Chicago, February 1986. I was selling men’s shoes at Marshall Field’s Water Tower Place store on Michigan Avenue.
Back then the Trib included Parade magazine in its Friday edition. On the Friday before Valentine’s Day, Leo Buscaglia’s smiling mug adorned the cover of that insert. “Dr. Love,” it announced, his face inside a big red heart.
Like most people, I knew Dr. Buscaglia from his wildly popular appearances on Oprah Winfrey’s show. At the end of each Oprah show the audience would line up for their chance to hug the so-called Hug Doctor. This man carried an aura of love. His excitement about the art of loving was infectious.
I worked the late shift that particular Friday so I didn’t go in until noon or so. Having a little time to kill before then I sat in one of the fast food restaurants in the mall and read the paper, including the article about Leo Buscaglia. It was under my arm when I entered Field’s and made my way through Women’s Accessories toward the elevator.
Next to the elevator was a small candy counter, and who was standing at the counter buying Frango mints but Leo Buscaglia himself!
(Note: I really, really miss Frango mints. RIP Marshall Field & Company.)
To this day I don’t know what came over me. On the occasions in my retail days when I met celebrities I’d ask for an autograph (Sean Connery, Dudley Moore, Tony Bennett, Peter Allen) or not (Oprah, Stedman, Judd Hirsch, Joe Piscopo, George Plimpton), but what happened with Leo Buscaglia surprised me even as it occurred.
I walked up to him and said, “Mr. Buscaglia?”
He was paying for his candy but turned around and acknowledged me.
“I…think I love you.”
He didn’t miss a beat and his face fairly glowed. “I know you do. And I love you!” And he smiled and he hugged me.
I told him that several years earlier, during a really difficult period, my mom had given me a copy of his Living, Loving and Learning, and that I credited the book with helping to save my life. He thanked me and said, “I want you to go give your mom a big hug for me.”
I pulled from under my arm that day’s Parade magazine and told him I’d just been reading it a few minutes before. I don’t remember whether I asked him to sign it or he just took it, but he asked my name and wrote on it, “To Clay, As we continue to share in the joy of love.”
Maybe he’d written that same phrase ten thousand times before but it sure did seem special to me.
We said our good-byes, he collected his Frango mints, and I got on the elevator and went to work. Before clocking in, though, I went to the pay phone back beyond the credit office on the sixth floor and called Mama, who was back home in San Antonio.
I told her about my encounter and that I’d been instructed to give her a hug, but since I couldn’t just then I wanted her to know that I loved her.
She thanked me, we chatted for a minute, and that was that. Or so I thought.
I had no way of knowing that Mama had just come home from a particularly difficult day of teaching Special Ed and was feeling waaaay down in the dumps. My call, it seemed, came just when she needed it the most. So she wrote to Dr. Buscaglia and told him so, and thanked him for prompting me to check in with her.
Dr. Buscaglia wrote her back. I was sifting through some old papers just now and came across his note, dated March 10, 1986, on letterhead with a South Pasadena, CA, address. Here it is, in its entirety:
Thank you so much for writing and sharing your uplifting story with me. Knowing that my work really might be making a difference is a tremendous encouragement.
I’m so pleased that your son got the message: the time to tell someone you love them is NOW. If all of us kept that in mind and acted upon it, what a much more beautiful world this would be.
Continue living in love and sharing your warmth and specialness with the many in need.
Mama of course shared the note with me. She explained about her having that bad day and hearing from me at just the best moment.
So what was I to do but write Dr. Buscaglia myself?
I told him how tickled my mom was to receive his personal reply to her own note. I also reiterated how much I valued the lessons I’d learned from him and his books.
You guessed it. He then wrote back to me.
That letter is around here somewhere and I can’t quote its contents from memory, but the bigger point is that this man walked the walk. He taught in such a friendly way that to love, while not necessarily in as vigorous a manner as he had experienced in his own vibrant Italian family, is a vital part of a fulfilling life.
Leo Buscaglia died in 1998 but I think about him and his lessons often. They would have been just as precious if I’d never laid eyes on the man but that moment at the Frango counter at Marshall Field’s Water Tower was the best celebrity encounter I ever had.