Oprah Winfrey retired from her influential daily talk show perch on Wednesday, and everyone seems to be waxing nostaglic about her influence on their lives over the last 25 years. So here's my own two cents.
I like Oprah. I like what she has done for people and I like the example she has set publicly with her influence and her wealth. She is a beautiful, powerful woman no matter what form she has taken over the years. I have no doubt her heart is in the right place.
I do not have the same fondness for my own personal encounter with her.
It was 1996, and I was a desk editor with the Winston-Salem Journal. That meant working five nights a week from 5 p.m. until the wee hours of the morning when the sports section and newspaper were put to bed.
Journalism isn't the most rewarding occupation when it comes to reimbursement. A sports desk editor in Winston-Salem wasn't making the kind of money that afforded a very luxurious lifestyle. For someone who loves playing golf as much as I do, the playing options were quite limited by costs. That made it a little frustrating having so many daylight hours available to kill (pre-parentood) and so little means to fill them.
But I discovered a great loophole. A pretty nice private club in Clemmons, N.C., called Bermuda Run had 27 holes and a liberal policy for allowing employees to play whatever nine holes was not part of the main 18 in play every day. All you had to do was work as a cart room attendant for at least four eight-hour shifts a week and you could have access to a really nice golf course.
The trade-off, of course, was that a few days a week I was going to bed after 2 a.m. after a shift at the paper then getting up a 5 a.m. to report to the golf course at 6 a.m. After picking the range, I might get just enough time to play 9 holes before heading back to the paper.
I was young. It seemed like a good plan at the time.
Anyway, one of the other great perks of the golf course job was getting to have lunch every day with the other employees in the clubhosue. Many of them were older, having worked at the club for years. Most of them were black women. In a matter of weeks they treated me like part of their family.
Bermuda Run's biggest distinction was that it played host to the renowned Bing Crosby National Pro-Am. The old "clambake" that was made famous from 1937 at Pebble Beach was moved permanently by Crosby's widow, Kathryn, to North Carolina in 1985. It obviously no longer had the luster of its heydey on the Monterey Peninsula, but in the mid-90s it still attracted a pretty respectable cast of B-list "celebrities" every year for a golf tournament and charitable fundraising.
In 1996, the most anticipated guest was not a participant at all. It was a particpant's plus-one.
Stedman Graham was on the tournament guest list, and the minute the tournament roster was released there was an overwhelming buzz about whether his famous "partner" Oprah Winfrey might tag along with him. It became pretty much the constant topic of discussion in the employee lunchroom every day. The women I ate lunch with were more excited about the remote chance they might get to meet their hero then children spying for Santa on Christmas. It was intoxicating.
I was on the work schedule for the first day of the Crosby and was instructed along with the rest of the staff to cater to whatever needs any of the participants might have. As a cart room guy, that meant getting their clubs from their cars and onto carts and making sure they were loaded up with whatever towels, range balls, water or anything else they wanted. Once they were all on the course, our job was to make ourselves scarce until needed.
So I was hanging out under the clubhouse in the cart barn when the first rumble of thunder could be heard in the distance. I immediately moved toward the garage door with a fresh pile of towels awaiting the impending rush of carts from everyone rushing off the course.
But the first person who appeared wasn't in a cart. Hurrying up the hill trying to find cover as the rain started to fall was Oprah.
So I quickly grabbed an umbrella and dry towel and ran out to meet Oprah and escort her up to the clubhouse. It was starting to pour, so the closest cover was the cart barn.
Once out of the rain, I offered her a fresh towel. She glared at me and turned away.
"Is there anything else I can get for you, Ms. Winfrey?" I asked.
She glared at me ... and turned away.
Undaunted, I mentioned that there was a stairwell inside that would take her up to the pro shop if she didn't want to wait out the rain.
She glared at me ... and turned away.
I offered her a drink and another towel.
She glared at me ... a turned away.
Considering that I had earned a college degree, I was able to deduce that Oprah Winfrey did not want to talk to me. What's more, my sharp reasoning instincts told me that she didn't want me to speak to her, either. She was clearly not going to give me a car.
So I backed away into the dark recesses of the cart barn where I clearly belonged. The rain eventually let up enough for Oprah (using the fresh towels and umbrella that I had generously given her) to leave the same way she came. I never saw her again.
But I will never forget that day's lunch with the rest of the clubhouse staff. The women who had been counting the days until Oprah's hoped-for arrival were ready to run her off the property. Similar terse encounters with Oprah had happened throughout the day. The words they used to describe their hero were no longer reverent. It wasn't as though they had found out that Santa Claus wasn't real but that he existed and hated children.
Maybe it was just a bad day. Maybe a little rain brings out the worst in Oprah. Maybe she didn't like the cut of my jib. I don't know.
But people aren't always what they seem, especially famous people on television. Sometimes it's all a facade.
I preferred the Oprah facade that we all saw on TV for 25 years. Now that she's drawn a curtain on that public image, I hope the real Oprah is as generous of spirit to those she meets on the streets as the one who tearfully said goodbye on Wednesday.
If she needed a dry towel to cry on, I would be happy to offer her one.