Tuesday, February 8, 2011


   Marking  the centennial of Ronald Reagan’s birth, this is a continuation of the story of our having lunch in 1979 at the O’Hare Hilton which led to the discovery of his abode in Chicago (1914-15).
               John Sears said to meet Reagan at Allegheny airlines at Gate K-8 at O’Hare.
              “One thing,” he added.  “There’ll be two Chicago cops there, in uniform.  They’re off-duty and doing this on their own because they love the guy. This is their way of helping out. I don’t think the Police Department knows about it but that’s their problem.   Believe me you’ll find them helpful.”
             I asked why.
            “You  don’t get it, do ya? A lot of people don’t. This guy [Reagan] is one of the most familiar of Americans—because he’s been in the movies since 1937,  hosted `Death Valley Days’…gone on to be governor, has had his own radio program on and on.  Because the guy’s more familiar than  most politicians, you’re going to have to have some help getting through the crowd—believe it!”
              I didn’t….because for years I had met dignitaries at O’Hare and escorted them to their limos.   The week before I picked up John Connally and we walked through the concourse with only a few heads turning.  The month before I did the same with Poppy Bush, two weeks before that with Bob Dole…the winter before with Howard Baker.  The last real political celebrity I ushered in was in 1964 when I picked up Everett Dirksen.  It took awhile to get him to our limo because he looked like…well….Dirksen—hair askew, jowls sagging, eyes bugged out, wearing a rumpled suit with shoulders sprinkled with snowy dandruff , lips pursed, not unlike Bert Lahr playing The Cowardly Lion in `The Wizard of Oz.’   But even so it was not a strenuous exercise.  Some people wanted to chat with him but I kept saying,  `Sorry---the Senator has to keep moving; he’s late for an appointment!”
       “I’ll give you a tip,” Sears said.  “You’re going to want to take him to the Seven Continents [the elite restaurant at O’Hare].  Don’t.  You’ll never get a word in.   Get a room at the O’Hare Hilton and order lunch. Order him a lean steak sandwich and a coke.  The cops must be with   you.   You don’t have to buy their lunch. They’re happy just to be with the guy.”
         I did it—ordered the room in my name; had the key in my pocket and ordered four lean steak sandwiches with cokes….for all of us: Reagan, me and the cops.
          I got to Gate 8 and there was only me, the gate attendant and the two cops.   The plane’s arrival was called and we….the cops and I…waited for everybody to debark.   The last guy off the plane was Reagan,  hair meticulously combed, superbly trim in a blue suit, red tie—and carrying his own overnight bag.  One cop sprinted to his side to take the baggage check for pickup downstairs.
        Thanks, he said.  Here it is.  Guess we’ll meet you at the car. He gave me a warm glance for reassurance.  
         I introduced myself:   Tom Roeser from Quaker Oats.
        He bobbed his head deferentially and said, so softly I had to put my ear near his lips (and in those days my hearing was perfect), said  with eyes twinkling : Well tell me, do you fellas still make the old-fashioned steel-cut?
       Steel cut is the coarse oatmeal with part of the edible hulls included that  your mama said would put hair on your chest.
        I said yes.
       They served it at Eureka, he said (referring to his college in southern Illinois located between Peoria and Bloomington where he graduated in 1932 when I was age four).
        He added:  You could live on that even if  you ate nothing else.
        I asked to take his overnight bag.  He smiled and declined.  At 68 he was trim but his face, ruddy,  lined and craggy, showed every year.   And he did have a small hearing problem. In the concourse when people engaged him, he instinctively put a cupped hand to his left ear.
           I noticed we were gradually being surrounded by gawkers.
        “Ronald Reagan?” one guy asked.   His voice wasn’t that loud but in the way things do, it attracted others—those who are quick to note when something’s happening in a crowd.
        He nodded, modestly.    Here I must point out a distinct contrast.  Hubert Humphrey’s centennial comes this May.  I was assigned to cover him in Minnesota for a wire-service as he sought a second term in what was 1954’s most important Senate targeted contest.  Like Reagan, Humphrey was born in a small town, above a drug store…and after years in politics had huge visibility.    But Humphrey’s style was 100% different. He’d do the standard political thing, barge up pushily like a small town convention barker, pump hands, toss out pointed, often funny reposts.
          Reagan…maybe because of his low-key-appealing unassuming nature had people in the concourse barging up to him.  
        By that time we started walking and by the time we got to K-6 we were picking up quite a few gawkers.
        “Governor!” a  guy shouted:  “Do you think you can beat Carter?”
       Well, he said, somebody better!
       The famous lean, craggy face opened in a grin, cupped his hands around his lips and asked softly--
       Had enough? 
       There was a loud response: “Hell yes!” said one guy.
        Now we were at K-4.
        “Folks,” shouted the cop to the walkers who numbered about forty , “we have to keep on movin’.”
        “Ron!” shouted a guy on the other side of the concourse—and Reagan stopped, some of those trailing us bumping into each other.
        “I got a bet with a guy here for $50,” he shouted.  “What was your name in “King’s Row”’?
        They encircled him now, he lowering his head in a kind of new-guy-in-town attitude.
        Drake McHugh, he said softly.
        “See that?” the guy said to his pal.  “I was right!  Fork over the dough, Henry!”
       Henry, Reagan said quietly, almost to himself, yet   everybody heard: If you had gotten to me first, I’d have told you and you’d still have your fifty!
     The crowd, now reaching more than sixty, roared.   The guy said: “Hey, he called me Henry—Reagan did!”
      Now we had a good hundred around him as we got to K-1 and the escalator going downstairs under the street to the O’Hare Hilton.
       He stopped and turned to the crowd.
       Here’s where I get off!  Good luck everybody—and thanks!
       “Have you ever seen anything like it?” the cop said to me.
       I answered truthfully: No, never.  It’s an answer I can give today 58 years after the first political candidate I ever covered.
       Upstairs in the hotel, our lunch and his baggage were waiting.   He took off his jacket and went to the bathroom to wash his hands.
       He came out a minute later and said:  
      Guess what?
      He said, cupping his ear: Hear that?  Leaky faucet.
      “Watch this,” said a cop.  “We’ve seen this before.”
      Reagan said:  As I told them (nodding to the cops) when I used to travel the mashed potato circuit and even before when I had to make out-of-town appearances, I’d every so often get a hotel room with a faucet that leaks just like that one in there.
      …so, he said, I’d bring along these.
     He opened his overnight case and after fiddling around pulled out a purple cloth kit something like your mother had for her fancy silverware knives and forks.   Except lined up were silver wrenches of different sizes.  He pulled one out carefully and marched to the bathroom.   I went along….and I tell my grandchildren I stood there in the bathroom with the man who was to become the 40th president…as he skillfully undid the faucet, inspected the screw that ran the waterflow, carefully applied the small wrench, bit his lip as he tugged and the drip-drip-drip stopped instantly.
        There, he said, that son-uv-a-gun won’t keep anybody awake any more.
       We returned to the main room; he sat down we all started in on our steak sandwiches.
      Not bad, he said as we all nodded in agreement:  We all have to thank Quaker Oats for this.
     I said teasingly:  I was thinking of importing some steel cut oatmeal for us but decided this was better.
     You made a wise decision, he said and the cops agreed.
       That’s where we had a conversation I’ve never forgotten—from roughly noon to about a quarter after three in the afternoon.
     More tomorrow.

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful stories! One small quibble: the map shows Eureka in the northern half of the state. Maybe you meant to say Downstate (i.e. outside of Chicago) rather than southern Illinois.
    Looking forward to "the rest of the story" tomorrow.