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July 13, 2013

CAROL FRIS | A chance encounter

JOHNSTOWN — On July 6, in an effort to beat the heat, my husband, Jack, and I headed over the mountain to Ligonier. A pleasant drive turned into an even more pleasant afternoon.

We had a picnic lunch at an outdoor table with sandwich fixings from the Giant Eagle; enjoyed iced coffee on the patio of the little coffee shop; checked out the used book sale at the library and joyfully watched as a bridal party posed for photos at the gazebo. (I do believe purple is the new popular color for bridesmaids’ gowns.)

As the wedding party was leaving, another young bride and groom came riding by in a horse and buggy, complete with a driver in a black top hat.

Not quite ready to leave Ligonier’s charming town square, we found a shady bench at the side of the gazebo and sat to relax. Suddenly a large white touring bus pulled up and people began streaming out of the bus – women in pretty pastel dresses, men in short-sleeved shirts and summer slacks, children in shorts and tee tops, all quite excited to be there and all heading to the ice cream and coffee shops.

Soon two men, along with two women, walked past our bench, heading for the gazebo, where the men laughed and joked as they stood under the dome waving out to the group. One man had on a flat-topped, straw hat with a red, white and blue band and was dressed in a crisp, white, button-down shirt and khaki slacks. He looked very familiar, as did the other, very tall man. Hmmm … where had I seen these two faces? Curious, Jack went over and asked one of the women who the men were.

Of course – how could I not know? The man in the hat was the famous, Pulitzer Prize-winning author, David McCullough. The taller one was former Wyoming Sen. Alan Simpson, who, we later learned from Mr. McCullough’s son, is a family friend (and who, according to Google, is 6 feet, 7 inches tall).

As the two men came past our bench again, I jumped up and stopped them (enthusiastic, star-struck person that I am) and asked, “Are you really David McCullough?” He laughed and answered that indeed he was.

Jack asked if they were with a tour group and Mr. McCullough, smiling graciously, replied, “Oh, we’re just in the area passing through on our way to my brother’s home for a picnic with friends and family.”

Then, casually and humbly, as though this happens every day, he said, “They’re naming a bridge after me tomorrow in Pittsburgh. It’s my 80th birthday.”

We congratulated him and wished him a happy birthday. He thanked us and reached out to shake Jack’s hand and mine.

And then – I couldn’t help it – I had to mention that we were from Johnstown and how much we enjoyed his books, especially his first, “The Johnstown Flood” (1968). He was genuinely delighted to meet us and thanked us for our praise as he shook our hands again.

Later, as Mr. McCullough stood under a tree eating an ice cream cone, I thought about asking him if he’d take a picture with us. I’m quite sure he wouldn’t have minded, but then I didn’t ask. It was, after all, his family time.

We sat a while longer, feeling as though we were part of the happiness brought to the square by the McCullough and Simpson families.

When the travelers boarded their bus, we walked back to our car, basking in the glow of seeing David McCullough and Sen. Alan Simpson.

As a writer myself and a history buff, this chance encounter on the square in Ligonier will forever be the highlight of summer 2013 – it just may be the highlight of my life. I sure wish I had asked to take that picture.

Carol Fris is a freelance writer living in the West End section of Johnstown.

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