One of the last times I saw Mike Wallace, he was in my rearview mirror, back bent, pushing my car down Washtenaw Avenue in Ann Arbor. He had a huge smile on his face.
I had a look of terror on mine.
It was Spring, 2003, and I was in the midst of an eight-month Knight-Wallace Fellowship program at the University of Michigan. The Knight in the name was the Knight Foundation; the Wallace was the 84-year-old pushing my Mazda Protege.
Wallace had donated millions of dollars to fund the mid-career journalism fellowship program at U-M. I was even more indebted to the man, as that year’s Mike Wallace Investigative Journalism Fellow. It seemed as silly then as it does now to put my name in the same sentence as the grizzled inquisitor from "60 Minutes," but it happened.
I met him in New York shortly after winning the fellowship. He introduced me to several other "60 Minutes" journalists, telling them "this guy knows how to tell a story." What meant more to me, though, was later that day when I asked him for an autograph to take to my father-in-law, who was a huge fan. "Jim," Wallace wrote, "your son-in-law can’t write worth a God-damn!"
That was Mike – always looking for a way to make a story better.
As the official Mike Wallace Fellow, I was responsible for shuttling Mike around town when he came back to his alma mater. On his last trip to Ann Arbor that school year, I picked him up at Detroit-Metro airport for a trip to the home of Knight-Wallace director and long-time Wallace buddy Charles Eisendrath. On the way, he talked about how "pissed off" he was that there was a war going on in Afghanistan and he wasn’t in it. He said he was trying to find a way into the mountains of Afghanistan, and that the Defense Department wasn’t offering any help.
If I make it to 84, I thought, I’ll be complaining that my oatmeal is lumpy. This guy was trying to schlep a camera into a war zone.
At a traffic signal in Ann Arbor, my car stalled. Mike got out to wave traffic around the Mazda. As I fumbled around the dashboard looking for the button for the hazard lights, I felt the car lurch forward. I looked in the rearview mirror, and saw Mike Wallace pushing my car.
Mike Wallace, twice as old as his idiot driver.
Mike Wallace, with a bad heart.
A headline flashed across my brain: "Mike Wallace killed by (now) ex-journalist."
I opened the door to take his place behind the car, and then I saw the smile. With cars rushing past on his left and right, Wallace was grinning from ear to ear.
I shut the door and let him push.
Later, Wallace told people that after the car stalled, I’d turned to him and said "Get out of the God-damn car and push!"
I told people that while he was pushing, I’d said a prayer. "Lord, please don’t let Mike Wallace have a heart attack," I said, "Or if he has a heart attack, can you wait until we get to the top of the hill?"
Neither was true, but that wasn’t really the point. It was a story. And Mike Wallace knew how to make a good story. Even if he had to give it a little push.