Farewell, Andy Rooney

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Longtime “60 Minutes” curmudgeon Andy Rooney died Friday night, exactly one month since his last show. Here’s a piece I wrote on him after a brief “one-on-one” with him in 2003:

TUCSON, Ariz. – On the roof of the Sonoran Ballroom at a cactus-ringed resort, columnists from around the country sipped drinks and shared small talk. The same warm, evening winds that were whipping the Aspen Fire 40 miles east fluttered ties and dresses.

Suddenly, I saw him, the man whose favor I coveted: Andy Rooney.

The “60 Minutes” commentator and 24/7 curmudgeon was surrounded by people. This was a hopeful sign; I was thinking he might slip in, accept the Ernie Pyle Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Society of Newspaper Columnists, then split. And I’d never get my big chance.

Frankly, I was surprised he’d agreed to come; after all, this was the same guy who’d recently chided journalists for giving out too many awards. But, drink in hand, he seemed to be enjoying himself.

From a distance, I clutched my copy of “My War,” his book about reporting for the army’s “Stars and Stripes” newspaper while in France during World War II.

The autograph, I confess, wasn’t my ultimate goal. Though nice, I hoped it might stall him so I could make my pitch: would he consider endorsing a book I’ve written – and due out next spring – about the first World War II nurse to die after the landings at Normandy? Twice I’d written him. No response.

I joined the ring around Rooney and realized just getting to him was going to be hard enough, much less getting time to chat. But suddenly, a group left, and it was just one man telling a Charles Kuralt story to Rooney. And me.

I tried to pretend I was the third part of this conversation – you know, nodding and looking interested even though I wasn’t. Once, Rooney, dressed in a dark suit, nodded at me, which I took as a subtle sign that he’d somehow welcomed me around his campfire.

But I knew I didn’t belong. This was, after all, one of the most recognizable faces on the planet, a man who tells stories about sharing a tent with Ernie Pyle. Author. Columnist. Commentator. And all-around equal-opportunity offender, a guy who’s honked off presidents, gays, blacks, Republicans, Democrats, the French and a truck driver in New York whom he yelled at for littering.

And who was I? Some nobody from Are-Uh-Gawn wearing khakis and a poorly tied basketball tie.

Suddenly, it was just Andy Rooney and me. It was as if the wind stopped blowing.

We shook hands. His eyebrows, I noticed, look even larger in person than on TV, like those cotton ball eyebrows kids glue on their construction-paper Santa Clauses.

He’s a small man, around 5 feet. His cheeks aren’t as rosy without makeup. He walks with a stoop. (Heck, he’s 84; he has a right to.)

I’d considered leading with a quick “ice-breaker” – something like, “You’re right, naps are underrated” – but instead began stammering about my book. About this nurse who wrote a touching letter about the American GI to the same “Stars & Stripes” newspaper for which he had written in 1944 – and then was killed in a field hospital tent the next night.

I showed him a copy of the nurse’s letter as it appeared in “Stars & Stripes.” He looked at it. His brow furrowed. “Yes, yes, I remember this,” he said. “Sure.”

My heart quickened. I’d survived the preliminary heat; now for the finals. “So would you consider reading the galleys and perhaps – ‘

“No,” he said, about as subtly as a belly flop. “I never do endorsements. I get three offers a week, and I turn them all down. Don’t have time.”

He looked at the name on my badge – “want to spell it right” – and wrote in the book: “To Bob Welch. Tucson. Andy Rooney.”

After dinner, I found myself next to him in the dessert line. “Don’t suppose you’ve reconsidered,” I said.

“No,” he assured me.

Later, he gave a light yet crusty acceptance speech. Then, during a transition in the program, he got up and shuffled toward the door. “No offense,” he said to anyone within earshot. And, just like that, he walked into the warm Arizona night.

I smiled to myself. None taken.

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