When It’s OK To Be An Idiot

Human resources folks get giddy when you start a new job. Suddenly, their purpose in life is fulfilled — fresh meat to season with all the really important information that will ensure you have the best chance of success at the company! Most of that seasoning is a different jar of the same salt you were sprinkled with at your last career stop… how not to sexually harass someone, how not to accept free baseball tickets in return for favorable coverage, how not to use company technology to engage in human trafficking,

Hip-hip hooray for all of this stuff, all of it and more. Far be it from me to question why a candidate’s proclivity to sexually harass his colleagues isn’t ferreted out in the interview process, but then again, tens of millions of people vote for guys like that every election cycle, so…

What sometimes gets left out of training are things that I would posit are more important… things such as, “Who in the company should I never tell anything personal unless I want it to be put on blast?” and “Here’s why we haven’t yet fired that person you’re going to have to work closely with and a few tips on how to deal with her.”

And then there’s the, “Um, ya know that statue out in front of our building? The one that is mimicked in front of every medical facility we run? Here’s who that is.”

I jest. I do not blame anyone in human resources or in any other department for what happened to me while interviewing Bobbi Jo Wright recently for a story that will be posted whenever we’re finished with our website redesign. I put forward in a recent blog that preparation for interviews is overrated, that sometimes you just need to fly by the seat of your pants and let the story come to you. This is still true. Preparing too much for an interview often pens you in, causing you to miss what the story truly is in favor of the preconceived notion you had before you asked your first prepared question.

But.

Sometimes a lack of preparation will put in a really interesting position 40 minutes into an interview and give you an interesting dilemma: Do I admit that I’m an idiot or can I fake it well enough to try to land this spaceship more smoothly than this:

Keep on keepin’ on, Elon.

How a ‘Meh’ Photo Became Iconic

So let me explain.

The day was June 11, 1970, and Bobbi Jo Wright was at the Hadi Shriners annual picnic at Mesker Park in Evansville, Ind. Little Bobbi Jo, who was born with cerebral palsy and would be treated at the very hospital where I now work for much of her childhood, was excited to be there. Thrilled. But the park had gravel walkways, which did not play nicely with the crutches she needed to get around.

Enter Al Hortford, a Shriner who knew of Bobbi Jo’s struggle because he, himself, had a daughter with a similar condition. In fact, that daughter walked on his left as he scooped Bobbi Jo up to help her get to the next ride.

Meanwhile, a photographer by the name of Randy Dieter had been assigned to take pictures at the event. This wasn’t because the annual Shriners picnic was a major newsmaker in the community. Sure, it was cool and all, but…

No, the reason Randy was there was because his paper, the Courier & Press, had a hole to fill on the front page. I can feel what the city editor felt leading up to that day, realizing that none of the stories he had assigned had any good art potential:

“Nixon names campus panel.” Nope. No art possibilities there.

‘Humphrey launches senate bid.” Nope.

“North Viet troops flee Laotian city.” Maybe, but that’s not a lead story.

Panic sets in.

But then the city editor realizes there is an event with cute kids and guys in funny hats that will surely provide good photo opportunities. Depending on the paper at which I toiled, that type of photo was called a stand-alone photo or “wild art.” I prefer the latter, as it leaves open the possibility the photographer might return with pictures of monkeys or elephants. From a practical standpoint, what it means is that the picture would have only a caption (also called a cutline) and no story to go with it. It was the savior of a newspaper page back when page design mattered more than clicks.

Back to Mesker Park. As Al scooped up little Bobbi Jo, Randy Dieter saw what would make for one helluva photo. Here was this little girl in the arms of a man wearing a funny hat, a guy who held the crutches the girl used to get around. So Randy did what any good photographer would do: He raised his camera to make the shot. (Not “take the shot,” mind you, because photographers will tell you they don’t take photos; they make photos. The difference is subtle, but to them, it’s important, and let’s throw them a bone because most have been fired by failing newspapers who sought to save money by having reporters take their own pictures — and here I do use the word “take” purposefully.)

There was just one problem: Randy’s camera had a telephoto lens on it, and the trio was too close for a telephoto lens. This amazing photograph was walking toward him and the stupid camera had the wrong stupid lens attached. As Randy fiddled with the thing, Al, Bobbi Jo and Al’s daughter, Laura, passed him by.

But then, eureka! Randy found a solution! He waited for the trio to get far enough away, raised his camera, framed the shot, focused and made this:

To be honest, the photo is, well, meh. I mean, were I the city editor, had Randy come back, gone through all the work to develop his film and slapped this down on my desk as his best option to plug that pesky hole on the front page, I would have looked at him and said, “What else ya’ got?”

Surely Randy had other photos that were of kids’ faces, that weren’t so cluttered in the background, that didn’t cut off someone’s left arm. I’d have asked for something that stirred emotion, that made me feel something. This photo never would have made it to print.

And, boy, the World of Shriners and its hospitals would be different.

The city editor did publish the photo. He cropped the daughter out, bringing the vision of the Shriner holding the girl and her crutches into focus. And the next morning, the paper looked like this:

The caption read: “The ‘helping hand’ of Hadi Shrine reached out and sent a group of local crippled children (Blog owner’s note: *Cringe*) to Mesker Park for a day of summer fun and excitement last week. Here one of the Shriners who accompanied the happy group gives a lift to a youngster as she eagerly eyes one of the amusements.”

By more modern standards, this is a hideously designed page. The photo does its job of breaking up the gray, but it’s not a photo that would win any awards.

It did, however, change an organization.

Somehow, for some reason, the photo went viral in an age when that referred only to the tiny things that could kill you. Different groups of Shriners started to use the photo. And then, in 1980, artist Harrison Covington got ahold of it. Not encumbered by a camera with the wrong lens, Covington did what Randy Dieter could not: He sculpted the scene as if the Shriner and Bobbi Jo were walking toward him.

The result?

By the turn of the new millennium, the meh photo had become the defining image of Shriners Hospitals across the country, so much so that, in 2007, as part of a national rebranding, it become the logo.

How I Was a Complete Idiot

Now, back to my interview with Bobbi Jo Wright. The story of how the photo of her and Mr. Hortford became an icon is very, very cool. It’s also a story that’s been told many, many times.

But the truth is this: I was aware of exactly none of this when I arranged to talk with Bobbi Jo based on a response she made to a Facebook post in February asking people to share how our hospital had changed their lives. Had I, oh, say, Googled her name prior to jumping on a Zoom call with her, I likely would have caught that the second and eighth item the search engine returned to me told the story of the photo. Or maybe I wouldn’t have. The first, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh and ninth items on the first page of results make no mention of it.

Would it have made a difference? I’d like to think not. But it might have. If I had learned that Bobbi Jo’s story was one that has been told so often, including via extensive coverage last June because of the photograph’s 40th anniversary, would I have backed out of the interview? After all, the most limited thing this marketing department (read: me) has is time. Hmmm.

But I was oblivious. And I remained that way for the first 40 minutes of the interview as Bobbi Jo laid out the story of her Shriners Hospital journey, detailing the treatment she received and the things she remembered from her long stays here. It was when we landed on her post-college life that she started to talk about all the different places she had visited for statue dedications, about how at one event someone asked if “Al” could lift her and hold her again like he did in the photo.

Were my life a cartoon, a photo of a lightbulb would have appeared over my head. So while Bobbi Jo was talking about a story from one of the statue dedications, I opened a browser window and Googled, “Bobbi Jo Wright Editorial Without Words.” For those of you not wanting to take the time to do the search, let me tell you: It returns 721,000 results in 0.52 seconds. Just about all of them make mention of her relationship to that statue.

So suddenly, I was faced with a dilemma: Do I admit what an ignoramus I was or do I try to gracefully recover and pretend like I knew all along that I was basically speaking to the Babe Ruth of the Shriners Hospital world? No one likes to look like an idiot, even if in that moment they are one, so I did what I do all the time in my interviews: I winged it. I started asking questions about the photo, fully prepared to fess up if she should call me out. Thankfully, Bobbi Jo had grace and let me skate.

We talked for another half-hour, during which time she relayed the details of the photo I shared above. Bobbi Jo is a great interview subject with an amazing story.

But it’s not the story of the photo that I’m going to tell.

Before Al Hortford Carried Her…

Back before Randy Dieter’s photo became Harrison Covington’s sculpture and Shriners Hospitals’ logo, another image came to mean even more to Bobbi Jo. It’s not an image captured by a camera lens or an artist’s interpretation. It’s an image that lives only in her heart and through the words she uses to explain it.

The year was 1973, and Bobbi Jo had returned to her rural Evansville home after a months-long stay at the St. Louis Shriners Hospital. It was hot. Very hot. The family home did not have air condition. Midwest summer humidity is bad enough, but when you add no air conditioning and a body cast into the equation, well, you wouldn’t blame Bobbi Jo if she told you she was a bit uncomfortable.

Making matters worse, there was nothing on television. This being the pre-cable age, there were four channels providing entertainment, and during the summer of 1973, all of them were bringing the joy of the Watergate hearings into family rooms across the country.

So imagine Bobbi Jo, her skin sweaty and hot beneath the heavy plaster cast that will not allow her to fully sit up. She’s leaning back while sitting on a jury-rigged garage scooter — the kind meant for car-types who need to get underneath automobiles. Then her brother-in-law Michael shows up. He’s the guy who married the fifth-oldest child in the family, Mary. Bobbi Jo happens to be one of 11 kids, and no, they’re not Catholic.

Michael and Mary live in Fort Knox, Ky. Michael’s 24 and in the Army, and when he gets a chance, he drives up to Evansville on weekends to see Bobbi Jo. He jokes with his Army buddies that he’s going to visit his girlfriend. He’s so convincing that when the buddies are alone with his wife, Mary, they tell her with downcast eyes that her husband is cheating on her with a girl in Evansville. “Oh, that’s just my 8-year-old sister,” Mary replies. Things were different back then.

On this visit, Michael finds an uncomfortable Bobbi Jo sitting on a garage scooter and decides he needs to do something. So he lifts her up, like Al Hortford had done three years earlier except now she weighs much more thanks to the bulky cast. He carries her out to his car and carefully places her in the back seat. They drive across town, the wind rushing through the open windows hot but not that hot. He pulls into the drive-in and finds a spot. The movie is a Western because Michael likes Westerns and, thankful for the opportunity to get out of the house, Bobbi Jo will like Westerns this evening too.

He exits the car, comes around to the back seat and lifts Bobbi Jo once again. This time, the destination is the hood of his car. The windshield is angled perfectly to support Bobbi Jo in her body cast.

And so darkness falls, the hot day fading into a warm evening, as cowboys do what cowboys do on the giant screen. Bobbi Jo remembers feeling safe, happy, grateful to be out of the house, to be doing something, even if that something is similar to what she was doing before, just in a different location.

This is the image that is alive in Bobbi Jo’s heart,, just as much as the one for which she is famous. Bobbi Jo knows, whether it was Al, whether it was the Shriners, whether it was Shriners Hospitals or Michael or any of her other family members, she is where she is today because of people who were there to lift her up. The ability to do that for others is what makes us special — or, at least, should make us special.

Here’s the deal: Everyone has a story. Everyone. That is absolute fact.

Most people? Most people have lots of stories. Not all of them will be immortalized in a statue, but they are stories worth telling nonetheless. Sometimes, if you’re so focused on the one that has already been told, you’ll miss the one that’s waiting to be told.

So yeah, I was an idiot. I didn’t prepare for an interview. Big deal. If by being an idiot I can find the story that’s waiting to be told, that’s a bargain I’m willing to make.

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