Barry Saunders

Saunders: My photograph with Nixon, and the hoopla that followed

It was one of the most fascinating afternoons of my life – last Sunday when I spent a few leisurely hours sitting around the table, watching golf and going through pictures of his remarkable life with Robert Brown.

Mr. Brown, of High Point, has been a confidante and friend of kings and world, civil rights and business leaders. He was an aide to President Nixon. There were, of course, innumerable pictures of the president and him together, conferring, listening, laughing.

The pictures reminded me of the time I, too, had my picture taken with Nixon.

This is the 100 percent, absolutely honest-to-God true story of how a picture of Nixon and me together made me a hero at Leak Street School in Rockingham and got classes suspended for several whole minutes.

While visiting Washington for spring break in 1969, when I was 11, my family and I did all the things tourists do: went to the zoo, ascended the Washington Monument, met the 37th president of the United States and had my picture taken shaking his hand. The newspaper headline read “Local Boy Meets President,” and there was a brief story about the historic meeting.

Who wouldn’t be proud of that? I took the page to school the next week and showed it to Mrs. Robinson, my sixth-grade teacher. She was way more excited than I expected her to be and immediately bounded out of the class to tell other teachers.

Within minutes, the principal, J.C. “Chief” Watkins, was on the intercom telling teachers that classes were being suspended and to bring their students to the auditorium for a special assembly. One of their classmates was going to tell them about his experience with the president.

Uh-oh.

For once, and for about five minutes, I felt like a special student. The teachers fawned and were deferential. They even took me into the teachers’ lounge – a sacred place where no students were ever allowed – and gave me a pack of Nabs and a Tab. They proudly prepped me for my presidential-meeting presentation to the school.

The teachers were so excited that it broke my heart to tell them that I hadn’t actually met the president, that the picture was taken at a Washington wax museum and the Nixon whose hand I was shaking was made of wax.

The newspaper story? A dummy page that anyone with $2 or so could have had printed.

I did confess, though, while sucking down a Tab and watching classmates file past en route to the auditorium.

Don’t look at me like that. Who knew they were going to make such a big deal of one of their less-bright students glad-handing the most powerful man in the world?

I don’t recall exactly what happened after revealing my deceit, because that was probably only the fifth weirdest stunt I’d pulled that year, and the teachers were immune to being shocked by anything I did. I do remember somebody cursing under her breath – the only time I ever heard a Leak Street School teacher curse – and Mrs. Hager looking as though she wanted to take that Tab bottle and deposit it.

Decades later, the memory of that deceit makes me cringe, and I regret that as an adult I never apologized to the teachers and Mr. Watkins.

The most impressive aspect of the incident – and yes, something impressive emerged from it – was how important the teachers and principal thought it was that a student from their school had met the president, and their eagerness to share that experience with the whole school.

Nobody should be proud of lying about meeting the president, but who wouldn’t be proud of attending a school that would’ve made such a big deal of it if you had?

Saunders: 919-836-2811 or bsaunders@newsobserver.com

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