My dinner with Ernie

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Anyone who ever met Ernie Ford knows there was no such thing as a short conversation with the man.

There were just "shorter" ones.

Yet over the years he and I carried on a number of conversations that even though they might have been weeks apart, seemed to pick up in mid-sentence and roll with the topic, whether it was politics, sports, the downtown, the traffic, Greencastle in general, DePauw in particular or my personal favorite -- the state of affairs in our shared profession, journalism.

Over the years my conversations with Ernie would occur in a multitude of locales -- the street corner, in his bookstore or his office (amid the "comforting clutter"), over at City Hall, in the cereal aisle at Kroger or in line at McDonald's. He, generally chomping on some Nicorette, and me, usually caressing my super-sized cup of iced tea. People might pass by, cars might honk, and the world would somehow continue to spin on its axis.

We always parted with the same fanciful notion: That some day, one day soon, we would sit down together over a big, greasy burger and fries or even a couple of cold ones, and hash out the state of the city or the world as only two old newspaper editors might (as I've always said, old newspaper editors all have issues).

But we never did. We were always too busy. Too rushed. Too sure there would always be another time. Another conversation. Another day.

Regrettably, now that will never happen.

I have missed my "My Dinner with Andre" moment with Ernie Ford, and that deeply saddens me.

For as I learned at Sunday afternoon's celebration of his life, just six days short of 71 years, there was much more to Ernie Ford than how I had known him as Society of Professional Journalists director, retired newspaper editor, bookstore owner and Putnam County Playhouse advocate.

Hearing their touchingly funny stories made me jealous of Jack Randall Earles and Bill Wieland and Dave Bohmer and others who got to know an Ernie Ford that most of the rest of us did not.

It brought laughter to my tears as Rev. Wieland told of Ernie calling and saying he had a part for him in "The Sound of Music."

"I need a Nazi," Ernie implored. "A particularly nasty one, and I can't bring myself to ask one of the kids."

So Rev. Bill Wieland became a Nazi. Hopefully one day his Boss will forgive him. Or he can just blame Ernie Ford.

It was also Rev. Wieland who lovingly recalled stopping at Ernie's Fine Print office on occasion just because he "craved a shot of his whimsy for my sanity."

I was equally jealous of Earles, who paired with Ernie to provide the perfect on-stage embodiment of "The Odd Couple."

Earles played Felix Unger, and as he assured Sunday, "Ernie WAS Oscar."

The Putnam County Playhouse veteran recalled a scene in which he, as Felix, left notes for Oscar all over the apartment. One note read, "All out of corn flakes -- F.U."

Ernie's line in response -- maybe a legendary adlib, maybe not -- was nonetheless priceless.

"It took me 10 minuntes to realize F.U. was Felix Unger," he deadpanned.

It took the audience 10 minutes to settle back down, Earles recalled.

"Ernie Ford was an actor, director, popcorn popper, ticket seller, board member and most of all, a teacher," Earles said in admiration.

"One more time," he said, raising his voice to the rafters of the barn theater, "'Oscar, we're out of cornflakes ... Felix Unger!"

That bond will live on for Jack and anyone else who frequents the Playhouse stage.

For me, Ernie Ford was always somewhat of a silent partner in my writing. Knowing he was out there reading the newspaper always inspired me to work a little harder to be creative. Work a little longer to get a few more facts. Strive a little more to make my story or column more than just satisfactory to myself.

In journalism, sometimes it is just simpler to regurgitate what you know and present or post a "just the facts, ma'am" story. I've tried never to do that, knowing the people who might read it expect and deserve more.

That Ernie Ford was among those who might read it always mattered to me. I just wish I had told him how much.

Rest in peace, my friend, rest in peace.