In the spring of 1978 I was 21 years old and among only a handful of people less than a certain age who went to see Chet Atkins perform live in Tampa, Fla. An aspiring guitarist, I was well aware of Atkins' unique fingerpicking style and that anyone who knew anything about guitar playing recognized that this man was a musical genius. Although primarily country or "Nashville"-sounding, Atkins, who grew up poor and relatively isolated in the hills of Tennessee, was a consummate guitarist who drew on multiple styles and could offer something for everybody. So though he was of an earlier generation, it didn't matter. All guitarists loved him. A shy youth, he generally let his playing do the talking for him, but later developed a very easy-going and gentlemanly interaction with his audience, which he entertained with self-deprecating and dry-witted storytelling, making everybody feel completely relaxed and at home.
One of his stories went something like this: He had been working feverishly as record producer, recording artist and performer and desperately needed a well-deserved break. So he and his wife determined to take a cruise in a remote location and just get away from it all. He grew a beard and wore a hat most of the time so he could get around incognito. But the lure of performing was too strong, and one night he picked up a guitar and started playing for a small group without really talking or introducing himself. He just kept his head down and picked away quietly.
A few people noticed, but nobody recognized who he was and there was no commotion - which is exactly what Atkins wanted. Afterwards a man came up and shot the breeze for a few moments, and then concluded by saying, "You know something? You're a pretty good guitarist. But you're no Chet Atkins."
There's a similar story involving the late Dr. Jim Edwards, former governor and president of the Medical University. According to the version I heard, he and a lady happened to be in a line or some such and were politely exchanging a few pleasantries. Then she said, "My goodness. You do bear an amazing resemblance to Governor Edwards. Has anybody ever told you that?"
"Why, yes ma'am. I get that all the time."
"And doesn't that just make you want to cry?"
While slightly different, the essence of that story was among the humorous anecdotes related about Dr. Edwards at his recent memorial service. I don't know what I can add to the litany of tributes that have already been paid the governor, and would only agree that he was about as genuine a human being as one could ever hope to find, who, as with Will Rogers, really seemed to like everybody and could take strong contrary positions without establishing any personal differences whatsoever. That was his true gift. No back-slapping, phony pandering, hidden agenda or mean streak - none of that. Just a truly nice person who happened to be a natural born leader.
As an aside, one evening my extended family and I happened to have supper at his and Mrs. Edwards' beautiful house in Mount Pleasant. It was a lovely evening, and I couldn't help but ask what it was like working for Ronald Reagan and what kind of fellow he was behind the scenes. As many others have observed, Reagan was very friendly and engaging but kept a degree of emotional separation from everyone except immediate family - and probably from some of them as well. Very few people really knew the man, but practically everyone liked him.
Sometimes Reagan would get bored during Cabinet meetings and doodle away on napkins and scratch paper, and then push them aside when he was done. Then Energy Secretary Edwards discreetly pocketed a few of the doodles and kept them as curiosities, which he eagerly showed us, and which reveal that Reagan was a decent caricaturist.
It's just one of the many personal and fond memories Dr. Edwards leaves behind for countless people that stand alone from all of his many individual accomplishments.
Edward M. Gilbreth is a Charleston physician. Reach him at edwardgilbreth