As I was reading this wonderful story about an act of kindness by the actor Robert Downey, Jr., it made me remember my two chance meetings with Senator Paul Simon.
In 1979, I was selected to go on a 4-H trip to Washington, D.C. for a program known at one time as “Citizenship Short Course.” Imagine a bus load full of high school age 4-H members from Illinois (and their chaperones) being let loose in the nation’s capitol. We stayed at the National 4-H Center in Chevy Chase, MD and toured lots of historic sites. And everywhere we went, we wore these plastic, engraved name tags in the shape of the state of Illinois with the 4-H logo in gold.
Part of the trip was a meeting with then Illinois Senator Charles Percy. That meeting didn’t go particularly well. The senator was late and didn’t seem to know who we were. I wasn’t exactly sure that he even knew what 4-H was. But, he was a senator so we smiled and got our picture taken with him.
Immediately after this, we were walking down the street near the Capitol when this man wearing a bow tie stopped and asked if we were indeed from Illinois. When we said we were, he said, “Hi! I’m Representative Paul Simon from southern Illinois. What parts of the Land of Lincoln are you from?” And with that opening, he stood and talked with each and every one of us. And he asked if he could get a picture with us! What a difference from our experience in Percy’s office.
Fast forward to 1992 – By now, I’m a doctoral student at Southern Illinois University Carbondale and I’m doing news at a radio station in Carbondale. As part of Carol Moseley Braun’s senatorial campaign, she was flying around to small airports in the southern part of the state and now Senator Paul Simon was accompanying her on this whirlwind tour. I went with another newsperson from the station to the tiny airport at Marion, Illinois to see them.
After the press conference, the majority of the members of the press there crowded around soon-to-be Senator Mosely Braun to ask her more questions. My co-worker and I noticed that no one was asking Senator Simon any questions. He walked over first and introduced himself and then me. After chatting for a bit, I took a deep breath and told Paul Simon about our earlier meeting in 1979. He smiled and nodded as I told my story. But, his response blew me away:
“How nice of you to have remembered that!”
Wow… What a truly nice man. And what a great voice! Oh, and I think he sort of liked the fact that people would sometimes get him and the singer Paul Simon mixed up. Here’s a bit that they did on Saturday Night Live back in 1987: