What do you mean when you say another person has class or is a class act? Is it a matter of wealth or fame? Or is it how they act toward you or others?
As a journalist, I’ve met and interviewed thousands of people. Of those, five struck me as being a class act. Even now, as long as fifty years afterward, I not only remember them and what they did and said, but also the surroundings in which I visited with them.
Three were farmers, Ben near Houlton, Maine, Marion near Elizabeth City, North Carolina, and Paul near Caliente, Nevada.
Ben, tall and hearty, greeted me with a broad smile and firm handshake. I was there to find out why he was a highly successful potato farmer. As he explained that to me, he hinted of other activities —raising a few hogs for a local butcher who sold select cuts of meat to discerning customers, growing professionally managed timber for a custom furniture maker, and mining gravel which he sold to the county for road construction.
I told him I never expected to hear about those enterprises and that I was impressed by all he had to say about each facet of an operation that appeared to be only a potato farm. With a laugh and a twinkle in his eye, he said.”Yes, I guess you could say I’ve got so many irons in the fire, none of them are getting hot.” It wasn’t only what he said, it was also how he said it —quietly, a mix of humility, a sense of wonder, pride of accomplishment, all of which was seasoned with a dash of excitement. Yes, a class act.
Marion’s farm, barely above sea level, butted up against swamp that after only a few miles opened upon a beach and the Atlantic Ocean. “Have you had lunch?” he asked as I got out of the car. “No,” I answered. “Then join us.” So I sat with him, his wife and their two young daughters under a huge shade tree and at a table covered with a bright cloth. There, we talked while feasting on sandwiches, fresh cuts of watermelon, and ice tea.
I was there not to learn about his farming operation, but to discover and explain the strength of his faithfulness and solid commitment to making the land productive while acknowledging that delicate balance nature had created eons before. Truly remarkable was how he had so skillfully arranged for the raising of crops to co-exist with natural vegetation and wildlife. With the intensity of a surgeon he revealed and detailed how he had developed methods that clearly were enhancing every aspect of his physical environment as well as those of nature. Yes, a class act.
Paul’s ranch could easily be missed. That’s because the road past his place curved, slipped, and dipped through a rolling landscape of sand, rock, and sparse patches of vegetation. The hills shimmered in heat intense enough to cause the unsuspecting and unprepared to die of thirst within an hour.
The man had big and powerful hands, a rugged look, skin toughened by wind, sun, and dust, muscles taut from fixing fences, helping cows with their newborn baby calves, baling hay for feed, and gripping wrenches in the never ending job of repairing machinery. There was the house, its two back rooms hewn from solid rock, a barn, a stable, and workshop.
With a sweep of his hand, he said, “You see those buildings, those horses and the cattle on all that land between here and that low mesa? All of it is my home. I’m supposed to be here, doing the best I know how, and in a place many other people would think unfit for anything. I intend to make the most of it.” Yes, a class act.
I told you there were five. Now, I’ll tell you about the other two.
There, in a small room, Nat King Cole, one of the world’s greatest singers, was signing autographs on a large piece of paper. I was cutting them apart and handing them through a crack in the door to screaming teenagers. During that unforgettable half hour, I learned much about this man. Indeed, you would’ve thought we were old friends. His soft voice, the warmth of his personality, the embracing look he had in his eyes were overpowering. I asked him about the stress and sheer physical effort inflicted upon him by a constant stream of shows and thousands of youthful admirers.
“By his loving grace,” he said, “God gave me this voice. All those kids out there are thanking me for using it. Without them, I would be nothing. They are my life, my soul, and my destiny.” Definitely a class act.
I met and visited with Walter Cronkite at a conference at the University of Miami, in Florida. He looked and appeared the same as I had seen him countless times on television. I was immediately awed by this man who will go down in history as being one of the world’s best newscasters, a man who acted as if he were the father to millions, and a grandfather to many more, a man of depth and devotion to craft, a true American.
He said, “Fred, in those last few minutes before each broadcast, I stagger under the weight of the responsibility I have to the more than fifty million people who hear what I say. For them, and for this profession, I give every ounce of my being, while always hoping I’m doing it right.” Always a class act.
So now, you have it, five of the classiest people I’ve ever met. They were genuine, confident, and respectful of everyone and everything. No profanity, tough talk, boastfulness, hate, spite, selfishness, or greed. While proud of their success, however measured, they used it as a backdrop for their sense of responsibility for self and others.
I now regard my meeting them as part of my life’s greatest and most memorable experiences, part of my responsibility to pass it forward.
And so I have.