Me with James Lee Witt
I think everyone has a few famous folks that they admire – some more rationally than others. I could not imagine crying and passing out for a rock band or a movie star, but there were a few people that I would likely have an out-of-body experience if I were to meet them (e.g., a widely known talk show host that has friends such as Dr. Oz, Gayle King and Nate Berkus – maybe then…).
I have watched many video clips of emotional fans with folks like the Beatles and Elvis, but sobbing uncontrollably and passing out – really? Wouldn’t you want to have your wits somewhat about you in this big moment? It reminds me of the saying on a necklace Cheyenne gave me as a gift, “When you laugh the whole world laughs with you, when you cry your mascara runs.” If I am going to meet someone I admire, even idolize, I don’t want runny mascara – I want to look my best. I may not remember my name, but damn it I still want to look good and smile.
If I had been fortunate enough to have met Gandhi or Dr. Martin Luther King when they were alive I would still be talking about it today. Can you imagine? They were men of great courage and conviction that facilitated great change. Eleanor Roosevelt, although not the stereotypical rock star, is another person I would have cherished the opportunity to meet. I am enamored with those who display strength, determination and character and are focused on creating equity in the world. I am sure I could create a wish list on this front, but I am not sure that any movie stars or rock stars would be on it (well, maybe David Cassidy, but I wouldn’t sob and pass out – I’d ask him what took him so long as I have been waiting for a few dozen years).
There is one person though that I am fairly enamored with that elicits my awe and esteem in a way that goes a bit beyond rational – James Lee Witt. Regular folks don’t likely even recognize his name, but most emergency management folks know him from the days he lead the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). I met James Lee Witt a few years ago and was fortunate enough to get a photo with him. That is the photo above – me and James Lee. I must confess though that I actually dragged my two girlfriends Amy and Dorothy up as well to take a photo with him, but like the true fan I am I long ago cropped out my gal pals so that I could have James Lee all to myself (see the full photo below). I do feel fleeting shame on this front, but this is my rock star experience so the shame is truly fleeting (clearly as I share it herein with absolutely no embarrassment or apologies – I may need to say a few prayers in penance for this later).
James Lee stands as, at least to me, a rock star in the emergency management world. When he led FEMA (during the Clinton administration) he helped push forward some changes in emergency management that shifted the way that we think and operate. He was, indeed still is, a visionary. Add to that the fact that he is a true southern gentleman that is as charming as the day is long and I do begin to feel a tad faint.
In 2007, James Lee came to Grand Forks for the ten year anniversary ceremony of the 1997 flood. I could not go to the ceremony, but one of my former students, John Lester, went and was thoughtful enough to bring me back a program that he had James Lee sign. I was touched by John’s kindness and thrilled with my James Lee memento. It now sits in my office in a place of honor along with my photo of James Lee and me. Over the years students have come to know that I am enamored with James Lee. Some have dubbed my office as the James Lee shrine, but I might suggest that one adoring fan coupled with a photo and signed program hardly create a shrine. He is held in deep reverence though in my office which may garner greater support for their designation.
I would love the opportunity to have a real conversation with James Lee some day. I wish Oprah would have him as a guest so that I could write in and tell her I am his biggest fan and then she could arrange one of those fabulous on-air meetings and conversations where the fan’s lifelong dream is realized. I could see it now, me, James Lee and Oprah…I might faint…but I’ll try and look good doing it.
Day sixty-six of the new forty – obla di obla da