Flying with Ike

–By Mary Furness

I woke up to news of the death of Ike Skelton today. I was startled at first — even shocked. After all, I had seen and talked with him only 10 days ago, under rather unlikely circumstances.

I had planned for a long time to travel to the Washington, DC area to visit family and friends, and leaving out of Kansas City on a non-stop flight was the cheapest and easiest way. An older, somewhat frail gentleman boarding early looked familiar, but in the context of a crowded airport, one can never be really sure. Bumping down the aisle with carry-on bags to a cramped seat in coach, I missed seeing him again, and the idea of catching up on sleep seemed a better use of my time.

Leaving the plane in Washington, I caught sight of the gentleman in First Class, sitting quietly in his seat, a blanket over his lap. A faint bell went off in my head, “Is that….?” But there were people crowding behind me, and I had to keep moving. Just inside the jetway, several wheelchairs waited, each with a hand-lettered sign, and a shiver went over me as that bell clanged louder; one had a sign that read, “Reserved for Ike Skelton”.

I broke ranks and stepped over to the gentleman holding the wheelchair, “Ike Skelton!” I nearly shouted. “Do you know who that is?”

He looked at me, and in heavily accented English said, “No, ma’am…he somebody famous?”

I smiled, realizing how I must have sounded, but pressed on, “He is a Missouri Representative. A Congressman. Retired now — an elder statesman.”

The gentleman’s face lit up, “Oh! I understand!”

I fixed him with a stern but kind eye, “Please! Take very, very good care of him, he is one of our finest people.”

I waited at the security exit, hoping to get a photo, or possibly a quick few words on my recorder, but I didn’t see him. Putting my gear away, I joined the crush of people headed toward the shuttles for rental cars and other ground transportation, and suddenly there he was. No time to grab the camera or recorder, I called out to him, went over, shook his hand, and thanked him for all he had done for Missouri.

When I introduced myself and said I work for Missourinet, he nodded, chuckled quietly, and asked for my name again, as if going through his mental file and to pull out anything we might have said to one another. I mentioned my esteemed News Director Bob Priddy, and he grinned. Then he, his wife, and I chatted for a few moments about Missouri, as well as my beloved hometown of Arlington, Va., where they now make their second home.

I stood for a moment, smiling, and waved as they went through the doors, down the sidewalk and disappeared into the crowd. I thought about that grand old man — a true “gentle man” — who served so long, touched so many people, and yet was so down-to-earth.

Rest in peace, good and faithful sir, and thank you.

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