Call Me Norman, Please

My profession has placed me in proximity to many famous people and the majority of them I am grateful to have met.  Not matter how much fame and fortune each had achieved, I learned first-hand that underneath each one is a person just like the rest of us.  How I felt about each celebrity I have met runs the full gamut just as the people I meet in everyday life do.  Many were warm and interesting, quite a few were aloof but polite and some were cold and just going through the motions.  But there are a few that really made impressions on me, especially one.

In 1972 I was returning to Colorado after visiting family down south and was making a connection on Frontier Airlines at the old Denver Stapleton Airport.  Those were the days of hair long past my shoulders and my full hippie regalia which those we called “Straight’s” liked to stare at, especially the older folks.  At the gate I was waiting for a flight to Colorado Springs that made another stop in Pueblo when I noticed a white haired gentleman in his 70’s sitting with a woman of similar age.

For about 10 minutes I stared on and off at the man about 20 feet away dressed in a crisp white shirt and khaki pants.  Was he who I thought he was or not?  I vacillated between “yes it is” and “it can’t be”.  To solve my quandary I got up the nerve to walk over and speak to him.  He was seated as I approached him and as he looked up I said “You wouldn’t be Norman Rockwell would you?”  He smiled and said “the last time I checked I was.  Who might you be?” as he extended his hand.  As I introduced myself and shook his hand I was glad for his warm and welcoming nature.  Soon after he patted the empty seat beside him inviting me to sit down and visit with him.  A couple of times while talking I referred to him as Mr. Rockwell and more than once he said “Norman, please”.

In our conversation of about 15 minutes, I learned the woman he was traveling with was “Molly” his wife as he introduced me to her (that he remembered my name even for 30 seconds really impressed me).  Then he motioned to a guy about my age standing nearby and introduced him as his grandson.  In the conversation he told me they were flying to Pueblo in order to get to what he called his “hideaway” somewhere near Canon City.  Norman seemed genuinely interested in our conversation and asked things like where I was going, where I had been, about my family and even what I thought of his work.  When I told him I “loved” his work and his Christmas paintings were favorites, especially Santa Claus, he said nothing, but a gentle smile came onto his face. He expressed his appreciation with that smile more than words probably could have.

The time passed quickly and soon it was time to board. Norman shook my hand, patted me on the shoulder, told me “good luck son”.  As he walked away to be one of the first to board he looked over his shoulder once and tipped his head a little to say good bye.  Later he smiled as I walked past him on the plane headed to my seat in the back of the plane and again when I got off the plane in Colorado Springs.  And that was the end of the story, but my memory of it remains clear and vivid.

To this day, I can remember the warmth of Norman Rockwell.  This is especially true since I have read he basically was a shy and quiet man overall.  But for a little while to me, then a kid of 18; he seemed like the uncle I had not seen in years.  I remember little things like the pipe in his shirt pocket but most of all I remember his smile.

Years later I read that Norman’s private life was troubled, especially the years married to his second wife and mother of his children who suffered from mental problems.  I also found a quote in some biographical material credited to Dr. Erik Erikson, a psychologist, who treated Mr. Rockwell.  It’s recorded that Dr. Erikson told Norman “he painted his happiness, but did not live it”.  Even today that makes me a little melancholy to think the man whose paintings contained such deep emotions from laughter to innocent elation and to sadness and reverence did not get to live what he painted. Norman Rockwell left an enduring legacy of joy and authentic American life to everyone, but to me he left a beautiful image of old gentlemen who was rich and famous, but still had time to be kind and thoughtful to an impressionable young man who 40 years later is still deeply grateful.   Thank you Norman.

Courtesies of a small and trivial character are the ones which strike deepest in the grateful and appreciating heart.  Henry Clay

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