Serendipitous Celebrity Encounters
Have you had a chance positive encounter with a celebrity? I’ve had so many, I decided to make a list. And it’s long. This series will feature some of these often very odd or funny situations. And I’d like to tell your story here too.
Summer of 1976 I took a break between working and the start of my senior year of college. I had been a writer and production assistant that summer for a company producing children’s programming and finished with producing a segment of the “Jerry Lewis Telethon” which broadcast on September 5, 1976. It was an August road trip I made with my good friend Rich from home in Southwestern Pennsylvania to destination Vail, Colorado.
Taking Route 70 West we drove through St. Louis, Missouri, and with not much going on, we noticed a massive crowd outside a hotel off to our right. A bit bored, I took the next exit and weaved through local streets to the hotel parking lot to see what was going on. There we were told that the President’s son, Jack, was inside speaking and was open to the public.
We walked into the event and were briefly studied by several ladies at tables at the back of a packed room with Jack at a microphone center front. I looked at my friend and said, “Well, if it’s not allowed, I guess someone will stop us.” So we walked right down the center aisle past the many rows of filled seats and set up camp, standing, just to the left of the podium, staring up at Jack as he spoke.
Jack did look down on us once, briefly, but continued speaking.
After about 10 minutes, we thought we’d heard enough, and marched right down the center aisle again, returned to my car, and again headed West along I-70.
Once settled into a nice hotel room in Vail, we quickly learned President Ford was staying in town at his “Western White House” with family. We really wanted to see the President at least, but meeting him, we thought, would be grand.
As a journalism student at the time, I sat at my hotel desk and hand-wrote the President a request for a personal interview. But now, how do we deliver the letter? Well, I guess we just walk over to his house, right?
DELIVERING LETTER TO PRESIDENT
It was after dark at that point, and we had excellent directions from locals about a trail to take to get to the house. When we got there, we found a small crowd of folks also wanting to try and catch a glimpse of the President, but they had all stopped at a point along the trail where, if you dared go further, there were very bright spotlights pointing at you.
But somewhere much closer to the President’s house, was a small phonebooth-size guard post — and that became our destination.
The crowd watched us carefully as we boldly moved into the light and walked toward the guard booth — letter in hand.
When we arrived at the booth, a bit nervous, the guy in the booth, most likely a Secret Service agent, spoke to us from inside with his window down. Just a few short feet ahead of us now was the house’s front door.
The Secret Service agent spoke.
“Go on in.”
Rich and I quickly looked at each other, the agent, and the front door. This can’t be right. Doesn’t he want to know who we are? Doesn’t he want to know why we are here?
So instead of merely walking to the front door and knocking, I spoke.
“I am a college journalism student and I am here to deliver a letter to the President.”
The agent stepped out of the booth and studied the two of us more carefully.
“Oh,” he said. “I thought you were friends of Steve’s.”
I was 19 years old at the time. My friend was 17. And the President’s son, Steve, was 20 years old. I get it.
Then at that point, the agent offered to deliver the letter for us. Done deal. I handed off the letter and went back to enjoying Vail.
The next day near late afternoon, we decided to purchase beer at a local store and put it on ice in the hotel room for later that evening. Since I was of legal age, Rich waited outside and I walked into the store and to the very back wall, opened up a refrigerator door, reached in, and grabbed a six-pack.
But suddenly to my left, there was another patron apparently also wanting a cold beverage, so I held the door for him, and he thanked me.
I then walked up to the front of the store, to the cash register counter, with an older man who would wait on me. But the man was not making eye contact with me as he was staring over my shoulder at something else.
The young man I had held the door for appeared and the clerk made eye contact with him and spoke.
“Steve Ford,” the man said. “Thanks for shopping in my store.”
Then the guy walked right past invisible me and rang up Steve. I was quiet and never said a word — I mean, it was the President’s son.
After delivering the beer to the hotel room, we decided to get outside again and walk around town. There was an area with a nice stone wall for sitting and a musician was playing nearby. We found an open section of the wall and sat down to watch.
But just a minute later, I realized someone had sat down to my right just inches away from me. It was Steve Ford.
I nudged my friend and gave him one of those, hey, look over here looks. My instinct was to say hello and see if Steve would talk to two Pennsylvania strangers, but my heart decided to leave famous people alone and let them be. I never said a word. After about 15 minutes, my friend and I stood up and walked away.
LATER THAT NIGHT
Well after dark, we found ourselves standing outside a nice restaurant with a large crowd. We were told that the President, the First Lady, and a few friends, were dining inside. Everyone was planted in place waiting for the President to finish up and step outside again. Everyone wanted a look.
But we got bored and eventually decided it was time to open one of those beers cooling on ice in our hotel room sink. We had a nice balcony too and it overlooked the restaurant where the President was dining. From our seats, we could see the crowd outside the front of the restaurant and we could see over the roof to a dark area behind the restaurant.
At one point I noticed a line of vehicles, including what looked like the Presidential limo, slowly moving up behind the restaurant while the crowd continued to patiently wait out front.
PRESIDENT DUCKS OUT BACK DOOR
I stood up and turned to my friend and said, “Do you see what the Secret Service is doing? They’re playing it safe. Instead of taking the President out the front door near that crowd, they’re sneaking him out the back door. Let’s go. We can see the President — and no one else knows.”
My friend declined. “You go ahead,” he said. “Have fun.”
So I bolted out the door, down to ground level, and quickly made my way around the restaurant to the back door area. What I saw there was basically no one — except Colorado State Police officers and Secret Service agents. As the only regular American there, I positioned myself directly in line with the back door of the restaurant, about 40 feet away, and stood in the dark.
As the Presidential limo pulled forward, one of the state police officers moved close to my left side and placed his arm across my chest as I guess a gesture — move and I’m taking you down. Incredibly, the limo stopped where the back right window was positioned, where the President would sit, right in front of me. Inches from me.
A single spotlight was turned on to brighten the dark area between the restaurant’s back door and the open back left door of the limo. And the restaurant door swung open.
What I saw next was the most amazing thing. And it was so quiet at this moment. It was an “I can hear a pin drop” moment.
Several Secret Service agents were carrying a very horizontal President out that door. The President’s eyes were shut and he was not moving. When they got to the limo, they moved his body inside, with one agent crawling into the backseat to get his head propped on the back-right door armrest.
I am at this point only inches from the limo and I stare down into the window right at the President’s apparently sleeping face. Then there is more flutter near the back door.
First Lady Betty Ford stepped outside, somewhat assisted, and walked to the limo. This was well before the Betty Ford Clinic days, and everyone could tell it appeared she may have sipped one too many umbrella drinks. She stood smiling for just a few moments and then slowly edged toward the limo. Agents had to lift up the President’s feet to allow Betty to sit down.
Once inside, and it appeared the limo would soon pull away, my eyes went back to the President, head still resting on the armrest, and I spoke.
“Hello, Mr. President,” I said. “Nice to see you.”
Then an amazing thing happened. I could not imagine my words actually made it through bulletproof glass. But just as I spoke those words, President Ford opened his eyes and focused on my face leaning toward the glass. His eyes were wild — like he may have helped Betty finish a few of those umbrella drinks. And he raised one of his hands and quickly waved it back and forth in a quick jerking motion at me — all the wow those crazy eyes rolling around and a slight smirk on his face.
The limo pulled away. The state police officer put his arm down.
PRESIDENT FORD GOLFED A LOT
We saw the President next when we heard he was playing golf in town and were directed to a putting green that he was headed to next. The two of us were in my car and drove over to that part of town. But as we got close, you could see road barriers up and absolutely no parking. The green he was heading to was directly to our right at that point and we had not reached the barrier.
So I did what anyone else would have done. We pretended we lived on the street and simply pulled into the driveway to our left, got out of the car, looked like we owned the place, and crossed the street to the putting green right as the President pulled up in his golf cart.
In the immediate area was simply Secret Service and what appeared to be national news broadcasters with big cameras. The crowds were a bit further away at this point but a few onlookers remained.
I turned to my friend and said, “Follow me. We’ll get stopped if it’s not allowed.” And with all those network cameras running, we caught the President after he had putted and had gotten back into his golf cart. I stepped very close, held out my hand in a handshake mode, and said, “Nice to meet you, Mr. President.”
But the President, looking down at my hand inches from his face, never looked up. Never shook my hand. It was a nervous and uncomfortable three or four seconds. I honestly think the media and the Secret Service were waiting for the President to shake my hand. And he didn’t. So after those nervous seconds, I simply lowered my hand, and the President’s golf cart pulled away.
Later that night, I was back in the hotel room clicking between the three big networks watching their coverage of the President that day. And yes, one of them shows that exact moment — but as I extended my hand — I was cut out. They moved forward and simply cut out the embarrassing moment.
Crap. I could have had my three seconds of fame.
That could be the end of the story. A few great moments with a great American family. But it wasn’t over yet.
My friend and I were leaving Vail one afternoon a few days later. The road out of town sat up higher than one end of a golf course. And looking out to our right, we noticed the President was on a putting green, with no onlookers, only Secret Service.
In that split second that those two words left my lips, I first saw the President quickly look up at me. And this was followed by every Secret Service agent surrounding him looking up. Agent's hands moved up to tap on their ears or lapels. Everyone was in motion. Several got between the President and my car.
I quickly regretted my move. Oh, no. What’s going to happen now as I settled back into my driver’s seat position?
Just seconds later, with sirens spewing, several Vail, Colorado police cars surrounded my car. And on a megaphone, someone called out, “This is a restricted area. Move along. This is a restricted area. Move alone.”
I waved hello to acknowledge the officers and simply pulled away.
Would anyone believe my stories?
WHITE HOUSE RESPONDS
A week or so later, I got a letter in the mail — from none other than — the White House.
Your Celebrity Story
Looking for fun and positive chance encounters with celebrities. No shaming or bashing — just interesting, strange, wild, or outrageously weird encounters. Keep it short — no more than 300 words. I would be rewriting your story, and using your story to quote you. I would identify you by first name and city-state — so like Cheryl from Ottumwa, Iowa. I will pick the best ones and include them in my column here under one of my own stories. Please send it to: email@example.com.