I don’t think I’ve ever been popular. But if I had been, I wouldn’t have noticed it, because I walk around with my head in my own little world most of the time, thinking about the last book I read or plotting the next one I plan to write. I liked being a nondescript person in a nondescript world who lurks around the edges of the crowd and just observes everything that’s going on.
That worked well for me, and I spent many years doing it. Then I became a journalist who specialized in feature stories about ordinary people with extraordinary hobbies or experiences. My observations grew into a file box stuffed with stories that had been published in the Central Illinois newspaper where I worked. I had a brush with popularity as readers began to recognize my name. It was unnerving, and I didn’t really I like it.
But it helped qualify me for a job at a Fortune 500 corporation that allowed me to write stories about some extraordinary people with extraordinary jobs or experiences, but stay mostly anonymous. I was known only by my publications, so I could still lurk around the edge of the crowd and observe most of the time. This worked especially well when I was photographing events for my stories, because I was able to get great candid shots. And it was photographing one of those events that taught me a very important lesson about popularity.
I don’t remember where the actual division photographer was that day, but about mid-morning I got a nearly frantic call from the human resources manager. Karl Malone was a huge heavy equipment fan, and he was coming to visit the plant to see how it was made. The entire management team wanted pictures.
For those of you too young to remember Karl Malone or, like me, sports illiterate, he was the second-highest scorer in basketball after Michael Jordan, and held the record for the most free throws attempted and made. They called him “The Mailman” because he always delivered—for the Utah Jazz most of his career in the NBA.
So I walked into a visitors’ center packed with upper management frantic to be sure they had their photo taken with Karl Malone. They were milling around, jostling for position, introducing themselves and explaining their responsibilities in the corporation. So I just stood back and started taking candid shots.
Malone shook the hand of the division vice president and had starting greeting the department heads when he just stopped—and looked directly at me. He left the group of dignitaries and walked over to me, holding out his hand.
Now, if you’ve never stood next to a professional basketball player, you cannot imagine how impressive one can be. Granted, I am barely over five feet tall and accustomed to dancing with my head on the chest of my partner instead of cheek-to-cheek. But if I had danced with Karl Malone, my face would have barely reached his diaphragm—which appeared to be rock hard under his golf shirt. The breadth of his shoulders was at least half my height, and his biceps could have been as big around as my thighs. I had to reach waaaaaaay up to shake his hand, and mine disappeared into his. No wonder those guys can pick up a basketball in one paw. He asked my name and what my job was, and surprisingly, I remembered. Then we lined up the management team like school children waiting for recess and snapped their photos one by one.
I followed Malone and his tour guide around the rest of the day, continuing to take photos for the division newspaper, and I saw him greet several others like he had me—leaving the group of “important” men to approach two women who worked on the assembly line, stopping to speak to a welder, asking one of the test drivers to ride with him while he drove a piece of heavy equipment. Karl Malone was a popular man when he arrived because he was a rich and famous athlete. But by the time he left, he was popular for an entirely different and much better reason.
He was a class act.