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Dining with Donald Rumsfeld

“You never know who’s in your audience.”

That statement has long been one of my life mottos. And it is so true – we are surrounded by people and opportunities that are unknown until we take action. I am constantly reminded of this when I meet someone at an event, on an airplane, or at some other location. Sometimes, a spontaneous conversation uncovers a mutually shared friend or experience. Other times, these “chance” encounters lead to new business opportunities. And then there are times when you end up with a really cool story to tell.

Last week I had three events in three different cities: Orlando, Houston, Tampa. Because they occurred in that order, I flew to Houston on Tuesday, spoke Wednesday morning at the George Brown Convention Center for my client (Entelec), and headed back to the airport to catch another flight to Florida.

After clearing security, I found myself with an hour to spare before boarding. Great news, as I was famished, having eaten only some bites of cantaloupe that morning.

I grabbed a steak salad from the Mexican restaurant in the food court, and took a seat at the end of a long, community table. Truthfully, I wasn’t really in the mood to talk to anyone, still processing the program I delivered, and changing mental gears for the next leg of the adventure.

After about two minutes, a man in his late 60s-early 70s plopped down his bag and suit coat on the seat across from mine, then sat down in the next chair. He shot me a friendly glance and a nod, then was joined by a younger man who sat immediately to my left, across from the older gentleman. They started eating their burgers. I immediately thought to myself, “Hey, that guy looks just like Donald Rumsfeld.”

But it couldn’t be. Donald Rumsfeld, former Secretary of Defense under both Gerald Ford and George Bush, would not be eating in the Houston airport food court. He’d probably be flying on a private jet, touring the country to promote his new, best selling book, Known and Unknown. So, I didn’t say anything. I just sat and (I must confess) eaves dropped on the conversation. The two talked about their next destination and mentioned something about “when we return to Washington…”

Could it be? Should I say something and risk looking like an idiot, or risk exposing the man when he might prefer to be unrecognized? All these thoughts swirled in my mind. But, at last, I realized that I couldn’t stand not knowing. And I spoke up, saying, “Excuse me, sir. So sorry to interrupt, but I just have to say you look amazingly like Donald Rumsfeld.”

He looked at me, smiled said, “You know, I get that all the time. Because I AM Donald Rumsfeld.”

To that, I responded, “No kidding. Well, Sir, what an honor it is to dine with you today.” He laughed at my reference to our less-than-glamorous surroundings.

We were quickly into a conversation. I thanked him for his service, and for his book. Although I hadn’t read the 800 page tome, I was familiar enough with it to ask some questions.

Then he asked me about my speaking presentations, and my book. Turns out Rumsfeld was a former gymnast, himself, and, in fact a unicyclist! He reminisced about that, and I encouraged him to pick it up again. “At 74, I’m not so sure about that,” he told me. “But Joyce and I just got some new bicycles, and we are enjoying riding together.”

Mostly, the three of us (including the Rumsfeld’s assistant, Brice) talked about life. Rumsfeld liked the idea behind Off Balance On Purpose, and told me that he has compiled throughout his lifetime a list of “Rumsfeld’s Rules,” a 30 page book of quotes and life lessons he lives by and shares with his staff. Brice will be sending me a copy, with his Rumsfeld’s permission to use them however I want in my presentations and books. Pretty cool stuff.

After about 15 minutes, we went our separate ways, to our respective flights. I couldn’t help but smile at the fortuitous encounter. And I can’t help but wonder just how many interesting connections and opportunities go unrealized, because we are not paying attention, or not willing to start a conversation.

I’m glad I looked up from my salad last Wednesday.

  • Now that’s a cool payoff for putting “Off Balance on Purpose” into action! Thanks for reminding me to keep leaning forward.

  • Helen Bowerf says:

    Enjoyed hearing of your conversation with Rumsfeld. Thanks for sharing. Helen

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