Hatcher writes about
his visit with Ben Bradlee

When asked to moderate a one-hour conversation at Elon with Ben Bradlee, I immediately accepted. Bradlee, former editor of The Washington Post during the Watergate era, is one of my journalistic heroes. I was looking forward to spending an hour with him on campus.

As it turned out, I spent a day with him, including an intimate conversation aboard a private jet.

In the weeks leading up to Bradlee's visit, my duties expanded bit by bit. The first alteration came when I was asked to ride with driver Jimmy Graves to Piedmont Triad International Airport on Monday morning to meet Bradlee's plane. This task included my having lunch with Bradlee, President Leo Lambert and Dr. Lambert's wife Laurie at Maynard House. I called my wife, Tricia, to tell her about my good fortune.

Then the word came on the Thursday before his arrival that Bradlee, who is 84, felt he had bitten off more than he could chew, and had decided to cut his visit short. This meant no lunch with the Lamberts (for either of us) on Monday, and no lunch with Dean Paul Parsons prior to his departure on Tuesday. Bradlee would instead arrive Monday afternoon by chartered private jet shortly before the Q&A at 2:45.

Oh, well, I told Trish. At least I would still be doing the Q&A with Bradlee.

Friday morning brought about a third change in plans. I learned that I would be flying on that private jet to Dulles Airport on Monday morning to get Bradlee and fill him in on Elon University during the return trip.

All weekend I read up on Elon stats (what was last year's freshman class average SAT score?), as well as reading articles on Bradlee. Monday came and I met Jimmy in the Long parking lot at 10 a.m., and he drove me out to Causey Aviation in Liberty, across from the former Fran's Front Porch restaurant.

This is the rural airport where my college roommate Charles and I took $20 flying lessons in tiny Cessnas in the late 1970s when we were students at UNC-Greensboro. All I remembered about it was that it had a dirt airstrip. Jimmy assured me that the strip had since been paved.

The two pilots were friendly, and they asked me constantly if I needed anything. The refreshments aboard the eight-seat, twin-engine jet consisted of candy bars, chips, and a small cooler of bottled water.

I took notes and read more Elon statistics during the 53-minute flight. Coming into Dulles, we hit major turbulence. Nearly bouncing out of my seat, I recalled a line from a Garrison Keillor monologue: "Lord, don't be ironical." I had come so far to die now.

The section of the airport in which we landed had no baggage claim, no security, no guards, no check-in. No one made me remove my shoes. Inside was a lounge resembling a comfortable living room, with a gas fireplace burning quietly at one end. Private jets were parked outside the door like Cadillac Escalades at a country club.

Bradlee impressed me immediately. He arrived in a cab, wearing a worn green topcoat. He carried a leather briefcase and a small overnight bag. He had no other luggage. He was open and gregarious, and politely protested when the pilots and I offered to carry his things.

On the flight back, we sat facing each other and talked easily about his wife Sally, his son Quinn, his second home in the Maryland countryside, Art Buchwald, Tom Brokaw, and Elon. He asked me about my family, and he inscribed my copy of his autobiography.

The turbulence returned about a half hour into the flight, and we held tightly to our armrests as we continued our conversation. I kept thinking that if the plane crashed with Bradlee aboard, the obituary would read, "Famed editor Ben Bradlee and others died in a plane crash Monday..."

I had called ahead to George Troxler to have a sandwich waiting for Bradlee in Whitley Auditorium. Jimmy picked us up at the Burlington airport and we arrived back at Elon around 2, giving Bradlee 45 minutes to eat and relax. As we sat in Patti Gross's office, Bradlee repeatedly praised the enormous Aramark turkey sandwich with its generous portions of meat and toppings.

Onstage at Whitley during the Q&A, he was funny, relaxed, slightly vulgar and very charming. Ben Bradlee is always, simply, himself, I thought. Afterward, he posed for photos with students and patiently signed autographs.

An hour before Bradlee's appearance at 6:30 that evening, Paul Parsons told me I was needed to moderate a post-speech question and answer period once more, so I quickly ate and headed over to McCrary. I called Trish on the way there to tell her to find a seat and I would see her in the lobby afterward.

I sat on the front row, expecting Bradlee to talk for about an hour, formally end his speech, and say thank you. During the applause I would casually walk up onstage to ask for questions from the audience.

Unfortunately, Bradlee was having difficulty seeing his notes in the glare of the spotlight, ended his speech abruptly, and declared he would just stop talking and take questions. Friends told me later I ran onstage so quickly it looked as though I was going to tackle him.

After the speech, I walked Bradlee backstage to the green room and sat with him until the president came to escort him to the reception in Moseley. He sipped iced tea and asked me if I thought he rambled too much.

A lone student found her way to the green room and asked him for an autograph. She was so excited to shake his hand she was trembling. He was, as he had been for the past eight hours, gracious.

At the reception, I introduced Bradlee to Trish, and told him she was raised on the Washington Post, having grown up in Northern Virginia. He shook her hand and said, "Your husband has taken good care of me today."

He signed some books for the Elon library, and then he signed a poster announcing his lecture that I placed in front of him.

"For Anthony Hatcher – Thanks for all your kindnesses to me today 2/27/06. Ben."


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