It started with handshakes. It ended with pumped fists and rounds of hugs.
Five of us Dart Society members met with Jim Lehrer tonight in a meeting coordinated by Frank Ochberg, our founder and guide.
Just in case you’re wondering, that was THE Jim Lehrer.
As in iconic newsman.
As in author of 20 novels and two plays.
As in moderator of 11 debates during the past six presidential elections.
Yes, THAT Jim Lehrer.
Five of us from the Dart Society met with him in the penthouse of the Tabard Inn, where, coincidentally, our family stayed during an April vacation more than three decades ago.
The room is atop five flights of narrow stairs covered with thick carpet. The heat rises each flight, lending an increasingly stuffy feel. Mindful of Lehrer’s heart condition, I was excited to see him both because I was meeting a journalism legend and because he was not breathing too hard.
He looked and sounded as I have seen him during the past 25 years since first watching him on what was then the McNeil/Lehrer News Hour. The clear dark eyes. The neatly cropped hair. The Southern inflection that grew stronger when Penny Owen, our first president, entered the room and started bantering with him. The fingers that hung lazily in the air as he gestured.
Lehrer has been playing his trade since 1959, and still brings an undimmed passion and enthusiasm to his work.
I started the gathering by telling him that I had learned to be a teacher from Paul Tamburello, my former fourth grade teacher, but that I had learned to facilitate discussions by watching him interview people.
“Thank you,” he said, raising his glass of pinot grigio at the tribute.
Arnessa Garrett, our vice president, went next, eliciting a high five and hug from Lehrer when she shared that she worked at the Dallas Morning News, the same paper he first worked more than half a century.
This started to get the stories flowing.
And on they came.
He shared about how calling bus lines was the first time he was paid to be behind a microphone, doing it not once, but twice for us (The first bus ended in Los Angeles, while the second passed through Oklahoma City on his way east.).
He told about asking a Secret Service man the day of Kennedy’s assassination if they planned to remove the protective plastic shield around his car.
The Secret Serviceman called ahead, asked what the weather was like downtown and, after learning that it was fine, gave the instruction to remove the top.
We all know what happened next.
That moment reinforced permanently to Lehrer the fragility of everything.
Speaking with generosity and humility, he spoke about mistakes he had made and how he still thinks about them.
He talked about the importance of journalism for our nation’s democracy.
And, being a good newsman, he also asked questions and he listened.
The other Dart Society leaders made me proud.
Board Member Julia Lieblich talked about the role the Society had played in helping her to get through reporting about priest sex abuse.
Penny shared her experiences of having covered the Oklahoma City bombing, a part of the conversation that elicited the story about Kennedy’s assassination.
And Deirdre talked about the culture of caring we seek to provide to and among our members.
We also told him about our organizational plan to increase our membership to do more extensive fundraising and to create an online publication.
“What can do I to help?” he asked more than an hour into the conversation.
The first step: joining the Society.
He also pledged his support to do whatever he could to help us.
This went so far beyond our expectations and hopes that we largely sat there open mouthed as he kept talking about his willingness to help.
Eventually, he had to go home to his wife of 52 years, who memorably proved her mettle by telling him to quit when the Dallas Morning News would not run a story he believed needed to be in the paper.
“You’ll find another job,” said Mrs. Lehrer, who already had borne her husband two girls and was pregnant with their third.
We clinked wine, water and coke glasses with our planned new member, said our goodbyes and tried to let the door close and Deirdre walk down the first flight of stairs before exploding in the aforementioned celebration.
The giddiness continued for close to half an hour as we looked back at how the evening had a magical feel, and looked forward to what we will do together next.
That all is in the future, though.
For now, I am about to turn in, weary, but thrilled about this latest life adventure.