“Guess who’s coming to Grand Forks,” my mother said when I answered the phone one January morning in 1998. Before I could ask who, she blurted it out: “Art Linkletter!” Her words transported me back to 1954 and for a moment, I was a fourth grader again. We were the first family on the block to get a television set and I have wonderful memories of gathering around the set after school to watch “Art Link letter’s House Party.”
Art, a television pioneer far ahead of today’s reality programming gurus, tickled his audiences every day by rummaging through the purse of a delighted audience member to see what embarrassing item he would find or giving one of his famous deadpan expressions when a child gave a startling answer in his “kids say the darndest things” segment. My mother thought that Art Linkletter walked on water—my having met him was a seminal achievement in her eyes!
I only met Art because of his wife Lois, one of the warmest most giving people I’ve ever known. I was thrilled when she’d agreed to become a member of the Board of Directors for Children’s Bureau of Los Angeles. I had been the Executive Director there for several years and was in the process of trying to strengthen our Board. Lois rolled up her sleeves and began working on the agency’s future from day one. Though long retired from daily broadcasting, Art’s many talents kept him engaged in writing best selling booking, overseeing international business interests, appearing in television commercials and, occasionally, making public appearances. In no time, Lois also had Art thoroughly involved in working on behalf of the interests of the abused children and troubled families who we served. Over the years I had come to know and treasure them both.
I wondered why in the world Art would want to be in North Dakota in January? “He’s speaking at a fundraiser two weeks from Saturday,” my mother explained. “It’s going to be one of the biggest events we’ve ever seen in these parts and I am determined to go. I wish I could meet him but with so many people attending, I know there’s no chance.”
As soon as I got off the phone, I made reservations to fly home to surprise my mother.
The long flight gave me pause to think about the many special moments that I had shared with Art and Lois over the years. One of my favorites was the time when our newly elected Board President Rusty Doms, an elegant mustachioed gentleman, was introducing Art as the guest speaker at a special event. As part of his introduction he said, “Before I turn the podium over to you Mr. Linkletter, I want to tell you that I was one of the children you interviewed on your TV show many years ago. It is a privilege to meet you as a grownup. I want you to know how grateful we all are for the friendship and support that you and Lois have given Children’s Bureau for so many years.
Without missing a beat when he took the microphone, Art responded, “Thank you, Rusty—and I remember you on House Party. You were the only kid I ever interviewed with a mustache!”
My revelries were interrupted when the flight started to get bumpy. Not surprisingly, I was arriving in Grand Forks in the middle of a January blizzard. I wondered if Art would have had a change of heart in light of the awful weather—something I should have known his legendary mastery of show business would never allow. You never miss a “gig” and you nail it on the first take—a skill I had seen him demonstrate on numerous occasions.
When my mother and I arrived at the dinner, Art was holding court at a table in front of the large room. After we got settled, I took her to meet him. In her typical self-effacing Midwestern style, she protested all the way to the front that he was way too busy to talk to her. The minute he saw me he gave me a warm hug, and then I introduced my mom. Ever gracious, he greeted her warmly, gave her a big hug and thanked her for bringing me into the world.
Following the dinner, Art was introduced, and the minute he opened his mouth, all 1000 people in the room were mesmerized. He started by cracking jokes about freezing his backside whenever he stepped outside.
Then he said, “There is a lovely young lady in the room named Judy.” My mother’s elbow in my ribs nearly knocked me off my chair. “That’s you, she said. “He’s talking about you.”
“If it weren’t for Judy and my wife Lois, tens of thousands of abused children would be living on the streets of Los Angeles. But because of them, those children have a wonderful, safe loving home in the agency Judy runs and where Lois volunteers. And tonight, I got to meet her mother.” There was an audible gasp beside me and another sharp jab in the ribs.
“Now, I know Judy’s mother is a wonderful lady but I have to ask her a question. My dear, weren’t you worried that Judy would freeze to death growing up here?”
The audience exploded with laughter. When I saw Art at our next event, I said, “I want to thank you for your kind words during your speech, especially to my mom. But weren’t you exaggerating just a tad when you said tens of thousands of children?” He looked at me and winked. “You have a lot to learn about show business!”
Luckily for me, Art continued to be an extraordinary mentor and teacher. One of our more interesting adventures occurred several years later when I picked up the phone to hear Art say, “I have to give a speech on abused children in three days and I don’t have time to write it. Will you write it for me?” Almost stuttering, I said, “Well, Art, I can’t say no to you but… “ He interrupted. “No buts. Just get it to me before noon on Wednesday. Thanks!”
At 11 a.m. that Wednesday, I delivered a speech to Art’s secretary. A week later, he called back. “Well, he said, “the speech was a big hit, they loved it.” When I called my mother that evening and told her the story, she had a hard time believing that Art would have entrusted me with such an important task. After we had talked some more, she changed the subject and I thought that she still didn’t quite believe me.
I had forgotten all about it until several months later. My mother’s health had been failing and she had been in and out of the hospital. I had come home to check on her and had only been at the hospital a short time when my mother’s physician entered her room.
“So, I heard you were Art Linkletter’s speech writer,“ he said. “Hardly,” I said, explaining to the doctor that Art had simply asked for my help on one speech because I knew a lot about the subject.
“Not what I heard,” he said. “In fact, the whole town’s been talking about it. Everybody always thought that Art wrote his own speeches and now they learn it’s been you all this time. You’re a celebrity.” Out of the corner of my eye I could see my mother beaming. Apparently, Art had a way of getting grownups, even reserved Scandinavians, to say the darndest things!
The experience that forged my strongest bond with Art and Lois was heart-wrenching but powerful: we all had experienced the death of a child. By the time my only son, Jason died in 1989 at the age of 20, Art and Lois had lost two children. The entire nation mourned the loss of their 20 year old daughter Diane, who leapt to her death from an apartment building while under the influence of drugs. Then several years later they lost their son Robert in a car accident. In the days following my Jason’s death, I received a handwritten note from Lois with words that are still etched on my heart. “More than most, we understand. All our love, Lois and Art.”
In 2007, the unimaginable happened. The Link letter’s son, Jack, who had followed his father’s footsteps into the entertainment world, died of lymphoma at the age of 70. To outlive one child is said to be the worst thing that can happen to a human being. To outlive three? There are no words.
More than most, they understood. But in spite of a soul wrenching that cannot be described, Art and Lois Linkletter gave their extraordinary love to the world—making it a better place for thousands, no make than tens of tens of thousands, of children and adults.
What a gift it was and is to have known them.