In the Presence of Greatness

I will tell you right up front that I am not a star-struck kind of guy. Most of my heroes are not even famous, and most famous people are famous by time and chance. I have never sought out to meet famous people, and certainly would not go out of my way to see or meet a celebrity. I have a friend who was dismayed because he went to a rock concert to see an old classic rock star, hoping for an autograph and a picture, only to find out he had not purchased enough “access” bracelet to get close to him. On the other hand, we went to see Willie Nelson just a couple years ago in Nashville and I was amazed at how this 80-something year old man waited on stage until every single fan that wanted to shake hands, get a picture, or just say hey, was able to do so. There are stars, and then there are stars.

Over the course of my life – and yours, too, probably – I have found myself in the presence of greatness, people of fame. And not great because they were famous, but great because they were good humans that happened to get famous.

I was working a midnight shift in the late 1970s at a Dart Drug in Manassas, Virginia. The crew I was with was doing remodel work at night because there were less people there, even though the store was open 24/7. I heard a soft voice behind me say “Excuse me?” and when I turned around, I was staring at Tab Hunter. Admittedly, I did not know his storied acting career but only from seeing him on the show ‘Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman’ and there he was, shopping basket in hand, strikingly handsome, easy-going. He was looking for toothpaste. I showed him where to find it, and he told me he was working summer stock theater. He was a good guy, pleasant and polite. No wrist bracelet required to talk to Tab.

I met my wife, Diana, in Alexandria, Virginia when she walked into the little Baptist church I was attending. Turns out she was active-duty Navy, stationed at the White House. This being 1984, it was the Reagan White House. Ultimately, we got married, and in 1987 decided to head South for further adventures. As a parting gift, the White House photographer arranged a private meeting with the President, in a small room off the Oval Office. I prepared all kinds of things to say to this man, one of my true heroes, but when the time came, I said something like “uh, mumble mumble, uh, mumble mumble bleh.” I blew my chance, but he did not. As gracious and kind as I believed him to be, he proceeded to ask us questions and presented us each (we had two kids with us) a gift. He told Diana a story about walking the coast in California during WWII and, when you spotted a Sailor, you would call out “What ship, Sailor?” He chuckled and asked Diana what ship she was transferring to (the USS Holland, AS32) and concluded our meeting. Five minutes with greatness, and I was quaking in my boots, drenched with sweat.

But we were not done yet, and as we left and headed down the hall, Diana was greeted by Vice President George H.W. Bush’s secretary. We stopped to chat, and she said we should meet the VP. Mr. Bush came out of a nearby bathroom and greeted us (no matter how great you are, when you gotta go, you gotta go). He was a genuinely kind and gracious man, grandfatherly comes to mind, and he asked about us and greeted the kids. It was genuine and quite pleasant, but I was still quaking from meeting Reagan so I am sure I repeated my earlier blather.

The presence of greatness, whether a movie star or a president or an athlete, leaves us dumbfounded. I am not sure why – aren’t they just like us? Don’t they put on their pants one leg at a time? Don’t they have to use the bathroom (I know for a fact they do!)? Is it because we feel that we are insignificant in our accomplishments? Or is it just because it is hard to bring the almost-surreal media presence into flesh and blood reality?

I am reminded of this on a smaller level. Whenever Diana would run across a parent of one of her young students at the mall or Walmart, the child was usually dumbfounded, suddenly shy, hiding behind mommy’s leg, even though they knew her well, and saw her every day in the classroom. I guess context is the problem. Seeing your teacher out of the classroom and in public, being normal, is mind-blowing. And so it is with fame – it is okay when they are on the TV screen or stage, but right here in front of me, living and breathing?

Since my early teens I had listened to John Mayall. He is known as the Godfather of British Blues, and, even if you are not familiar with him, you have heard his efforts in developing blues players. He was known for being an incubator of talent. Fleetwood Mac? Mick Fleetwood and John McVie, along with Peter Green, left Mayall’s Bluesbreakers to form that famous band. Eric Clapton? He was working construction with his uncle when John coaxed him back into the limelight. Eric’s first recorded vocal was on a Mayall album. I finally had an opportunity to see him perform, so we headed up to Knoxville to see the aging John Mayall at the State Theater. And sitting at the merch table was the Godfather himself, looking old, tired and a bit flimsy. He was kind though, if not a little distant, and signed my CD as I took the photo-op. My wife was concerned that a seemingly senile old man was going to put on much of a show, but he did just that. One of the best concerts I have been to, and there he was, doing what he always did, putting other musicians out front. Incubating talent. It is all he has ever done.

So, is that all there is? Movie stars and presidents and musicians? I understand if you are a Hollywood fan, following your favorite star, having a chance to meet them. I get it if you would love to meet a president for a photo op. I am all about seeing the best musicians do their thing and can see why you would feel special if they spent a few seconds shaking your hand. But there is greatness all around you, and not of the star-struck variety.

I flew to Washington, D.C. with my lovely bride for our 30th anniversary in 2014. We went to rediscover the magic of those first days together, and maybe see some of the sights in our nation’s capitol. Arlington National Cemetery is a standard stop, where you can see the grim reminder of the cost of freedom in the thousands of military veteran’s gravesites. But we were there to see the Military Women’s Memorial, where you can view the small but thorough museum highlighting the contributions that women have made to America’s military. At one point you can key in a name on the computer and the veteran’s face and bio pops up on a big screen. And I found myself in the presence of greatness, as YNC (EXW) Diana E. Fleshman’s face came up.

Military Women’s Memorial | Military Women’s Memorial Website

Diana spent 13 years in the U.S. Navy, rising to the rank of Chief (E7) back when female Chiefs were a rare breed. She served at a wide range of duty stations, including the aforementioned White House, and was stationed on the USS Holland (AS32) where she managed the mess and serviced the stores needs of submarines. As we were about to have our fourth child, she made the difficult decision to end her service and take care of our brood. She went on, later, to get a degree and taught Kindergarten. But, with the kids grown and a war on in the Middle East, she felt the siren call of military service, again. She managed to enlist in the reserves, stationed at NOSC Chattanooga, at the ripe old age of 51. Diana then volunteered for deployment to the Middle East not once, but twice (2008-2009, 2010-2011) and ultimately retired with 20 years active service. A Kindergarten teacher in desert camo, wearing body armor and packing an M9. Greatness? I think so. And now I wake up in the presence of greatness every day.

You can find your heroes in movies, sports, music, politics – there is nothing wrong with that at all. Just be sure that they embody the qualities that set greatness apart from the daily norm. Sacrifice. Courage. Patriotism. Integrity. Decency. Because if those traits are lacking, you may be in the presence of fame, but not greatness.

Better yet, find that person in your own life, and you will always be in the presence of greatness.

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