There are certain people, strangers I’ve never met, who have had significant impacts on me. Lucille Ball. Roald Dahl. Alfred Hitchcock. Alice Munro. Andy Rooney. So when I read that Rooney had died, just one month after his last appearance on 60 Minutes, a heavy sadness settled in my bones, for I had grown up with the irascible Rooney and his weekly comments about everything from diets to hangers to the President’s breakfast. I read his weekly newspaper columns and started watching 60 Minutes when I was in high school, and continue to watch it today with my kids, (when the stories interest them). But I never had to persuade them when it came to Rooney; even my youngest, now twelve, has been a fan for the last few years, waiting expectantly for Rooney’s craggy face to fill the screen, for his weekly satirical criticism.
What I loved most about Rooney, was his way of saying what the rest of us were thinking, the way he wrote so clearly, the way he made me laugh and think. Once, in the nineteen eighties, he talked about letter writing in his nationally syndicated newspaper column, and how this “is one of the good things about a civilized society, and it should be encouraged.” He went on to say that he didn’t get five “genuine, personal letters a year.” Today, thirty years later, this topic is even more relevant, as far as I’m concerned. Not only am I an unapologetic collector of stationary and note cards, I still look eagerly in the mail every day for a letter. The Christmas season is the best time of year for this, though the number of cards we receive has been dwindling lately. Letters kept from the past have shown us what life was like, what people were concerned about, what they did for fun, and how our language has evolved. E-mails are so temporary, they hardly seem to exist. By pressing a key, an e-mail can be deleted, lost forever in cyberspace. There won’t be the same record of our lives years from now. I agree with Rooney, who closed his column about letters by stating: “Personal letters should go for a five-cent stamp.”
Being open about his faults was another likeable trait about Rooney, especially when I shared the same defects. One week, he pointed out his poor memory and height. “Being tall and being able to remember things are probably the two most desirable human characteristics I don’t have,” he wrote in his column. Then he went on to say that he finds “people with good memories for names, exact times and dates are dull.” I don’t agree with his assessment of people with good memories; I actually married a man who can recite historical facts with alarming accuracy, and I depend on him to remember important details for both of us. It’s strange, though, how my husband has developed a more selective memory over the years, forgetting to pick up things on his way home from work, yet remembering the entire NFL schedule. But it was Rooney’s words at the end of this column that resonated with me: “When I look back at what I did a long time ago, it’s hard to think of it as me. I see it clearly, but it’s as if someone else was doing it. It’s only my memory of me that’s doing those things. It’s like looking at the water in a river. The river looks the same all the time, but the water is always different.”
Probably the column that affected me more than any other, was his tribute to his high school teacher, Mr. Hahn. “He didn’t do a lot of extra talking, but when he talked he was direct and often brilliant…He was the kind of person who gave teachers the right to be proud to be teachers.” Rooney was deeply affected by Mr. Hahn’s death, and had great remorse for not calling or writing to tell him that, “No one influenced my life more than he did. Now he’s gone and I don’t think I ever told him.” I also had a teacher like Mr. Hahn, my grade eleven English teacher. His name was John Wright and during his classes at Kitchener-Waterloo Collegiate, I developed the most important trait a writer can have—a thick skin. He covered my essays in red pen, devastating me in the process, for I thought I was pretty good. But Mr. Wright taught me that pretty good isn’t good enough, a philosophy I’ve carried around in my head since then, a way of thinking that helped me get through years of rejections. When I found out that my first book, Rachel’s Secret, was getting published, I wrote Mr. Wright a letter and thanked him for being such a good teacher.
When he was sixty, Rooney began to worry about age and the effect it would have on his body and his writing. “I hate it and I constantly inspect my brain and my body for signs of decline,” he said in his weekly column. This is a fear all of us have, judging by the enormous sales of anti-aging creams and the growth of the Botox industry. Like Rooney, I worry more about losing my lucidity than physically deteriorating. As long as I can read, write, and talk to people, I will be happy. Rooney ended up working for thirty-two more years after writing this column. On his last 60 Minutes broadcast, he said, “I wish I could do this forever.” He may not have been able to write forever, but he did what he loved almost right up to the day he died, and he did it well, going out in the same sardonic style that made him a household name. I’ll continue watching 60 Minutes, but as I’ve found already, without Rooney’s last word, it will never be the same.
Shelly Sanders’ first book, Rachel’s Secret, will be published in the spring by Second Story Press. She is represented by HSW Literary Agency.