Surprise Meetups


It is surprising how many times I have met up with famous and semi-famous people in a very casual and unintended way. Several times, I didn’t even know who the people were until they introduced themselves, or someone who had witnessed the encounter told me with whom I’d been chatting.

Meetup No. 1

When I finished high school, I worked as a waitress in the summers in the resort town of Jackson Hole, Wyoming. It was a nice restaurant, right on the main square, and I could earn enough with tips to pay for my two semesters of college. (Mind you … this was a very long time ago.) The movie “The Godfather” had been released in March that year and was a huge success. I’d already read the book when it was published, and so I was very familiar with the plot. One afternoon, I went out to my section of the restaurant, and there was a table of three gentlemen who were clearly not from Wyoming. They were wearing East Coast leather jackets and were definitely not descended from the German-Swiss-Swedish people that had settled that part of western Wyoming. They were, however, delightfully hilarious and charming, and two of them were pestering the one guy opposite them to order the buffalo burger from our menu. They turned to me and asked, “So, what does a buffalo burger taste like anyway, hon?” Well, I replied that it tasted good, actually, a lot like beef. So, they hassled their friend some more, and said he should totally try it! After all, they were in Wyoming!

I took their orders and went back to the kitchen and returned with their drinks. The conversation immediately turned to how cute I was, and would I consider going out with them tonight to dance? They were serious flirts! I was not really interested in a date with them. I’m sure they were at least my dad’s age. I wasn’t even 20 yet! But they were hilarious and were obviously on this vacation for a good time.

Then, one of them said, “Wait, are you one of those good little Mormon girls that work in this town for college money??” I said, “Well, I’m trying to be one of them.” They cracked up and slapped the table! “Then you don’t want to go out with us, sweetie!!”

The conversation took another turn. “Do you know who this is?” One guy pointed across the table to the fellow sitting alone. “This is Mario Puzo.”

And I replied, “Oh, it is not.” Which caused even more hysterics!

“Yes! Yes! It is! Seriously! Here, show her your ID, Mario!” They were so eager to convince me, so I suddenly realized it must be true!

I put up my hand and assured him that I believed them. I mean, why would he say that, if he wasn’t really Mario Puzo? I said I really liked his book. And then he asked if I’d seen the movie yet.

I replied, “Oh, I don’t think I can ever see the movie. I really like horses.”

That brought down the house! They laughed and laughed, and Mr. Puzo slapped the table and said, “She’s not kidding! She has read it! She’s for real!” The three of them were in town for a bit longer, and they came back to the restaurant for lunch each day and asked to be seated in my section. Wouldn’t that have been smart of me to have gone and bought a copy of the book for him to sign? But … I didn’t.

Meetup No. 2

This one happened about 10 years ago. It’s not as much fun as the first one, but still … my obliviousness makes it good. I was flying from Las Vegas to Washington, D.C. We made a stop in Denver and picked up some more passengers, and one of them sat across the aisle from me. He set a book on his tray table that was about President Abraham Lincoln. I’d just listened to a review of the book, and so I pointed to it and asked the man if he’d read much of it yet. He was very engaging, and we chatted a bit about it, and I mentioned that, as a fourth-grade teacher, I always had Abraham Lincoln week and George Washington week, instead of just talking about President’s Day. I was a big fan of Mr. Lincoln. So, he urged me to definitely read this book because it would make me even more an admirer of his presidency and his personality. I thanked him, the flight attendants called for our attention, and we didn’t say anything more during the rest of the flight because we were both engrossed in our reading material. When we landed, the man across the aisle said goodbye and left ahead of me and my seatmate. We had to get our carry-on bags out. As I stood waiting my turn to get my things, the guy who had sat next to me said, “Do you know who that was?” I looked at him and shook my head. “It was John Ashcroft.” Oh. Well, he was a really pleasant conversationalist and quite nice to let me talk to him about my crush on Abe Lincoln. Duh … another clueless encounter with someone I’m sure I should have known.

Meetup No. 3

Three years ago, I took my daughter and her three children on a long-planned trip to Washington, D.C., to be tourists.  She wanted her children to go visit our nation’s capital because it really is a great trip, and Grandma was paying for it! Each summer, we invited the kids to our house for a weeklong “Grandma Camp,” and this was the year that I volunteered to take them (and their mom) to D.C. instead. It was just a coincidence that we happened to go to Arlington Cemetery on the very day that there was a ceremony to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Robert Kennedy. We were leaving the Tomb of the Unknowns following the changing of the guard, and were walking back to the entrance, when we were asked by a young Marine to please stop and wait for a moment at an intersection inside Arlington. (And, of course, when the Marines ask you to do something, you do it.) So we stood back as a group of people exited the Memorial Stadium. The women were wearing heels and nice dresses, the men were in suits or military uniforms — in other words, not tourists. A few black SUVs arrived, and the Marines opened the doors for these people to climb in. We looked at each other wondering what else was happening that day, and just then, about five men walked near us, and one of them glanced over at me.

He paused briefly, then stepped right toward me with his hand extended, saying, “Hello there, Navy Mom. Pleased to meet you. I’m Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus. Which of your children is serving?” I’d forgotten that I was wearing my “Navy Mom” T-shirt that day, in honor of my dad, my husband, and our youngest son, who was active duty at the time.

We shook hands, and I told him that our son was in a boomer submarine, as a sonarman. Secretary Mabus smiled and chatted with me a bit, thanking me for our son’s service, and I told him that it was a family tradition, mentioning my dad and husband. He then stepped back onto the sidewalk and got into the next SUV and was gone. Just like that! I got to brag on my family to the one big cheese in Washington, D.C., who would appreciate it most!

Maybe some of you have had surprise encounters with famous people, or even semi-famous people. I just hope you weren’t as much a weirdo as I was when you did!

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  1. Mark Alexander Coolidge
    Mark Alexander

    A few years ago my wife and I were staying at The Grand Wailea hotel in Maui. We went to the elevator to go down to the beach and a tall, slightly nervous, almost stuttering gentleman appeared at the doors opened and said, “Is this the… ninth floor?”  I said yes it is and he walked out.

    In the elevator I asked my wife, “Do you know who that was? It was Jeff Goldblum.”

    Later on the beach, he arrived nearby with his wife and baby, happily chatting with anyone around as he carried his child and his Olympian wife stretched on the beach.

    In earlier days when my wife executive produced global Apple Macintosh launches, she interviewed Bill Gates for a video and had to tell him to go wash his hair. Those programmers can go days without bathing.

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  2. EHerring Coolidge

    Years ago I was the commander of a radar detachment in Honduras. This meant I socialized with MilGroup and embassy folks. I was invited to one officer’s house for the Army Navy game and a little service rivalry party. A grandfatherly couple arrived and joined us for the game. The wife and I took  turns fanning the food to deter flies as we watched the game and partied. I really enjoyed talking to them but hadn’t seen them before. At the next staff meeting, I asked who they were. Jaws dropped as they looked at me and said, “You didn’t know who that was?” It was President Ascona, the first democratically elected president of Honduras who had finished his term in office not that long before. The host knew him because he had taught his son at one of our service academies. I ran into him at Honduran military events which I attended because of my position. He always made a point after that to come over and speak to me. When the TV crews spotted him and circled in for interviews, I always moved away quickly. I was always in civilian clothes in public for my own safety to avoid publicity.

    A few months later, I boarded a flight in Miami to return to Tegucigalpa after a meeting. As I worked my way through first class to my seat in cattle class. I saw the current president sitting in first class.

    Then Honduras had an election and a new guy was elected president. A senator from Oregon accompanied doctors and nurses to Tegucigalpa to treat children. I took some up the mountain in two of my SUVs which served as their clinic. Families lined up to have their children checked and I translated for them. The senator and his team were invited to meet with the president while in country. The senator asked me to attend.

    I wouldn’t know a famous person if I passed one in the street or airport but then I am not expecting to see one either so I am not on the lookout. I would think book authors would be especially hard to spot.

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  3. Dan Campbell Member
    Dan Campbell

    I live in the Washington, DC area.  In the summer of 2017 I was working as a contractor in Crystal City, which is a very busy area.  It has an underground warren of tunnels that connect the office buildings.  You can walk from near the Pentagon almost to National Airport, all underground.  In the middle is a Metro stop, so commuting workers funnel from both ends to the middle.  Just outside the Metro entrance, there is a Dunkin Donuts.

    I was done for the day and making my way to the Metro through the crowds.  Out of the corner of my eye as I hurried past, I saw a guy perched on a chair back at the Dunkin Donuts.  He looked like he was waiting for someone.  I took a couple more steps, then it hit me.  He looked like James Lileks.  I stopped in mid-stride and turned to him.  “You look just like James Lileks,” I said without even thinking about how stupid that sounded.  He stood up and said, “I am James Lileks.”

    I have been reading The Bleat every day since 1999.  I read it because it is such darned good writing and is a refreshing change from the normal ill-informed twaddle on the interwebs.  And here he was in the flesh.  For me, it was like suddenly meeting Mark Twain.  I blathered a bit about how I’m a big fan and enjoyed his writing.  He let me blather.  We talked a few minutes about the Bleat and what he was doing here (he was in town with his daughter and a visiting exchange student, and had accidently got off at the wrong Metro stop).  I didn’t want to take up too much of his time even though he was just waiting for the girls to come back, so I took my leave and walked off into the crowd with a lighter, happier step.

    I have shaken hands with five Nobel physics laureates and I talked with Jeff Daniels on the set of Gods and Generals on 9/11, but I count that serendipitous meeting with James Lileks as one of the highlight of my life.

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  4. Stad Coolidge

    Cow Girl: Maybe some of  you have had surprise encounters with famous people, or even semi-famous people.

    I was just walking into the RDU airport to catch a plane when I spotted Coach Jim Valvano just standing there.  No one was with him, so I just said, “Hello Coach” and kept on walking.  He smiled and nodded his head.

    One summer in the Navy Reserve, I attended a two-week series of technology symposiums.  On a break, I walked over to this group of other young officers and joined the conversation.  Pretty soon, I realized one of the young women was the astronaut Kathy Sullivan.  I’d met other astronauts at the Johnson Space Center, but Sullivan I believe is better known.

    As a senior in high school, I attended a two-day science fair at which Coach Lou Hotlz was the guest speaker.  He performed a magic act (which was very good) as well as giving us a motivational speech.  I had a chance to briefly chat with him after the speech, but just the “pleasure to meet you” kind of stuff.

    On an NR cruise, I was walking around wearing my Aviator Smokehouse tee shirt with the words “Beer is my friend” on the back.  I heard someone say, “I like your shirt.”  It was former governor Tim Pawlenty.

    On active duty in Norfolk, I got to meet COMSUBLANT (Commander, Submarine Fleet Atlantic) Admiral White several times.  His daughter was married to our Engineer, so it wasn’t unusual for him to just drop in for a chat (which made the crew scramble whenever the topside watch announced, “COMSUBLANT arriving.”  We started calling him “COMSUBDADDY-IN-LAW.  Not to his face, of course . . .

    One of my best friends is married to the older sister of Hollywood director John Shultz.  I got to meet him, but it was under sad circumstances (a funeral).

    The only pro athlete I’ve met and chatted with was Jim Richter, a former center for the NCSU football team, and center for the Buffalo Bills.  We both had the same flight instructor, and his lesson was usually right before or after mine.  He is now a commercial airline pilot, and I don’t fly anymore.

    I won’t bother mentioning all the people I’ve met or had dinner with on the NR cruises (other than Pawlenty).

    Then there was my interview with Admiral Rickover . . .

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  5. Doug Kimball Thatcher
    Doug Kimball

    Back before we were married, my wife delivered singing telegrams for a little company in Boston called “Telebells.”  She was sent to Boston Garden to sing her song and do her little dance for none other than Larry Bird, celebrating his thirtieth.  She told me about it afterward (she was not much of a Celtics or basketball fan) and remarked that he was very nice, gracious and embarrassed and very, very big, not just tall, but a giant.  She was astonished.

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  6. Miffed White Male Member
    Miffed White Male

    Stad (View Comment):
    One summer in the Navy Reserve, I attended a two-week series of technology symposiums.  On a break, I walked over to this group of other young officers and joined the conversation.  Pretty soon, I realized one of the young women was the astronaut Kathy Sullivan.  I’d met other astronauts at the Johnson Space Center, but Sullivan I believe is better known.

    I don’t recall all the details, but had a conversation with my brother in the last few months where he was telling me that a good friend of his from West Point has a brother who was the husband of Columbia crewmember Laurel Clark.


    A few years ago I was in the security line at the airport when I realized Rollie Fingers was about 2 people ahead of me.  I just had a brief chance to say “hi” before he got pulled into a VIP line.  He looked kind of waxy, but his mustache was still fantastic.



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  7. Flicker Coolidge

    I was once one evening sitting in my favorite pub reading the newspaper, and couldn’t help but notice five women to my left alternately occupying three bar stools.  They were casually but well dressed and showed no interest in the pub itself, and talked among themselves as if they were just biding their time.  But I couldn’t help noticing that they were speaking a very strange language.  I thought I heard French words, and yet a few Spanish verb endings, but the overall consonants sounded like Arabic.  After a while I turned to the one closest to me and explained what I thought I was hearing and asked what language they were speaking.  She consulted with the others briefly and she said that they were speaking French, but came from a little town on the French-Spanish border so it was in effect a dialect composed of both French and Spanish; but, no, she said with a mild disapproval, they weren’t speaking any Arabic.  We chatted a little while but since three of the ladies didn’t speak any English, the conversation didn’t last all that long.

    Eventually, the ladies left.  And I realize that my all-time favorite band was playing at the pier just a few blocks away, the Gipsy Kings.  I realized I’d been talking to the wives of the Gipsy Kings.  Nice ladies.

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  8. Doug Watt Moderator
    Doug Watt

    As a police officer I was assigned to the Secret Service Counter Sniper Team on an overnight visit of President George H.W. Bush to Little Beirut aka Portland. Four of us cruised around the streets in marked police cars with a Secret Service agent. Our job would be to investigate any potential threats that rooftop Secret Service snipers spotted on adjoining roof tops, or windows surrounding the hotel housing the President.

    When President Bush called it a night we were assigned to the front door of the hotel. Marlin Fitzwater, the Press Secretary had been out shopping and before he entered the hotel he stopped to talk to the four of us for about half an hour. He asked us about our families, and asked questions about policing in Portland. He had a good sense of humor, and we enjoyed talking with him.

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  9. JoshuaFinch Coolidge

    Living in Los Angeles, you do occasionally rub shoulders with actors. They are known for being crude and selfish (take Alec Baldwin, for example). I even worked for one of them once but learned my lesson. On the plus side, Dolly Parton is a considerate and classy lady, but few if any are like her.

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  10. Terry Mott Member
    Terry Mott

    My “celebrity” day back in the ’90s went like this:

    My wife and I had a vacation scheduled to New England to enjoy the autumn colors.  She discovered that JK Rowling was going to have a book signing in Connecticut the day after we were scheduled to return home, and she convinced me to extend our trip a day and go to the signing.

    So after we “met” JK and got our Harry Potter books (the third one, IIRC) signed that morning, we went into a local grocery store to buy snacks for the road trip back to Boston.  As we were leaving, Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward were going in to the store.

    That evening, checking in to our hotel north of Boston, I passed Alec Baldwin in the hotel lobby.  The blond that was with him was not Kim Basinger, his then-wife.  Probably an assistant or something, right?

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  11. TBA Coolidge

    Cow Girl:

    Maybe some of you have had surprise encounters with famous people, or even semi-famous people. I just hope you weren’t as much a weirdo as I was when you did!

    Nah, not weirdo. 

    You flirted with the famous guy that just wanted to flirt, you talked American history with the guy who was running part of the country – believe me, he was probably happy to think you didn’t know who he was because some people kind of flip a switch when they meet famous people – and you talked duty and honor to someone who knows that those are in shorter supply than they should be. 

    That’s the kind of natural savoir faire that people respond to – that people need in order to feel like…people. 

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  12. kedavis Member

    Dan Campbell (View Comment):
    I have shaken hands with five Nobel physics laureates and I talked with Jeff Daniels on the set of Gods and Generals on 9/11, but I count that serendipitous meeting with James Lileks as one of the highlight of my life.

    As would I.

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  13. Cow Girl Thatcher
    Cow Girl

    JoshuaFinch (View Comment):

    Living in Los Angeles, you do occasionally rub shoulders with actors. They are known for being crude and selfish (take Alec Baldwin, for example). I even worked for one of them once but learned my lesson. On the plus side, Dolly Parton is a considerate and classy lady, but few if any are like her.

    I lived in SoCal during the late 70s through the mid 90s, and during those years, I ended up being on three  TV gameshows. After one appearance, (in which I lost) the producer came to me and another contestant who was also a woman in her early 40s and asked if we lived in the area, and would we be interested in being “contestants” for their production company. We would film pilot shows that they would then shop around to stations for a possible broadcast contract. We would be paid an hourly wage, not winning prizes. It sounded intriguing, so we both agreed. 

    I only made it through one filming. It was a fun gig, mind you—I love game shows and using my brain on puzzles and the competition. But the atmosphere on the set was so sleezy!! I was astonished! The older men who were in charge of the money were being obviously inappropriate with the younger women who were their assistants. There was too much bad language for comfort. Everyone was totally in it to promote themselves and to climb over whoever they needed to in order to get more attention and prestige. Maybe I was just naïve, but during my original college years,  I’d thought of going to Hollywood and try being an actress. That experience working as a professional contestant made me realize how I lucked out getting married and giving birth five times in eight years instead! No, really—my life as a wife and mother was so fulfilling that I know that I made a good choice. And whenever I read about things like Weinstein and other unsavory situations in that world, I count my blessings again. 

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  14. Clifford A. Brown Contributor
    Clifford A. Brown

    This tale of surprising brushes with fame is part of October’s group writing theme: October Surprise. Join in with your own expression of surprise, good or bad, mild or great.

    You are invited to play off of “surprise,” “October,” or both. Stop by today to reserve a day. Interested in Group Writing topics that came before? See the handy compendium of monthly themes. Check out links in the Group Writing Group. You can also join the group to get a notification when a new monthly theme is posted.

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