“Name-Droppings,” Part 2

A chapter in my forthcoming memoir (second of a trilogy) describes encounters with some famous people I have met during my life as a student, athlete, engineer, academic, entrepreneur, venture capitalist, and author. I hope you enjoyed Part 1, titled “The Blonde-Headed Singer,” and I hope you will like Part 2:
            In the late 1990s, while running the DingmanCenterfor Entrepreneurship at the University of Maryland, I developed a close working relationship with the National Business Incubator Association. Despite the word “National” in its name, the NBIA is an international organization of nearly 2,000 incubator professionals from 60 countries. These managers run facilities – called “incubators” and “accelerators” – which house and help entrepreneurial companies during their startup stages.

            Because of my experience in starting and running companies, managing a center which provided assistance to entrepreneurs, and my positions on several Maryland incubator boards, the NBIA selected me to design and deliver two-and-a-half-day workshops for incubator managers at its semi-annual fall institutes.

            Never being one to turn down an opportunity to earn a handsome consulting fee, I had traveled to Pasadena, California, Birmingham, Alabama, and Omaha, Nebraska, to talk about my favorite subject – entrepreneurship and venture creation. Now, I was in Tennessee, in a Chattanooga hotel, where I had just completed my fourth assignment. We finished at noon, and I was anxious to get to the airport for the trip home.

            I wheeled my suitcase outside the hotel to an awaiting shuttle. After the driver placed my bag in the luggage compartment, I climbed inside the van. I noticed that all the passengers were women, and that the first and second rows were filled. So, I made my way to the rear and took one of the two empty seats, next to the window.

            Despite the fact that the van was nearly full, we were not ready to leave. The driver stood outside, apparently waiting for one more person to fill the only empty seat – the one adjacent to mine. After ten or fifteen minutes, I began to get antsy. There were not many flights out of Chattanooga, and I had to make my connection in Charlotte. I was running out of time. Other passengers were becoming impatient, too, as was clearly discernable from the tone of their quiet conversations. Then, suddenly, discussion ceased as all eyes focused on the reason for our wait. A tiny woman – less than five feet tall, with light brown hair, wearing horn-rim glasses and a dark blue suit – came out of the hotel door, followed by a bellman, lugging a suitcase nearly as large as its owner. The driver helped the lady negotiate the steps with her short legs as she entered the van. She spotted the only vacant seat, made her way to the rear, and sat down next to me.

            “Hello,” I nodded.

            “Hello,” she responded as she made herself comfortable.

            Finally, the driver jumped in behind the wheel, started the engine, threw it into gear, and we were off to the airport. As we made our way out of the hotel area, my neighbor turned to me.

            “So, where are you headed?” she asked in German-accented English.

            “Home. I’m flying to Baltimore,” I said. “How about you?”

            “I’m heading home, too. I live in New York City.”

            After a few moments of silence, she resumed her small talk. I was not anxious to continue because I had noticed that our fellow passengers were turning their heads and listening to our conversation. But, I wanted to be polite and responsive.

            “What were you doing in Chattanooga?” she asked.

            “I was giving a seminar here at the hotel for the past three days,” I answered.

            “Really? I was down here giving seminars, too. Two days ago, I was at DukeUniversity and yesterday, I was at the University of Tennessee,” she explained. “What was the subject of your seminar?”

            “Entrepreneurship,” I said. “I was teaching a bunch of managers of business incubators how to help companies during their startup period. Most of them have never run small companies, so they didn’t understand the difficult issues entrepreneurs face.”

            “Oh,” she said. “I’m a small businesswoman myself. I wish I could have learned from you before I started.”

            Now, I was getting interested and, despite my discomfort brought about by the eavesdropping women in front of us, I wanted to know more.

            “So, what about your seminars? What was the subject?” I asked. As soon as the words left my mouth, I could hear snickering throughout the van, and one woman burst out laughing.

            “What the hell is this all about?” I wondered.

            “Sex,” my neighbor answered. “I’m a psychosexual therapist.”

            Now I seemed to be only one in the van who was not laughing. I was perplexed, embarrassed, and at a loss for words. After a long pause, the woman stuck out her hand.

            “Hi. My name is Ruth Westheimer. What’s yours?”

            I shook hands with Ms. Westheimer and responded: “I’m Charlie Heller. It’s a pleasure to meet you.” Then, suddenly, the fog lifted from my brain. “Are you Dr. Ruth?”

            She laughed and clapped her hands. “Yes, I am. You’ve seen my show?”

            “I’m sorry, I haven’t,” I admitted. “But, I’ve seen you interviewed several times.”

            Now that the air was cleared, our fellow passengers seemed to lose interest in our conversation, and I felt more comfortable. Dr. Ruth was interested in my work at the DingmanCenterand in my entrepreneurial career. When I told her about my passion for skiing, her face lit up.

            “I live for skiing,” she said. “One of the biggest benefits of my fame is that, whenever my husband and I want to go skiing, we have a limousine pick us up at our apartment in Manhattan, drive us to the airport, and a private airplane flies us to Colorado. It’s a tough life.”

            “I envy you,” I said, as I tried to imagine this little wisp of a woman bombing down a mogulled, black-diamond run at Aspen.

            “Where did you learn to ski?” she asked.

            I told her about starting at a very young age in Czechoslovakia, then having my skiing interrupted by the war, resuming again after my family was reunited, then not skiing again for some 15 years because I could not afford it after escaping to the United States. I explained that I was trying to make up for lost time and that my moonlighting career as a skiwriter allowed me to ski all over the U.S. and in Europe.

            “How about you?” I asked, wanting to know not only about her skiing, but about the source of her heavy Germanic accent.

            “I was born in Germany,” she explained. “But, actually, I started skiing in Switzerland.”

            She went on to tell me that she was born in Frankfurta few years before Hitler’s ascent to power. Before the outbreak of the Second World War, her parents sent her to school in Switzerland. The great majority of the students were German Jews and, in the years that followed, the school became their orphanage. Most of the parents, including Ruth’s, perished in the Holocaust. I told Dr. Ruth about my own, and my family’s, travails during the war, and we seemed to bond instantly. After my initial embarrassment over the discovery of her profession, followed by intimidation caused by her celebrity persona, I became totally comfortable in her presence. She seemed to enjoy my company as much as I enjoyed hers.

            “What flight are you taking out of Chattanooga?” she asked as we approached the airport.

            “I’m flying to Charlotte, and I’ll connect there with a flight to Baltimore.,” I said.

            Once again, she clapped her hands and smiled. “That’s perfect. I’m on the flight to Charlotte, too. Let’s sit together.”

            The driver took Ruth’s bag to the curbside check-in and I followed with mine, while Ruth waited in the van. After tipping the driver, she joined me and we entered Chattanooga airport. Immediately, I discovered that I had been the only person in America– or at least in the state of Tennessee– who failed to recognize the famous Dr. Ruth. A guy working the Hertz rental car window literally jumped over the counter and ran up to Dr. Ruth to ask for her autograph. She obliged him and many others, as we made our way, ever so slowly, to the USAirways counter. I upgraded to first class so that I could sit with my new friend, and we began the walk to the gate, with a procession of autograph seekers in our wake. Finally, Ruth put her arm through mine, apologized to her fans, and asked me to walk faster to our airplane. Although I had discovered by now that Dr. Ruth was eight years older than I, I felt as though I was escorting my little sister to school. At six feet and one inch, I towered over her and had to bend down whenever she spoke. I was amazed at the commotion caused by this tiny package of energy walking beside me.

            Finally seated in the comfort of our first-class seats, we had privacy for the first time. Ruth told me how, after the war, she discovered that her family had been wiped out by the Nazis. Alone in the world, she and some friends traveled to Palestine, where she became a devout Zionist. She fought on the side of the Haganah for the independence of Israel and was wounded in battle. She emigrated to the U.S.via Paris, and eventually earned her master’s and doctoral degrees from ColumbiaUniversity. In New York, she married a fellow Jewish refugee and ski enthusiast, Manfred.

            To my great relief, the subject of sex never came up in our conversation. Prior to landing in Charlotte, I told Ruth that my organization, the DingmanCenter for Entrepreneurship, was organizing a national conference for women entrepreneurs, to be held at the University of Maryland the following year. I inquired if she might be interested in being the keynote speaker.

            “I’ll be happy to do it. But, I get a lot of money for speaking,” she said.

            “Ruth, we’re a nonprofit center, part of the university,” I replied. “I’m afraid that we can’t afford to pay very much.”

            She smiled and squeezed my arm: “For you, I’ll do it for free. Just give me the date as soon as you know it.”

            I was ecstatic. We parted in Charlotte, with the promise that we would continue our discussion when we came together in College Park. Sadly, it did not happen. When I returned to the DingmanCenter the next day, I gathered my associate director and assistant director – both of them women, and in charge of organizing the upcoming conference. Excitedly, I told them about Dr. Westheimer’s offer to be keynote speaker – and to do it for nothing. I expected an enthusiastic response. Instead, the two women looked at one another and shook their heads in unison.

            “Dr. Ruth?” said one. “You must be kidding! We’d be a laughing stock. This is a serious conference for serious women entrepreneurs. Do you really think they’d want to hear about sex?”

            “No way,” said her companion.

            I argued, pointing out that Dr. Ruth’s fame would be a drawing card and that she is an entrepreneur in her own right. I got nowhere. Since I had given my colleagues the authority to manage the event, I had no choice but to accept their decision. My last communication with Ruth was a letter in which I lied by explaining that, unbeknownst to me, the organizers of the conference had already engaged a keynote speaker. I thanked her for her kind offer. I was truthful and sincere when I told her that I hoped that we would meet again soon. Unfortunately, that has not happened.

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