A Strange Encounter

This story is from Phil Smaby's book, Always A Move Ahead, which he and I completed in 2008. Phil started Bermel-Smaby Realty with Ben Bermel in the 1940s, and it became the largest real estate company in the Twin Cities. Phil was elected president of the National Association of Realtors (NAR) in 1976, the country's bi-centennial year, and president of FIABCI (the International Real Estate Federation) in 1980. 

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A Strange Encounter

In addition to meeting with President Ford and President Carter during my year as president of NAR in 1976, I was fortunate in other years to meet once with President Eisenhower and several times with President George H.W. Bush. I don’t care how sophisticated you are, you get goose bumps when you visit the White House. It’s such an impressive thing to walk into the Oval Office and say, “How do you do, Mr. President.”  It is an unforgettable moment, because you are in the presence of the most powerful man in the world. Yet each president I met came across as the kind of person you would like to join for lunch. This was particularly true of George H.W. Bush. He was just “old shoe.” 

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One of the strangest encounters in my life occurred at the White House in 1960. I was Commodore of the Minneapolis Aquatennial that year. Gail Nygaard, who was Queen of the Lakes, Margaret, and I went to Washington, D.C., to invite President Eisenhower to become the grand marshal of the Aquatennial Parade. (He would decline.) I was dressed in my full Aquatennial regalia, in which I looked like a high-ranking military official. I had more bars and stripes on my uniform than an admiral, and I sported an admiral-like hat. We had hoped to meet Eisenhower, but we weren’t able to do so because he was hosting a foreign dignitary. However, we did visit with Eisenhower’s staff in the oval office. We presented them frozen walleyed pike and some Indian moccasins. We left the White House with Hubert Humphrey, senator from Minnesota. As we walked across the White House lawn, we came upon a Marine general and his entourage. He looked at me in all my regalia and noticed that he was outranked, since I had more stripes. He had no idea who I was; however, I was coming out of the White House accompanied by a senator, so he must have thought I was important. As we passed, the general and his whole crew “hopped to” and saluted. I decided that it was simpler to return the salute than to explain I was a peon commodore of an Aquatennial festival in Minnesota, so I saluted and continued on. If he’s alive today, I’ll bet he is still wondering who I was.

After that encounter, Humphrey took us on to Congress. He escorted Gail into Vice-President Richard Nixon’s office, where she was able to sit at his desk. Then Humphrey said, “Lyndon Johnson (then senator from Texas) and Everett Dirkson (senator from Illinois) are having a big battle in Lyndon’s office. Let’s go in and interrupt them.” So we barged in there and Hubert introduced us. It was a memorable day for all of us, just as 1976 was a year to remember for me as president of NAR.