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My reluctant brushes with celebrity

I’ve always been as shy of the famous as they are protective of their privacy.

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Linda Bleck

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I am no good with celebrities, as shy in their presence as many of them are eager to guard their privacy in public. But I’m shy in general; chance encounters with the famous simply bring into sharper focus the trait I’ve borne and happily nurtured since childhood – when even the hour or two before holiday meals with a host of visiting relatives found me desperate to help my mother in the warmth and relative privacy of the kitchen. Anyone with more exotic credentials than aunts and uncles sent me fleeing into deeper recesses ... partly because of my reclusive nature and partly because I sensed another’s need for privacy.

I vividly recall the day I shopped with my mom in a local strip mall and found myself watching haplessly as Jay North (of 1960s TV “Dennis the Menace” fame) cruised by, waving from a convertible as part of a publicity tour. I ducked between cars in the parking lot as he passed; to my eye he looked wholly out of context, also wan and exhausted. I wanted to stay out of sight, perhaps to spare us both.

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As a teen, I was invited to accompany a friend, Candice, and her family to the Rochester, N.Y., airport to greet Robert Kennedy on the campaign trail. To my awe, Candice actually reached out to shake his hand, and connected. I watched from a safe distance, sensing a tired candidate’s strain behind that brilliant smile.

As the years passed, I began to outgrow some of that reticence and married a geologist whose field studies centered on the Connecticut River Valley. We befriended a colleague of his, who worked with the state’s Geological Survey. Mike’s home was on the island of Martha’s Vineyard, and he soon invited us out for a weekend. From that first visit with him and his wife, Mary Jane, we all became close and our summer visits to Tisbury became frequent. 

A mecca for celebrities, many of whom our hosts knew and greeted on the streets, the Vineyard put me to the test. I managed to smile in passing Patricia Neal on the sidewalk and at Ethel Kennedy and two of her daughters at a function we attended. One day in a local store, Mary Jane greeted a young child, telling me later that he was the “Sweet Baby James” of the song. 

It was not until a few years later that I faced my first inescapable encounter with a national icon. My husband and I boarded a ferry from Woods Hole, Mass., to the Vineyard on a Sunday afternoon, when most tourists are going the other way. The vessel was all but deserted, but stepping aboard with us was an older man with a reporter’s notebook jutting from his pocket. Recognizing Walter Cronkite, I gave him a wide berth, and headed for the top deck with our dog to feed the sea gulls a loaf of bread I always brought for that purpose. 

Ten minutes later, as we cleaved across the choppy waters and the birds began swooping down to my outstretched arm, there came a deep familiar voice, just behind me: “Well, you’ve got their attention now!”

To my horror, he and my husband were settling into adjacent seats and beginning to engage in easy conversation. Spying the box of popcorn Mr. Cronkite was offering to share, my traitorous black Lab pulled me to them and, after being indulged with a handful, gave that famous (and unflinching) face an encouraging lick. Another handful readily came his way, shattering my reserve. 

Soon all three of us were talking, Cronkite genuinely interested in our plans to adopt, Rob quizzing him on political intrigues, and I at least contributing something about my developing career in science writing.  

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My hometown in Indiana is not such a celebrity magnet, though almost all of us who lived here in the 1970s or ’80s bumped into Bob Knight now and then. Once, my son and I found ourselves at a local driving range tee adjacent to the one that the celebrated Indiana University basketball coach occupied. Tim connected with the ball for a beautiful sailing drive to the far distance just as Mr. Knight was leaving. We all watched the ball grow smaller, and “The General” paused to greet us and acknowledge the coup – to Tim’s delight. 

Such encounters, ephemeral and unsolicited, I can handle. As for Walter Cronkite – the most trusted man in America in his day, and the soul of friendliness – I was charmed beyond caring about privacy. While I’d never have intruded, he seemed to welcome company. 

But I haven’t, in fact, changed all that much since I ducked between cars to avoid Jay North. I’d do it again if another star of any age came my way. And the next time I visit the Vineyard, I’m thinking of leaving my dog in Indiana.