I was attending a social gathering with my wife. It was one of those occasions that makes me uncomfortable. I like people and usually enjoy being around them, but I do not like trying to think of something to say while standing in a group of total strangers I had never seen before and would likely never see again.
At this gathering, a woman came up to me, stuck out her right hand and said, “Hi, John. You remember me, don’t you?”
I looked at her more closely. I admit she did look vaguely familiar, but for the life of me, I could not place her.
So, how should I respond to her? I decided honesty was the best policy.
“Well, you do look familiar and I am sure we have met, but I can’t remember when or why,” I said.
“You interviewed me for a story,” she replied.
Well, that comment put me in more of a pickle. While I may have been the author of the only newspaper story written about her, she was just one person in the hundreds — maybe even thousands — of people I have interviewed for stories since I began my career as a professional journalist in 1970.
I can’t imagine how many interviews I have conducted and how many stories and editorials I have written over the years, but someone once estimated if everything I have written were compiled in one volume, it would be more than 40,000 pages.
Don’t worry. I am not about to compile everything I have written and publish it in gigantic book no one would ever read. Shoot, for the last dozen years or so, my wife, children and others have been encouraging me to publish a book of my best columns. I may still do that, but don’t hold your breath. Maybe after I retire.
As the woman and I talked at the gathering, she reminded me of what I had written about her. I remembered it, but not enough to add much to the conversation. I will be honest with you: I have interviewed way too many people and written far too many stories to remember them all. In fact, I am fairly certain I have forgotten 10 times more than I remember.
With that in mind, here is a partial list of my most memorable interviews, by category:
Celebrity interviews: Charlie Daniels wins this category by a landslide.
While the number of celebrity interviews I have done in recent years has been few and far between, when I was Sunday editor if the Clarksville, Tenn., Leaf-Chronicle in the early 1970s, one of my jobs was to edit (and write) a weekly entertainment section.
At that time, Daniels headed a band he admitted in the interview was a countrified version of the Allman Brothers Band. I was unable to get hold of either Daniels or his agent in advance of his concert at Austin Peay State University. I went to the fieldhouse where the concert was scheduled just as Daniels and his band were finishing their sound checks. As he came off the stage, I asked if I could have a few minutes to talk to him.
To my utter surprise, Daniels said sure, introduced me to his wife and the three of us had dinner while he talked about his dreams for the band. I was having such a good time I almost forgot I was working and nearly did not even take notes.
Political interviews: Former Gov. Brereton Jones.
My career has enabled me to interview dozens of political leaders on the state and local levels. Experience has taught me the key to interviewing a candidate is to not let them take control of the interview. If you do, all you will get is a recap of their standard campaign speeches.
I did not even write a story or take notes during my most memorable interview with Brereton Jones, the former Republican legislator in West Virginia who served one term as a Democratic governor in Kentucky before voluntarily returning to relative obscurity as a former governor. In a practice started by Gov. John Y. Brown Jr., Jones would occasionally invite out-of-town journalists for lunch at the Governor’s Mansion in Frankfort.
On this one occasion, I had driven in from Ashland and arrived a little early for the luncheon. I was led into a small sitting room to wait until the others arrived. I had been there for only a few seconds, when Jones came in and sat down beside me on the couch. In what was more like a conversation than an interview, we talked about our families, various issues and our hopes for the state.
I saw a completely different side of Brereton Jones that day. As governor, Jones was often criticized for reserving Sundays for his family. No matter how important the person, Jones would not meet with him or her on a Sunday. In hindsight, I think Jones’ term can be divided into two parts: (1) before the helicopter crash and (2) after the crash.
When the state-owned helicopter was going down, Jones honestly thought he was going to die that day. When he survived that crash, he had an entirely different perspective on life. In short, his political ambitions crashed with the helicopter, but Jones came out of it a better person.
Most memorable interview of all: Piedmont Poindexter.
I have interviewed a lot of great people over the years, but I can remember the four delightful hours I spent with Piedmont Poindexter more than 35 years ago like it was yesterday.
Poindexter was the black sharecropper in the land acquired for the airport in Clarksville. With no more land to farm, he began working at the new airport. He started as a janitor, but over the years had learned to be a gifted and trusted mechanic on the small airplanes that used the airport. He was still doing that when I met him more than 30 years later.
Poindexter was funny, hard-working and a great interview. Although he had little formal schooling, he said some things I found to be quite profound. In fact, he may have been one of the smartest people I have interviewed. In more than 40 years in this business, my half-day with Piedmont Poindexter was a delightful gift I still treasure.
JOHN CANNON can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (606) 326-2649.