“I guess this is a do-it for-nothing speech.”
by Jim Marquardt
I wasn’t his friend, but I knew Andy Rooney by reputation when we both lived in Rowayton, a small section of Norwalk, Connecticut. Some time in the mid-seventies, I was inveigled into doing the advertising and promotion for the city’s United Way Campaign. At an early planning session, that year’s chairman, president of a local corporation, said he wanted a gala kick-off dinner that would attract publicity and get the campaign off to a good start. Without thinking, I blurted out, “Maybe I can get Andy Rooney to be guest speaker.” Of course everyone on the committee jumped on the idea, completely missing the qualifier “maybe.” Even then, so many years ago, Rooney was reputed to be a curmudgeon who carefully guarded his privacy. I began worrying, what if he says no?
I thought about it for a few days, then wrote a carefully worded letter explaining that his participation would be a big boost to raising money for the many non-profits in Norwalk. To make sure he got the letter promptly, I sneaked up to his modest house one evening and dropped it in his mailbox. I stewed for a week or two. Finally, as the deadline for announcing the dinner drew near, I phoned him at home. His wife Marge answered, listened to my plea, then told me to hang on. After a long minute, Andy’s grating voice came on the line and I stuttered out my request. He said, “Well, I either get paid a lot to make a speech, or I do it for nothing. I guess this is one of those do-it-for-nothing speeches.” I chuckled what I hoped was an ingratiating chuckle. So he agreed to appear and we began publicizing the event, riding hard on his participation.
That was the last I heard from Rooney until a couple of days before the dinner. Again, I called his home and told him I’d be happy to drive him to the event. “Nah,” he said. “I’d rather have my own car.” I suspected he wanted to escape whenever he felt like it.
On the appointed evening, some 400 people streamed into the big catering hall while I stood nervously at the door, watching every car that drove up. But he and Marge arrived in plenty of time. When he realized he would be trapped into a dinner before his speech, he got a little cranky, but I introduced him to several, suitably impressed town fathers, and steered him to the dais in front of the hall. He loosened up and chatted with the dignitaries around him
After dinner, I clinked my glass and the place went quiet. I introduced Andy, sketched his background and got a laugh when I mentioned he was the guy who showed up at the New Jersey headquarters of Mrs. Wagner’s Pies and asked to see Mrs. Wagner. When Andy took the rostrum he spoke warmly and winningly without notes, as if he were sitting at home with friends. The audience loved it. His talk was fascinating, funny and at times poignant as he related his adventures as a correspondent for the Army newspaper in World War II, covering the invasion of France and later being among the first to see the concentration camp at Buchenwald. He said that he met Clark Gable who served for a while with the Eighth Air Force flying out of England. In one of those wry asides that later made him popular on “60 Minutes,” he said of Gable, “I couldn’t help noticing that his pants fit so well.”
Years later I was acquainted with Rooney again. The elderly grandfather of one of our neighbors was visiting from a small town in Illinois. When I met the unprepossessing little man, he told me he heard on TV that Andy Rooney was a woodworker. The grandfather said, “I’m a woodworker, too, and I made this inlaid, wooden trivet for Rooney. I’m going to go by his house and give it to him.” Uh oh, I thought, Rooney is sure to be at his prickly worst when a stranger rings his doorbell on a weekend and intrudes on his privacy. But when I met the grandfather a day later and asked him about his call on Rooney, he said it was delightful. “What a nice guy! He invited me in and took me down to his workshop in the basement. He has a great collection of hand tools and does nice work. We had a great time. He loved the trivet.”
Once, at a neighborhood cocktail party, I spotted Rooney standing alone in a corner, looking like he’d rather be anywhere else. I sauntered over and reminded him that I had roped him into the United Way dinner a couple of years earlier. We chatted awhile and at one point, he started to laugh and said “You’ve got to hear this.” He told me that his son, a newspaper reporter in Upstate New York, had just been offered a job on network TV news. The son decided to turn down the offer, telling Andy, “That’s not real journalism, Dad. That’s all showbiz.” Andy was tickled and obviously proud, and I thought, that son is an authentic copy of his father.
Years later, I picked up a collection of Rooney’s essays and saw what a fine writer he was. We all loved him for his “few minutes with Andy Rooney” on Sunday evening, but he took more pride in being a journalist, writing a syndicated newspaper column for thirty years. At the end of a long obituary in the New York Times, the Times writer quoted Rooney’s remark on his last “60 Minutes” appearance. “I’ve done a lot of complaining here, but of all the things I’ve complained about, I can’t complain about my life.”
You may remember Andy Rooney as a grouch, but the few brushes I had with him many years ago were enough for me to know that his testy TV personality cloaked a core of kindness and integrity.