George Plimpton: 1927-2003

Twenty or so years ago, I found a message on my desk. It said: George Plimpton (search) called. I dialed the number -- expecting to hear some prankster -- only to discover George Plimpton had called.

Now, this was a stunning thing. I was an editorial writer at a small paper in Virginia. You probably couldn't find 50 people in the town who knew my name, but somehow, I came to Plimpton's attention.

I can't remember the circumstances surrounding the call. It probably had to do with some hotheaded screed I had dashed out on deadline. What I do remember is this: Plimpton had unbelievable charm. He was warm, witty and welcoming. He made you feel like his best friend. He had the gift of casual and confidential conversation, coupled with the equally special gift of being able to talk easily with any person on Earth. It quickly became obvious why he could get along with everybody from Alex Karras, then a bone-crunching defensive tackle for the Detroit Lions, to the nation's literary and political gentry.

The patrician accent didn't matter a bit: Plimpton made you feel interesting. A couple of days after the first chat, he called again to do something extraordinary -- to check my quotes and make sure he had the context right. These are little things, but they say a lot precisely because they are little things -- motes in a world of experiences and encounters. He took time and care with short quotes from a nobody in a far-off place, whom he would never meet or speak with again. Those two calls were the sum and substance of my time with George Plimpton. But they left a lifelong impression.

Plimpton died suddenly this week, leaving behind a huge mass of work and a larger throng of admirers. Among the those is a broadcaster who, as a cub reporter, learned from a very big star that the secrets to true success in this business are never to act like a big star, never assume you know as much as you can or should and never to forget the importance of acknowledging other people's dignity -- and need for dignity.