Have you ever had the opportunity to sit and converse with greatness, and to be enveloped in their aura?
For five days, in June of 1955, I was afforded that incredible experience as the driver for Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt. Permit me to expand.
In the 50's one could still work their way through college. One of my jobs was as a campus guide for the PR department of my school, Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts. The annual Board meeting and Arts Festival were held each June.
The most distinguished member of the Board was Eleanor Roosevelt. (The measure of the Lady was her serving on the Board of the first Jewish sponsored non-sectarian University in the country) My job during this time was to chauffeur dignitaries back and forth from digs in Boston. I begged, pleaded, cajoled my superiors for the right to drive Mrs. R. After great hesitancy they gave in.
The day arrived. I was to pick her up at a fancy townhouse in the tony section of Boston; Beacon Hill. Beyond nervous, I pressed the call button and heard the response, “we’ll be right down.” The elevator opened. Out she strode, extending her hand and announcing, “how do you do, I’m Anna Eleanor Roosevelt.” As if I didn’t know. As she and her guest followed me to my beat-up 1949 Chevy, I said to her, “Mrs. Roosevelt you are about to ride in the only car about which a song has been written.” “How so?” “Shake, Rattle and Roll.” She chuckled. After all here was one used to Cadillac limos. Unsure of protocol, I opened both front and back doors. The guest sat in the back, Mrs. R in the front.
For the next five days, covering at least 12- 15 trips, Mrs. Roosevelt always sat in the front. I was never seen as the chauffeur, but rather the driver and always, even when others were present, included in the conversation. On the occasion when it was just the two of us we talked as two comfortable acquaintances sharing thoughts and opinions. I never felt demeaned or patronized.
Perhaps the best example of the essence of the person took place at an evening Arts performance. The venue was outdoors and rain threatened. I suggested to her that if it rained and she wished to leave, to just stand up and I’d race for the car. The rains came and when she and a male companion got in the car, the dialogue went like this- “Allen you’re soaked.” “We’re not going anywhere until you go home and change clothes.” “But Mrs. Roosevelt don’t you remember that I live in a third floor walk-up in the scuzziest part of town above a whore house and a gin mill?” “Doesn’t matter, we’re going,” she said. As she and her guest sat parked in front of the bar, I made a record leap up three flights, changed clothes and raced back to the car.
A week or so later when I returned home to Pennsylvania there was a personal letter waiting for me thanking me for my service. I still cherish the letter and over and over bask in the glow of the experience. What a Lady.