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