Shameless name-dropping

Perhaps I might be indulged in some personal reminiscence. Now in my 71st year I look back in amazement at some of the people I have been privileged to have met, worked with, known as friends, or even just crossed paths with. Living in Washington DC for much of my adult life brought me into contact with many famous, accomplished people. Without any intent of pretending that these contacts have made me other than the simple person that I am, I would like to share some of them.

My first brush with celebrity came when I was in the Air Force and selected to participate in a special mission. My teammates and I were summoned to the office of the Director of the National Security Agency, then Vice Admiral Noel Gaylor. Tall and resplendent in his gold-trimmed dress whites, the former test pilot made quite an impression on a 24-year old Air Force Staff Sergeant. Along with the rest of the mission participants I received a personal letter of commendation from Admiral Gaylor after the successful conclusion of the program, something I treasure to this day.

After I left the Air Force in 1972, I went to work at the University of Maryland as a laboratory technician. The department in which I worked hosted a number of famous scientists including Jan Oort who discovered the Oort cloud from which comets visit our region of the solar system. I remember him as a short, stooped man with white hair and a dignified air. The director of the institute was Jim Yorke who not only was a key player in the development of the mathematical field of chaos theory, but the person who coined the term “chaos theory.” It should hardly be surprising that I was entirely intimidated to be appointed as the staff representative to the department faculty senate. I never became comfortable addressing the distinguished scientists I worked with by their first names, no matter how much they insisted that I do.

During this same period, the professor I worked for convinced me to do est. Aside from whatever value I derived from it—rather more than I expected, actually—I got to meet a future Nobel laureate, NASA scientist John Mather, and a world-class musician, violinist Joshua Bell. Both were utterly charming and entirely unimpressed with themselves.

While at the University of Maryland and for some dozen years after I worked on a variety of NASA contracts through the university and several aerospace companies. During that time, I was fortunate to have met a number of astronauts. The most interesting was General Tom Stafford who flew on Gemini missions six and nine as well as into orbit around the moon on Apollo X. He was especially proud of having participated in the joint US/Soviet Apollo-Soyuz Test Project. After lunch, he presented me with a signed copy of his book. My colleague who had set up the meeting warned me that I had better read it because if I met again with the General, he would quiz me on it.

At one point, I decided that pursuing a master’s degree in satellite systems engineering would benefit my career. Life intervened and I never did get very far in the program but I did have the honor of having Mike Griffin, later to become Administrator of NASA, as one of my professors. Mike was, and I presume still is, a true space cadet in the best sense of the term. His enthusiasm for space was infectious. I think that NASA would be better today had President Obama kept him on.

Besides meeting interesting people, I occasionally got to visit some interesting places. One such was the laboratory at Hughes Research Laboratories in Malibu, California where Ted Maiman invented the laser. Since a good bit of my career involved work on lidar—laser radar—that was particularly meaningful. Some years later, on a business trip to the United Kingdom I stayed at the Brownsover Hall hotel in Rugby where Sir Frank Whittle developed the jet engine just before World War II. His work room is preserved as a museum.

The year I spent working in the Washington marketing office of the Hughes Aircraft Company gave me a small taste of insider DC. It turned out that owning a tuxedo and being able to get a date on short notice made me one of the go-to people when a company bigwig was unable to make an event. One afternoon I was asked whether I could attend a dinner hosted by the American Enterprise Institute at a downtown hotel. After quick phone call to a friend and a dash across town to change I found myself among a who’s who of the Republican establishment. The keynote speaker at the dinner was Dick Cheney who was at the time considered a possible 1996 presidential candidate. At the next table sat Ed Meese, formerly Ronald Reagan’s Attorney General, and Jack Kemp, former quarterback for the Buffalo Bills and Congressman from Western New York. A couple of tables over were Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas. My date accosted General Colin Powell as he passed and asked to shake his hand, to which he graciously agreed. At the end of the evening we passed Justice Scalia on a payphone in the lobby trying to summon a cab. I was tempted to offer him and his wife a ride, but chickened out.

Another dinner I attended was to honor the country’s astronauts. The evening’s speaker was Al Gore. At the time, I bore a strong resemblance to the Vice President and was amused when a Secret Service agent did a double-take as I walked past him.

My years as a member of Mensa also brought me into contact with some fascinating people among them Adrian Cronauer, memorialized by Robin Williams in Good Morning, Vietnam, and the late Tandyn Almer, whose writing for the Beach Boys included Along Comes Mary. At Mensa gatherings on the West Coast I even got to meet a couple cartoon characters, or rather their voices: June Foray (Rocky the Flying Squirrel) and Nancy Cartwright (Bart Simpson).

Then there was the time when I left a famous person fumbling for words. I was introduced to Ted Koppel at a reception at the National Press Club. I was struck by how short he is. Anyway, as I shook his hand I said, “Mr. Koppel, I hold you personally responsible for my being chronically late for work,” referring to the late hour at which his program Nightline aired. He stuttered something about getting a VCR as I moved away as gracefully as I could.

There have been others, of course. Some I have forgotten and a few have names that are not especially well-known. One of the latter being a losing gubernatorial candidate who had been president of a company I worked for. Even though he was a Republican I would have voted for him if I could have. I still find it odd to have been on first name terms with retired generals and admirals as well as a couple fairly high-ranking government officials. But, with a few exceptions, the more famous those people were, the less presumptuous they were. In the end, we are all just people and, in our country, equals. Still, it is fun to bask in a bit of reflected glory from time to time.

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