“Honesty: The best of all the lost arts.”—Mark Twain
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“I’m nervous,” the young journalist stuttered. “I’ve never interviewed anyone rich and famous. What if I say something dumb?”
“Start at the beginning,” I responded. “Be honest and ask the same questions you might ask a not rich and famous person. Like me.”
“Interviewing you would be like … just us talking,” he smiled.
“Exactly,” I fired back. “Genuine people talk just like we talk. Rich and famous or not.”
I remembered being his age when interacting with people I considered to occupy a “higher station in life” was scary and awkward. The best early advice for that fear came when I was in college in the late 60s and working in the Sandlin Chevrolet-Olds body shop in Mount Pleasant. Mr. Sandlin spent his life in the auto business, was well-known and respected, and was influential in civic and political circles. Lake Bob Sandlin, one of the largest water reservoirs in Northeast Texas, bears his name, honoring his untiring work in helping get the lake built.
Clad in my body shop painter work jeans and Sandlin work shirt, I was checking on an order in the parts department late one morning when Mr. Bob came in behind me wearing his signature suit, tie, and fedora hat. “Hello, Leon,” he said, “What are you doing for lunch today?”
“Don’t guess I have any plans, sir,” I responded, caught off guard by the question. “Sometimes I eat across the street at the Tastee Freeze; I like their pizza burgers.
“Can I buy your lunch,” he followed?
“OK,” I stammered. Ducking back to the body shop for a paint thinner cleanup along with a high-pressure air blast to knock some of the sanding dust off my clothes, I was still nervous but slightly more presentable.
Mr. Bob often asked employees to lunch, and I felt honored. But it wasn’t the Tastee Freeze he selected; it was the dining room at the Stephens Hotel. With real table clothes, cloth napkins, and an array of silverware from which to choose, it was one of the more exclusive places to eat in Mount Pleasant back then.
Maybe he detected my nervousness during lunch. Or maybe it was my anguish over which utensil to use that made him say, “I learned a long time ago it doesn’t make any difference which fork or spoon you use. No one is watching, they’re all busy eating. Just pick one, be yourself, be honest and enjoy the occasion.”
My lifelong good friend, Oscar Elliott, was the master of being yourself, being honest, and enjoying the occasion wherever he was. Take his story about the elite truck sales promotion in Dallas, for example. He was there as assistant to one of the vice presidents for what was then Texas Utilities Mining Company. As he described his job, “I’m in charge of maintenance for everything from wheelbarrows to the trains that haul the coal.”
The upscale unveiling of new trucks to fleet and industrial buyers was staged around a formal ballroom dinner. As Oscar told it, he was seated with suit wearing types exchanging small talk when the conversation turned to football.
Two things to know about Oscar. First, football was never high on his list of likes. Two, if you asked him a question, you always got an honest answer. Where that might get some of us in trouble, he possessed a unique gift for delivering his opinions with a smile, very seldom offending anyone and more often than not, making people laugh.
Probably because he wasn’t contributing much to the conversation about the sport, one of the guys in the group asked him, “Oscar, who’s your favorite football team?”
True to himself, Oscar chuckled and replied, “Well, I think football’s pretty silly, myself. I don’t care much for it.”
“You would have thought everyone at the table had been cut off from oxygen the way they turned white and started choking,” Oscar said. After seconds of silence, the man who asked the question laughed and said, “You know, Oscar, I’m inclined to agree with you.”
“I didn’t know Bum Bright from Adam,” Oscar laughed whenever he told that story. “All I knew was, he was one of the richest men in Texas and owned a truck leasing company. How was I to know he had just paid $85 million for the Dallas Cowboys?”
Reflecting on Oscar’s finesse with the rich and famous, I wrapped up my conversation with the young journalist.
“So yeah, just be honest. Be yourself, ask the same questions you’d ask the not so rich and famous. It will be an interview you’ll always remember.”
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Aldridge columns are published in these Texas newspapers: The Center Light and Champion, the Mount Pleasant Tribune, the Rosenberg Fort Bend Herald, the Taylor Press, the Alpine Avalanche, The Fort Stockton Pioneer, and The Monitor in Naples.
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