It was while I was writing at the newspaper in Morganton, N.C.
If the name of that town doesn’t ring a bell, the name of the legend surely will: Sen. Sam J. Ervin.
The courtly senator came into prominence almost 40 years ago when he was the chairman of the Senate Watergate Committee whose work eventually led to the resignation of President Richard M. Nixon.
My brush with fame came as I was covering a murder trial and, as a courtesy, I asked to meet with the judge to assure him I understood the necessary decorum that I would need to maintain in his courtroom.
That judge was Superior Court Judge Robert C. Ervin, the senator’s grandson.
It’s always a little intimidating meeting a judge with his ceremonial robes on, but he could not have been friendlier or have a better sense of humor.
It didn’t hurt I told him at the age of 11 I sat riveted watching his grandfather during those historic hearings.
“Is that what got you into doing journalism?” he asked.
“It was one of the things,” I replied.
But, I mentioned to him I loved the blunt, Southern way his grandfather spoke and that I actually had a copy of Sen. Sam’s album, “Senator Sam at Home.”
“I knew Granddad had made an album. It was him and a guitar player,” the judge told me. “To tell you the truth, he just thought he could sing.”
We both shared a good laugh because the album indeed proved his point.
With that familiarity, I told him I was from Tennessee and with that came the question.
“How is Howard doing these days?,” he asked. “I haven’t seen him in awhile.”
There was only one Howard he could have been asking someone from Tennessee about — Sen. Howard H. Baker Jr.
I told the judge I hadn’t seen him personally in years, but had seen him on television giving a eulogy for a recently deceased Washington dignitary.
His gait was slowed, a little bent, hair grayer, but that Baker twang and wit were unmistakable.
Baker famously served as Sen. Sam’s vice chairman during those historic days decades ago when our nation’s capital was full of statesmen — a term that is now sadly heard only when one of them passes from the scene.
I met Baker the first time when I was a student at Roane State Community College in Harriman and there is a photograph of the two of us — the U.S. Senate majority leader and Tennessee’s 19-year-old school board member.
I’ve had the good fortune to meet many famous people, but I have to admit that for me meeting Baker was close to meeting Mount Rushmore.
I have no recollection as to what we discussed, but I’ll never forget him taking time from an incredibly busy schedule to have a chat.
And, chat is what Baker did in person.
He didn’t preach or belittle. He didn’t close his ears or his mind.
He was in all respects a Tennessee gentleman.
Upon hearing of his passing, it got me to thinking about the one question that brought him onto the world’s stage.
He sat at that committee table, looked at the embattled White House Counsel John Dean and asked, “What did the president know and when did he know it?”
There it was. Tennessee blunt and to the point.
I wondered how that question could be formed into a eulogy for one of this state’s favorite sons.
“What did Howard Baker know and when did he know it?” I wondered.
For one, he knew the importance of home and roots.
Even when his status made him a player on the world stage, he knew being with his fellow East Tennesseeans was the best lesson on how to handle the world.
He knew the importance of kindness and courtesy — two more prominent Tennessee traits.
It is said the venerable and powerful West Virginia Democratic Sen. Robert Byrd never forgot Baker called him “Robert” and never “Bob.”
He knew a good conversation worked out more than a rock fight and, as one commentator noted, “thrived in an era when Democrats and Republicans often compromised to get things done in Washington.”
He knew how to listen to others, but he knew how to have his say.
“He was as adept at listening to the other guy state their position as he was at articulating his own,” said former President George H.W. Bush.
He understood the “Volunteer Spirit” and showed that when called to serve as either the White House chief of staff under President Reagan or the ambassador to Japan under President George W. Bush.
That is a very short list.
But, what Howard Baker knew was how great the qualities of being a Tennesseean were and what a positive and constructive difference they can make.
He learned it early on and he never forgot it.
It’s a shame many have.