I had the previous year bypassed my college graduation ceremony in Michigan in favor of swimming on what was a hot day, and had thus missed an address to my class by Galbraith, who was keynote speaker. But here he was, again, as I peddled along one sunny day on a Watertown side street. He was leaning against a car in a parking lot at the rear of a church, and I recognized him immediately, for he was impressive -- tall and lean and just flat-out intelligent looking -- and I knew from my work at the local newspaper that he was due in town for a speech.
He seemed to be waiting for something or somebody, and so I took the opportunity to chat. It was nothing significant -- talk about the weather, and about where he would be speaking that night, and a welcome from me to our fair town; that sort of thing -- and then I went on my way. The last I saw of him, he was still leaning against the car, his face skyward and eyes shut, taking in the sun's rays. I've always liked that image.
I saw Hillary Clinton in Watkins Glen -- didn't get close, but heard her speak. And I've encountered our Congressman, Amo Houghton, on occasion. Each time he shakes my hand and says "Good to see you again," and each time I suspect he hasn't a clue who I am.
I interviewed a general once named Bruce C. Clarke (shown at right) who had known Gen. George Patton, so I guess I'm one degree of separation from Patton. This meeting came during the period in which the Patton film was in theaters, prompting a question about him to Clarke. I don't remember the specific quote, but Clarke made it clear with fairly spicy language that he didn't care for Patton at all -- considered him a show-off and know-it-all, to put it politely.
When I worked at USA Today back in 1988, I sat next to a reporter as she interviewed Burt Ward -- TV's Robin on the old Batman show -- so I guess that puts me in pretty close proximity to superheroes.
I saw Bill Buckner blow that grounder in Game Six in 1986, though my vantage point from the left field stands at Shea Stadium wasn't all that great. After the game, I was perhaps 15 feet away from Boston manager John McNamara as he cursed a writer who dared ask if The Curse of the Bambino had struck again -- and was glad I hadn't asked the question. (I also was on the field before the game, wandering among the Mets and Red Sox as they warmed up. I mostly remember one guy who wasn't on the field. Roger Clemens, who was pitching for the Red Sox that night, was in a corner of the Boston dugout, staring straight ahead, focusing. On his cheeks was a couple of days' worth of stubble: his game face.)
I sat in a room at the Watertown Daily Times in the 1970s with another reporter as he and I interviewed Mary Margaret Hume -- a Watertown resident who had placed third in the Miss USA Pageant and was starting a Hollywood career. The other reporter asked most of the questions; I was mesmerized by the woman's beauty and, quite frankly, by the excessive amount of makeup she was wearing. The room smelled like a perfume factory.
The other reporter did the main story about her -- I think I wrote a minor sidebar piece -- and he was fairly vicious. He seemed to have deduced simply by talking to her that she was a hopeless actress, a celebrity wannabe. It was a classic hatchet job. As it turns out, she has amassed a respectable amount of TV and film credits, and was most recently noteworthy for playing Dawson's mother on Dawson's Creek. And judging from what I've seen on screen, she's toned down the makeup.
Oh, another one: Geraldine Ferraro, the 1984 Democratic nominee for vice president (shown at right). She was in Elmira about five years ago, but for what reason I can't recall. I went to interview her along with a couple of other folks from The Leader in Corning, where I was employed at the time. Impressive woman; very intelligent. But being part of a small group talking to her, there was little in the way of direct exchange. I doubt whether she recalled me two minutes after I departed.
I'm guessing there were others, but I've had to reach deep to access most of those I've mentioned. Bubba, being a friend, is always floating around in my subconscious, as is the unfamous John Selsam -- and as are the friends of my life who have interacted with me and influenced my development: my brothers, a couple of high school chums, a coterie of college fraternity brothers, a handful of workmates, my parents, and my wife and sons.
The famous people that I've mentioned -- they were mere wisps, fleeting images I managed to touch as they went by on their determined courses. Most were pleasant, and some weren't. Some were impressive, and others weren't.
So what's the point of all of this?
I guess, if I had to distill it, the point is this: Fame is a nebulous commodity with little direct impact on you or me. It matters little in the grand scheme of things, in the workaday world that we inhabit.
It isn't my encounters with famous people that spring readily to mind in my archive of memories. I have to work a bit to dredge them up. There are likely some that I've totally forgotten.
No, what stays with me -- impacts me, influences and helps shape me -- are events that have occurred in my own limited world, amidst friends and family.
That's what's real. That's what's important.
Anything else is extraneous ... is window dressing.
That's all celebrity is.
Something to look at, perhaps admire. But it doesn't really matter.
Although those who have it might disagree.
Here are some links to other pages on this website dealing with features about people:
A tale called "Bubba," about a childhood hero, can be reached by clicking here.
Tales of life along Steam Mill Road years ago, submitted by now-Australian resident Betty Appleton, can be reached by clicking here.
A story about the editor's family being menaced by a maniac on the highway can be reached by clicking here.
A story about the Lazio-Clinton campaign in Schuyler County, and its relationship to herbal remedies, can be found by clicking here.
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