“What has my favorite 101-year-old been thinking about? I glance over at Betty X Davis in the passenger seat of my car. She is sitting ramrod straight and leaning forward, as if eager to get to the Austin SCBWI annual conference. It was her duty to present the Young Writer’s of Merit Award named in her honor. While she was never a large woman, she has become more petit as she has gotten older. But she is still sharp as a tack.
“Doak Walker,” she said. matter of factly.
“Betty, who, pray tell, is Doak Walker and why have you been thinking about him?
“Well, Doak Walker was a pretty famous Texas football player and Harvey was just sure that he was the Walking Man.”
“Wait. What?” Clearly, I had entered midstream of whatever memory she was having.
“The Walking Man contest. Don’t you know the walking Man contest?”
“Never heard of it.”
Betty eyed me and winked. “Well, I suppose you are a bit too young for it.”
“Would you tell me about it?”
“Sure, she said brightly. “It’s a pretty good story.” I settled in to navigating the streets to the conference as she spun the tale.
“Well, every Saturday night, Harvey and I listened to a contest on the radio called the Walking Man contest. I suppose the whole country listened to it. It was a fundraiser for the American Heart Association. At the end of the program, the host, Ralph Edwards, called someone to guess who was the mysterious walking man at the end of the show.”
I was a little confused. “This guy called people out of the blue to guess footsteps?”
“Oh no, no, no…It was a contest to raise money for the American Heart Association. You had to send a dime and a fifteen word slogan about preventing heart disease to an address in Hollywood, California. On the show they’d pick people from the contributions to call. Nobody could guess it. Every week, the prizes were piling on. Motor boat. A Car. Washer. Dryer. A fur Coat. Everyone was crazy for the Walking Man contest.”
Now I was leaning forward as I drove. “So you entered the contest?”
“Oh you know me. I love a word contest. But I knew I couldn’t be a winner. I had five children and the winner would have to go Hollywood. I couldn’t do that so I asked my aunt Florence, my mother’s sister, in Chicago if I could enter her name. She thought that would be just dandy. She was widowed and worked in a department store in Chicago. Florence Hubbard. So I sent in my dime and a slogan. Want to know my slogan?”
“Oh my gosh, yes.”
“’Not even miracle men of science can hang a Number One Killer on a shoestring.’ Pretty good, right?”
Okay, I need to pause in this little story. Are you getting this? A 101-year-old woman is telling me this marvelous story with amazing details. Settle in, friends. There’s more.
“It’s fantastic. So what happened?”
“Did you know that contest of dimes raised the most money ever for the American Heart Association? A million and a half dollars.”
“That’s a lot of dimes.”
“Everybody in America was listening to the Walking Many contest. Like I said, Harvey was certain it was Doak Walker. I didn’t think so. Not enough people knew a Texas football player. But nobody had guessed yet. The prizes were piling up. A sewing machine. A typewriter. Living room and Dining room sets. People were going crazy. Then one Saturday they gave another clue. The walking man played the violin. Terrible. And I knew who it was. I’d heard him play the violin in some show or other and he was awful.”
“Who was it?” By this time we had pulled into the parking lot at the conference hotel and I was searching ‘Walking Man Contest’ on my phone.
She smiled at me. “Now remember, I didn’t enter the contest. It was my aunt, Florence Hubbard. I had children and the winner would have to go on tour with the Walking Man. But I knew who it was. I called Aunt Florence in Chicago and told her who I thought it was.
“But you didn’t know if they would call her?”
“No. we had to wait until the next Saturday night.”
“Were you listening when they called her?”
“We were. She had just gotten home from her job at Carson’s Department store in Chicago. It was raining and cold. When the phone rang, she had just gotten out of the bath and put on a bathrobe. Can you imagine? She picked up the phone and there was Ralph Edwards asking her if she knew who the Walking Man was. We were listening in Texas and she said, ‘Is it Jack Benny?’ ‘Did you say Jack Benny, Mrs. Hubbard?’ ‘Yes, I did.’ ‘You are the winner, Mrs. Florence Hubbard of Chicago, Illinois.’ You never heard such a commotion. The people on the radio were yelling. Dorothy was laughing and saying, ‘Oh my. Oh my.’ Our kids were running all over the house, yelling, ‘We won. We won.’ They, of course, thought we were going to be rich.”
“Oh, heavens no. We had some fun. Do you know Aunt Florence went on tour with Jack Benny for a year and he sent her flowers every year on her birthday until she died? Quite a nice fellow. Terrible violin player but a nice fellow.”
I walked Betty into the conference and helped her take her place at the podium where gave out the Austin SCBWI Betty X Davis Young Writers of Merit Award to the elementary, middle school and high school winners. She looked out at the audience and said with a wry smile, “You know, we all can’t be winners so it’s nice when it happens.”
Yes it is. She would know.
This Friday, November 26, I will visit my dear friend on the occasion of her 106th birthday. She doesn’t recognize me anymore. Hearing aids and masks are a total frustration. She quotes Shakespeare at length and often will shrug her shoulders and say, “Je ne sais pas.” When I tell her I love her, she pauses as if trying to connect my words with whomever I might be. Then she shrugs again. It doesn’t matter who I am. Love is Love is Love.
If you would like to donate to the Austin SCBWI Betty X Davis Young Writers of Merit Award, click here.