Saturday, May 14, 2011

52 Weeks of Personal Genealogy and History: Fame

Week 20 Challenge. Fame. Tell us about any local brushes with fame. Were you ever in the newspaper? Why? You may also describe any press mentions of your family members.

This week's challenge for 52 Weeks of Personal Genealogy and History presents an intriguing perspective for me. I can view this challenge from a couple different perspectives: my own 15 minutes of fame as well as my rubbing shoulders with celebrities.

From the time I was able to write, I always fancied myself a writer. To this day, some of my writing is better than others. In elementary school, I was writing my own short stories based on Winnie the Pooh characters and songs based on Alvin and the Chipmunks. It was no surprise that I was drawn to journalism by the time I got into junior high and high school.

I always used to get a kick out of radio announcer Jimmy O'Neill (he was the Ryan Seacrest of his day) who shot to TV stardom at age 24 by landing the job of host on the popular ABC-TV music series, Shindig. In later years, he was a disc jockey/announcer at KOIL in Omaha. He always said that his resume read upside down - meaning most broadcasters start out in local radio then work themselves up to a bigger job over time.

I've often thought the same about myself because the first article I ever wrote was an interview with Peter, Paul and Mary when I was 15 years old. It was published in the national teen magazine, Datebook, and I was paid $25. There was a bit of notoriety about me being published in this particular magazine because this was the magazine that published the famous interview of John Lennon by Maureen Cleave in which he made his controversial comment "the Beatles are more popular than Jesus". 

Mary Travers
Peter, Paul and Mary
Lincoln, 1965
A small article was published in the Lincoln Journal about my article being published in a national magazine. Since the article identified the high school I attended, I received a couple "fan letters" at school. I think I may have become pen pals with those people. I also received a nice letter from Bob Magee of Magee's department store in Lincoln, congratulating me and commenting that it was nice to see a youngster doing something so positive (or something to that effect!). He sent me a gift certificate for $25 to Magee's and I got a long sleeved white sweater with that. As coincidences go in genealogy, the Magee building is where my great grandfather's brother-in-law had his pharmacy business in the 'olden days.'

So - who wouldn't get hooked on fame and celebrity after that sort of attention at age 15? This all happened at the same time as the British Invasion of pop music groups, which is what really impacted my teen years. Armed with my Kodak Instamatic camera, my notepad and pen as well as press passes from Datebook and Teen Screen, I did my best to get backstage at every rock and roll concert that came to town. If I wasn't going to be a celebrity myself, I was definitely going to hang out with them. And what better access than by being a reporter/photographer. It was probably that combination that drew me into journalism school.

With Beach Boy Bruce Johnston, 1968
Instamatic in hand
I think that I met just about every band that came to town. Let me make it perfectly clear, I was not a groupie - I just was not "one of those girls." I probably wanted to be, but it just wasn't in my nature. I've got to say, however, I really felt an emotional connection to the films Almost Famous and The Banger Sisters and Pamela Des Barres' book I'm with the Band: Confessions of a Groupie. Fantasy. Besides, I was a reporter.

Actors Eli Wallach and Anne Jackson
University of Nebraska-Lincoln
circa 1971
I submitted articles to the Lincoln Journal during my high school years and they published my pieces about The Who, Herman's Hermits, The Blues Magoos, and The Rumbles, the Omaha/Council Bluffs band who had quite a bit of regional success and a national hit with Jezebel. The band is still active today, albeit with only one original member. I even became president of their Lincoln fan club, which didn't mean much other than that their manager, Eddy Haddad, always paid for my friends and me to get into their shows and I think he made the guys be nice to me. Mostly, they just tolerated this kid, I think.

Peter Noone
Herman's Hermits
Omaha, 1967
Once in journalism school, I continued to follow the bands, but expanded my interests to journalists and politicians. By the time the 1980s rolled around, I had migrated from pop music to country and entered what I still refer to as The Nashville Years. My annual pilgrimage to Fan Fair in Nashville provided a lot of interaction with famous people. Within my first hour of arriving at my first Fan Fair, I was being interviewed by Ralph Emery on WSM Radio. Why and how? I managed to get next to him while he was interviewing attendees and he asked me what I thought about Fan Fair. Once his TV show, Nashville Now, debuted on The Nashville Network (TNN), I was on as a phone-in caller several times.

Susan with Danny Davis
Lincoln Community Concerts
I parlayed my Nashville contacts into a short stint at writing a newspaper column on country music. My hopes were to syndicate the column throughout Nebraska, but only one newspaper picked it up. But it got me some street cred, published bylines and clippings for my portfolio. Among my more enjoyable interviews were with Ranger Doug Green of Riders in the Sky (I even attended a few parties at his home) and a breakfast interview in Omaha with Danny Davis of the Nashville Brass. He had been a producer for MGM Records in the 60s and was responsible for bringing Herman's Hermits to the label. So not only did we talk about country music, we also talked about the Sixties. He also told me that he and Merv Griffin performed together in the big band days.

with Riders in the Sky
Nashville, 1984
During this same time, I became the volunteer publicity director for the Lincoln Community Concerts Association - another opportunity for me to brush shoulders with entertainers. We produced four or five concerts each year and I was instrumental in securing Louise Mandrell for our 50th anniversary concert/party.

With former Nebraska Governor and Senator Bob Kerrey
the night he announced he was running for President
Omaha, 1991

Things have slowed down quite a bit in recent years. Now I attend lectures and book signings and have been fortunate to meet Doris Kearns Goodwin, historian and author of Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln and Lincoln's own Ted Sorensen, who was JFK's speech writer and author of Counselor: A Life at the Edge of History. And, of course, there are the genealogists I've met like John Philip Colletta, author of They Came in Ships

My thoughts about fame

Even after a life where I've been around a lot of famous people, I am concerned about the celebrity-obsessed society we seem to have become. I totally do not get 1) people who are famous for being famous (Paris Hilton, the Kardashians), 2) why anyone would want to be on a reality TV show or 3) why anyone is interested in celebrity couples. I certainly never sought to be famous myself and up until the time that I started blogging about family history, my internet presence had been under a pseudonym - 17 years of not being me.

I also am distressed about what the journalism field has turned into. I no longer see journalism (particularly broadcast journalism) as having the high standards of obtaining the truth that I was taught. I believe there were two significant events that contributed to the deterioration of journalism. The first was the excellent film, All the President's Men, the story of the two Washington Post reporters who were attributed with exposing Watergate. The second was the introduction of 24-hour cable news channels.

After Watergate, enrollment in journalism schools around the country skyrocketed. Every reporter who had missed out on the story of the century wanted their own Watergate-type legacy. I believe that is what triggered reporters into trying to turn every story into a sensational story. I felt my theory was validated when Robert Redford expressed similar thoughts during a recent interview with Piers Morgan on CNN. (Just because I'm not keen on 24-hour news channels doesn't mean that I don't watch them).

Shortly after Watergate, I sent my resume to The Washington Post. Sorry, not interested. At least I can say that I was turned down by the best in the business. Oh yes, I even met former Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee at a speaking engagement many years ago. He signed his book, Conversations with Kennedy, for me. We share the same birthday, but fortunately, I didn't know it at the time or I would have made some stupid comment about that.

This reminiscence is definitely more about personal history than about genealogy, but it is these experiences that made me who I am - and what brought me into the blogging world. It's been a fun ride.

About 52 Weeks of Personal Genealogy and History: Amy Coffin of We Tree Genealogy has created a third year of blogging prompts for genealogy bloggers. The theme for 2011 i52 Weeks of Personal Genealogy and History

Disclaimer: links to DVDs and books in this post are via my Amazon Associates agreement.


  1. Oh, Susan, I loved reading about your 15 minutes (or more!) of fame and the celebrities you've interviewed and met over the years. The photos are terrific too!

  2. Great sharing of not only your time of history, but also history. I agree with you on your ending points. You are a real cutie. Great pictures.

  3. That was a fun read, Susan. Thanks for sharing! A neat prompt for the 52 weeks, as well. ;-)

  4. Oh boy, I need to read this again. Lots of great stuff Susan. Many thanks.

  5. Enjoyed your post tremendously Susan! Watched Ben Bradlee and Bob Woodward on AHTV over the weekend. Bradlee cracks me up (in his now senior years!). Thanks for sharing!

  6. Thanks to everyone for the nice comments. Glad you enjoyed my trip back in time.

  7. Loved your story. I tracked down Jimmy O'neill not long ago. I have a friend in the music business that keeps up with all of the stars of the era. He's in LA and doing fine! Send me an email addy, I'll find the article and send it to you! Go Huskers!