Even the President of the United States Will Say Yes If You Know How to Put It On Him

Monday, May 23, 2011

If you were any damn good at all in Chelsea, Massachusetts, where my father was from, God rest his soul, you had to be able to "put it on him."

You had to be able to clear your throat, open your mouth and ask for something in plain, direct words. With confidence.

And if the person you were addressing tried to ignore you or give you the old sidestep, you had to be able to ask again, only this time louder and not so polite.

Being a product of the Great Depression, my father was obsessed with getting a good deal whenever he bought something. It didn't matter if it was 6:00 p.m. on Christmas Eve, there were only two trees left on the lot, and the nearest lot was six miles away; if the Christmas tree guy wouldn't knock two bucks off the already-reduced price, we were out of there.

My father even had the "moxie," a good Chelsea term that, to ask the man at the donut shop for "donuts with small holes." And he expected us kids to do the same when we were sent into the shop on those days he had worked overtime and his bad leg was acting up.

I think I was maybe 10 years old when I made my first perilous donut pick-up on my own. Returning to the car, I had barely closed the door and handed over the change when he inquired, "Did you get the ones with small holes?"

"Uh," I started to answer.

"You didn't, did you?" he said, giving me that awful you're-a-disappointment stare. "I told you, 'You have to put it on him.' "

Last Wednesday night, May 18, I thought of my father, fondly, while I was attending the Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Boston dinner-fundraiser at the Westin Waterfront. They were honoring the Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, President Emeritus of the University of Notre Dame.

Father Hesburgh, now 94 or thereabouts, couldn't be there because he was recovering from surgery, so he asked the current president of Notre Dame, the Rev. John I. Jenkins, to receive the organization's "Justice and Compassion Award" on his behalf.

Father Jenkins gave a brief, very engaging talk about his distinguished predecessor, who served on a number of Presidential commissions through the years and became friends with every President from Dwight Eisenhower to Bill Clinton.

One day, as Father Jenkins recalled, President Carter called Father Hesburgh to thank him for his good work and to ask if there was anything he could do for him, as an expression of Presidential-quality gratitude.

Father Hesburgh, an aviation buff, didn't hesitate.

"I understand that there is a prototype of a new supersonic fighter jet. I'd like to ride in that plane," Father Jenkins quoted Father Hesburgh as saying.

"You're not even supposed to know about that plane," President Carter replied. "I don't see how I could do that: allow you, a civilian, to go flying around in it."

I doubt that Father Hesburgh ever spent any time in Chelsea, but he knew what to do next.

"Mr. President, you are the commander in chief," he told President Carter. "You can do what you want. The military has to do what you tell them."

Father Jenkins paused for effect, then declared, "Father Hesburgh flew in that plane!"

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