Monday, February 18, 2013


When Senator Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia recently announced that he will not run for re-election in 2014, I was reminded of my brush with the rich and famous many years ago, an amusing story I've longed to tell. 

Jay is the great grandson of John D. Rockefeller Sr., the oil baron and the world's first billionaire who created the much feared corporate monopoly, Standard Oil.  A credit in the great grandson's favor, as far as I'm concerned,  is that Senator Jay is the first Democrat in a Republican family dynasty, and that he also served as West Virginia's Governor from 1977-1985.   Politics aside, when one hears the Rockefeller name, images of big money, American society, philanthropy, and a privileged class always come to mind.

When I worked in a public relations type job at a university medical center some years back,  I was asked by a work colleague if I would plan and organize a visit by Senator Jay Rockefeller and his family.    The reason the Rockefeller family requested this visit was because the Senator's teenage son was thinking about becoming a doctor, and our medical school was one of the places he had an interest in applying.  Despite being six years away from matriculating, the precocious young man wanted as much information as possible to to think about the direction his future might take.

To plan the visit,  I first drew up a list of important and relevant faculty I thought the distinguished family might want to meet.  I also made sure the medical school dean was available for at least a welcoming handshake, since people of this stature require that one pulls out all the stops.

Arranging the faculty meetings didn't take too much effort, even on short notice.   All I had to say was,  "Does the professor have time on his/her calendar to meet with Senator Jay Rockefeller and his family next week?"  While most of the faculty were honored, some were also suspicious and questioned my request.  One professor with a sense of humor answered,  "Yes, and I'll be happy to meet with the Pope the week after, if he is so inclined."  Another doctor told me, in a very stern voice, that he didn't have time for practical jokes.   The grumpy head of admissions said he wasn't used to interviewing youngsters, but since he wanted a look-see at a real Rockefeller,  he was willing to have a meeting.   Once I reassured the faculty that my request was on the up and up,  and I was not pulling anyone's leg,  the appointment slots filled pretty quickly.   Because of the nature of my job, I met many well connected and famous people over the years, but never a Senator and never a Rockefeller,  so I was looking forward to spending the afternoon with this notable family myself.   

Given our school's colors, the stylish red dress I was wearing seemed very appropriate.  I wanted the Senator to spot me easily when he and his family arrived at the appointed hour of one o'clock in the afternoon.  
I inspected every car that drove through the porte-cochere at the hospital's entrance,  but none were transporting the famous people I was looking for.    Finally,  a shiny black limousine,  the kind dignitaries ride in,  pulled up to the main entrance and stopped at the front door.  This must be them,  I thought,  as I walked toward the fancy car.   I wasn't sure if the goose bumps on my arms were due to the chill in the air or some last minute jitters about meeting a VIP.  Regardless,  I tried to appear relaxed.   A chauffeur, wearing the characteristic driver's cap,  hopped out,  skipped around the car,  held open the back door and stood tall at attention like he was about to salute.  Yet no one emerged from the car.   Not wanting to waste a precious minute because we were already running late,  I put one foot forward, smiled at the chauffeur,  and in my most professional voice queried,  "The Rockefellers,  I presume?"

The chauffeur turned to me and with a quizzical look on his face and eyes that squinted in disbelief  responded   "Rockefellers?  Rockefellers?  No, I'm picking up someone here."  Then he shook his head as he turned away, and muttered in a mocking voice,  "Yea, right, sure, I'm driving the Rockefellers."   He obviously took me for a nut.

I was terribly embarrassed when I realized that there were no Rockefellers in the back seat of his limo.  The limo was, in fact,  empty because the chauffeur was picking up a patient who was being discharged from the hospital and not delivering the Rockefellers as I expected.   Eventually, the patient, who was transported out to the main entrance in a wheelchair,  rolled herself into the backseat of the limo,  and they quickly drove away.   As I wiped the egg off my face and took in a deep breath,  I desperately tried to recover from my  faux pas.    So, where were the Rockefellers?   

A couple of official looking cars drove up, but none were unloading my people.   At 1:30 I could see a dark gray Lincoln Town Car making its way slowly up to the main entrance.   Although I didn't want to make a fool of myself twice,  I was sure this was the Rockefeller's car.    I pulled myself together, pasted that smile back on my face, and waited for someone to appear.  The driver walked around to the back and opened the door,  and there they were, the Senator, his wife and their teenage son.   The Senator emerged from the car by unfolding himself like a puppet in a jack in the box.    Since he's a six foot six and a half inch giant,  there was very little headroom, even in a Lincoln Town Car, and he probably felt like he'd been stuffed in a suitcase.    After each of them politely shook my hand, we were off to our first meeting,  chatting as though we'd known each other for years.   I had the privilege and honor of escorting the Rockefeller family to all of their afternoon appointments and having interesting conversations with them of my own.   And for a change,  I didn't get flack from any of the faculty who had to wait.   Everyone was impressed with the Rockefellers.  They seemed like down-to-earth folks,  gracious and grateful for their visit and very impressed by the people they met.  

So this is pretty much the end of my story except to say that a week after their visit,  I received a lovely thank you note on official Rockefeller stationery from their teenage son.  This really meant a lot to me at the time, but I now kick myself for not having the good sense to save the hand written letter.    It sure would have been fun to show to my family and friends.  

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