I don’t know why, but my tiny hometown (Burlington, Iowa, pop. 28,000) sure got its share of celebrity visits while I was growing up, and I got to experience a lot of them. Red Skelton shook my hand, and Bob Hope signed my blue flowered autograph book not far from where my friend Debbie wrote “Roses are red, lillies are white, here’s my name, to prove I can write!” I got to meet Chauncey, the famous cougar from the Mercury auto ads, and watched in total reverance as Miss America Phyllis George banged out “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head” on the piano, onstage at Burlington Memorial Auditorium. Being part of the Iowa caucus political trail, Burlington was visited by many politicians– my mom and I snuck out of our Republican, ranch-style house early one morning to wait down by the Mississippi River to see President Jimmy Carter pull up on the Delta Queen– he walked back and tousled my hair when I told him “God bless you!” as he passed me in the receiving line. And on a cold January day in 1980, as a senior in high school, I got to skip school and be a courier for CBS News as Ted Kennedy toured Southeast Iowa in his bid to become President. I had almost forgotten about that day, hanging out with his kids and meeting Ted and his wife, until the recent news of Sen. Kennedy’s death. A friend and I were talking about it and suddenly the memories came flooding back. It prompted me to look through my piles of “stuff” to find the issue of my high school newspaper in which I recounted the experience. It’s worth sharing, because I think you’d find it interesting, even though it’s written by an 18-year-old me and the encounter with his kids was like SNL’s “The Chris Farley Show”. Here it is, awkwardness, wordiness and all (I’ve put commentary in red italics):
My Day With the Kennedy Family
From Vol. 70, No. 9 of “The Purple and Gray”, student newspaper of Burlington Community High School, published Friday, January 18, 1980.
In August, I shook hands with the President of the United States and four months later I did the same with his “understudy” (Vice President Walter Mondale had paid a visit to my high school). Why then should I have gotten excited about the chance to meet a “mere” senator? Probably because he was a Kennedy, and probably because in the meantime, I would be hobnobbing with some big-name reporters. (Gee, always the journalist...) These were my feelings on Friday, Jan. 4, when I was offered the chance to be a courier for CBS News during Senator Ted Kennedy’s visit to S.E. Iowa. CBS often likes to have high school students assist reporters when they’re away on assignment. (Wonder if that’s still true…)
I got involved through a series of conversations. First, CBS called (local) radio station KBUR’s Bill Henry and told him of their need for a courier. Then Henry called Mr. Cameron (an assistant principal with a buzz cut) at Burlington High School to relay the request. Mr. Cameron in turn talked to Mrs. Oriano, the P & G advisor, thinking that a journalism student might be interested in the job and could also report on the event for the newspaper. She excitedly asked me if I was interested. (Thank you Mrs. O, wherever you are!) At first I envisioned myself greeting the Kennedys at Municipal Airport and riding in their limousine. Later I found out my job wouldn’t be quite like that, after getting a phone call from Susan Zirinsky, a CBS news correspondent in Washington, D. C. (she’s now the executive producer of CBS’ 48 Hours and other special projects). She told me to meet her in Keokuk (a city about 40 miles south of Burlington) on Jan. 7, the day of the senator’s visit. She and the press traveled behind his limousine by bus, and she needed me to drive her back to the airport so she could fly back to Washington. Then I would continue on with the rest of the press. She also informed me that I would be getting paid (I think I got $75, which was huge to a high schooler back then!), and that it would be lots of fun.
So, limousine or no, I still looked forward to the job– and besides, I was excused from a whole day of school! And I thought that maybe Ted’s wife, daughter, and “foxy” son Teddy would be with him…(Nothing screams the 80’s quite like the word, “foxy”, don’t you think? Oh, just bring on the disco music right now...) “How nice to meet you, Teddy Jr.” I said in my daydream. “You’d like me to visit you at your Massachusetts mansion? I’d love to!” (just as long as William Kennedy Smith isn’t there…)
The night before the big day was filled with snow, ice, and hazardous road warnings, but Monday the 7th was sunny and beautiful. Purple and Gray photographer Dedria Ford accompanied me on the trip. She made the drive go faster and provided moral support (Dad let me take the brand new family car so I was a little edgy.) (I think it was a candy apple red Buick Skylark) We left early for Keokuk so I could find the airport, using a carefully drawn map from Dad. That accomplished, we next looked for the Labor Temple, where Kennedy was to speak and where we would meet Susan.
All we accomplished from being early was getting a good parking space; otherwise, Kennedy was over two hours late, and we had to stand those hours in a small room packed with people. The only entertainment was the Secret Service men pacing back and forth to the beat of the Keokuk High School marching band. The choppy sounds of “Rocky” and other inspiring songs filled the air. Luckily, we spotted a familiar face. Mr. Pat Hogan, our beloved BHS Social Studies teacher, is an active Kennedy supporter and Keokuk native, and was an organizer of the event. He took the stage amid cheering fans, and soon started leading chants of “We want Ted!” (Looking back, this guy looked a lot like Howard Dean, especially when he was pumping up the crowd!) When the senator finally arrived, so did two Continental Trailways busloads of cameramen and reporters. They poured into the room as I frantically looked for Susan. Amid the rush, I only got a glimpse of Kennedy.
I didn’t have to take Susan to the airport after all, but a lady from NBC needed me to drive some videotapes there instead. (Though rival networks, they shared a private plane.) As I gave the bag of tapes to the pilot and said, “Someone will meet you in Des Moines,” I felt like I was in a spy movie.
Next, we were to drive to Fort Madison (about halfway between Keokuk and Burlington) and be at the Consolidated Packaging Corporation, where Kennedy took a tour of the factory with his family– Yes, WITH HIS FAMILY! Since it was reporters only and no public, I was able to get a close view of them. (gee, such privileged ins
iders…) Dedria and I had to keep reminding ourselves that it was “for real.” But that wasn’t too hard– half of the tour was outside and we trudged along a smelly path of oil, wood chips, and gravel in the sub-freezing weather.
Once again we left a few minutes ahead of the group for the next stop, Burlington. Kennedy was scheduled to speak that night at the Holiday Inn (the Holiday Inn was once considered Burlington’s fanciest hotel, having recently remodeled and built a dome over the pool, complete with Astroturf, fake trees, black “iron” balconies and room fronts decorated to look like The French Quarter.) Two adjoining rooms were turned into “filing rooms”, for phoning and typing, for the press (that would be making calls from land lines and typing on typewriters, not computers). (I remember Chris Wallace was there and many more familiar faces, but memory eludes me on that.) Dedria and I stayed in the rooms for a little while but got bored, so we sought other excitement I got the idea of interviewing Teddy Jr. and Kara, the Kennedy teens. Dan Bell, BHS senior and a Holiday Inn employee, wanted to help, (he must have been on a work study program to be out of school that day?) so he simply went up to their room and asked the Secret Service men if it could be arranged. That effort failed. We asked a security woman to help, but she was too busy. Dedria and I finally resigned ourselves to ordering BLT sandwiches and eating them at a poolside table, near the Kennedy rooms “to try and catch a glimpse.” Dan joined us.
Well, we got more than a glimpse. No sooner had I bitten into my sandwich than Kara and Teddy Jr. nonchalantly walked past our table and up to the bar. A few spectators began talking to them and getting snapshots, so I thought, why not me, too? I wasn’t about to blow a chance like that! I walked up to Kara and tapped her on the arm. She turned and smiled, puffing a cigarette. (Didn’t she eventually have lung cancer?) I introduced myself and asked her if she and Teddy would join Dedria and I for an interview. Kara didn’t like that idea too well, so I pleaded, “Well, at least sit and talk with us during dinner? I figure you’re pretty sick of all these adults.” Kara replied,”I’ll see what Teddy wants to do.”
But she didn’t ask him, so as he walked away from the bar with his beer (I think the legal drinking age in Iowa then was 18), I walked up to him, repeating the request to talk with them over dinner. His reply was favorable, and soon Dedria, Dan, Teddy Jr., Kara and I were sitting at the black wrought-iron table. I told myself I was going to be cool and collected, but it was hard to think of intelligent things to say. Dedria began, “So, how do you like Iowa?”
Teddy said that he really liked it, that it was interesting.
“Yeah, like touring box plants?” I joked.
“No, really,” he said. “I like it. I haven’t been out this way much at all.” He’s also never been to New Orleans, and was fascinated by the Holidome’s unique decor. (surely he was also mesmerized by that word, “Holidome”…)
Both Kara, 19, and Teddy, 18, attend college in Connecticut, she at Trinity and he at Wesleyan. They’re taking off a semester to campaign. They were surprised to learn that their cousin Joe had campaigned at Burlington High School.
When we asked why they weren’t surrounded by Secret Service men (although the men were stationed throughout the Holidome), Teddy and Kara looked at eachother, and he laughed and said, “Kara’s my bodyguard and I’m hers.”
Before I could really feel at ease, Teddy had to cut the conversation short so he could do some telephoning to Iowa Democrats. As he got up to leave, Kara followed him and they both cordially said good-bye. All Dedria and I could do was keep remarking how we couldn’t believe we got to talk with them.
But that wasn’t our last encounter. After the senator spoke in the Regency Royale Room (Oooh, such gilded luxury. I think that’s where one of my high school proms was held), we joined the reception line and shook hands with Ted, his wife, Joan, and the children. To the children, I expressed how glad I was that they talked with us and wished them well in school.
My final assignment as a courier was to drive to the Burlington airport and make sure the press plane took off safely. (It did.) (If it didn’t, my job was to call Susan’s office.) As we watched the journalists file off the buses for the last time, Dedria and I realized our big day would soon be a memory. I was glad to have gotten a chance to peek at a family I’d read so much about, and to work with Susan. (She said she’d call me again.) (She didn’t.) But I do have one complaint– I never got invited to Teddy’s mansion! (I’m still waiting!) ###
(photo taken by me with a Kodak “Pocket Instamatic”) Senator Ted Kennedy takes off his hardhat and approaches the microphone at Consolidated Packaging Corporation in Keokuk, Iowa, January 7, 1980. Wife Joan is at the right, and son Teddy Jr. is in the back, also in a CPC jacket. Kara is to the left of Teddy. (Teddy Jr. looked very much like American Idol Season One runner-up Justin Guarini…)