Woody Allen’s movie “Zelig” chronicles the encounters a nonentity has at critical moments in the history of the world with movers and shakers. I too am a nonentity who “will pass and be forgotten like the rest,” but before I go I want to list some of the high and mighty and the movers and shakers it has been my lot and sometimes my good fortune to meet during this interlude between two eternities. Of course, the list is a bit skewed toward sports and religion, with a smidgeon of politics here and there.
Wonder with me.
My hands have held Emanuele Santi’s Stradivarius, Derek Jeter’s batting gloves, Babe Ruth’s Boston Braves baseball cap, and Joe DiMaggio’s umbrella.
I have fed the names of dais dignitaries to an uninformed Mayor Lindsay; explained to Jackie Robinson in person that my mother did his laundry; and was corrected, in response to my assumption in the reception line for George Steinbrenner, that he wouldn’t remember me, with George’s characteristic hyperbole that, “Sure, Bob, I think of you every day.”
I shook hands on the red carpet with King Olav of Norway; kissed the newly installed Roman Catholic Bishop of Brooklyn, Francis Mugavero, in the chancel of the basilica, Our Lady of Perpetual Help; and sat across the dinner table and tried to engage in conversation a very quiet and introverted Norman Vincent Peale.
I have shouted a one-word benediction to a crowd gathered in November at the back porch of the Borough of Brooklyn President‘s Office, in the presence of Gil Hodges, Tug McGraw, and Eddie Kranepool, to celebrate the 1969 World Series championship. That word? “Hallelujah!”
I sat across the aisle at Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church from Bob and Elizabeth Dole; literally brushed elbows with JFK at a legislative conference in a New York hotel; and preached sermons to congregations which included Jean Dalrymple (Director of Dramatic Productions at City Center), Walter Tittle (portrait artist of the literati of the Twenties), and Mark Twain’s unofficial goddaughter, Harmony Twichell Ives.
I was taught to play rummy by Jane Fonda’s grandfather, Eugene Seymour, a roomer in our house in the late 1930's as we emerged from the Great Depression. I was described by the second Commissioner of the NBA, Walter Kennedy, son of my father's co-worker at the City Steam Laundry in his column for the local paper, as “brittle Bob Howard” for all the injuries I sustained playing high school football.
I have been faked out of certain athletic equipment on the basketball court by a young Rico Petrocelli, a few years before he played shortstop for the Boston Red Sox; and sat in a seminary classroom with the future mayor of Indianapolis, Bill Hudnut, as we soaked up wisdom from Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich.
The Rev. William Hudnut, Mayor of Indianapolis and his now commemorative statue
I chided Bill Bradley at the corner of 60th Street and Park Avenue waiting for a light to cross, following a gathering of clergy at which the Knicks forward had spoken about faith and sports… reminding him of his ceaseless on-court elbow battles with Jack Marin. He responded with a guilty grin saying, “Did you have to remember that?”
Well, no, of course, I didn’t. But remembering and savoring these brief encounters with the rich, famous, and infamous of my life and times provides me with the assurance that I, who rarely explored the world more than a hundred miles from where I was born, maybe didn’t miss too much for being a not-so-poor parish priest usually preoccupied with feeding the flock of saints and sinners.
Which preoccupation, let it be clearly emphasized, has provided me with satisfactions to last an eternity.