Sad news today -- Mike Wallace, the 60 Minutes correspondent, died at 93.
No cancer connection here. Just that I really enjoyed watching him, because it was so much fun to see him make people squirm, as brilliantly parodied on Saturday Night Live.
But mostly the news reminded me of one of my few real brushes with fame -- the time I met him and made him wince in front of a whole bunch of people.
I was working on Martha's Vineyard for the summer, as Coordinator of a month-long writing program for teachers. My job as coordinator was to do pretty much everything asked, from picking up muffins at The Black Dog to unclogging toilets at the homes our students were staying at. I was a month out of grad school, so the "coordinator" title looked great on my resume, but didn't have any of the easy and intellectually fulfilling academic duties that my boss, the Director had.
One nice thing about having a writing program on Martha's Vineyard is that so many writers (and other famous people) live or vacation there in the summer, so an enterprising program Director (as opposed to a toilet-unclogging Coordinator) can often use his connections to get some great guest speakers. I was smart enough to push aside my student workers and assume the duties involved with taking care of the writers who would come to visit. They'd usually speak for a half hour and then take questions from the audience. I got nice autographed copy of a Clifford The Big Red Dog book from Norman Bridwell that way.
So when Mike Wallace came, I was happy to be the one to meet him at his car. He had come straight from a game of tennis, and was still in his tennis whites. (It's all very casual on the Vineyard.) I shook his hand and introduced myself, and asked if there was anything I could get him. "Just some water, please," he said, obviously parched from tennis. The Director took him to the classroom/lecture hall while I ran next door to our program headquarters, a beautiful old sea captain's house.
I grabbed a thermal pitcher from the kitchen, filled it with ice and water, and ran back next door. Mike Wallace had already started his lecture -- a fascinating recollection of some of his interviews, and the writing problems he had faced over the years. I quietly put the thermal pitcher and a cup on the table next to him.
As he spoke, he poured himself a cup of water, paused only slightly to take a sip, twisted his face in thought, and continued on with his lecture.
When he was done taking questions, the director showed him to his car. I started cleaning up, and picked up the pitcher of water and his cup.
The cup was still nearly full. He'd only taken that single sip.
I thought, "I hustled all the way over here with water that you asked for, and you only took one sip?"
Disgusted, I brought the pitcher back to the house, dumping out the cup along the way. When I got there, all that thought of water had made me thirsty, and I poured myself a big cup from the same pitcher. I took a gulp, and spat the water out.
The thermal pitcher, it turned out, was the same one I'd been using for the coffee we'd been serving every morning with our Black Dog muffins. And in my haste, I hadn't bothered to clean it out. Mike Wallace had taken a single sip from the most bitter, disgusting water I had ever tasted. That twisted face he had made hadn't been from deep thought -- he had been trying not to throw up.
No one noticed the real reason for the twisted face. It really did look like he was in deep thought. But he was ever the professional -- kept right on going, despite a parched mouth from a mid-summer tennis game and an accidental near-poisoning.
So, I was sad to hear about Mike Wallace today. But very appreciative that he never said anything about it to my boss the Director.