In Market: Memories of a mentor in a Sunbeam

“Don’t worry about the car getting stolen. No one in their right mind would steal this car.”

Nope, no one would steal it, unless they owned a Ripley’s Believe It or Not museum.

The car was a Sunbeam. It was blue, at least where it wasn’t bleached white or rusted reddish brown, and so tiny you could squeeze it into the minutest of parking spots – if you could find one – on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. It was my aunt’s car. My Aunt Lou Ann, my father’s younger sister. We could squeeze into the car, too, if we held our breath and didn’t chow down on the French fries at the local Roy Rogers.

I had been given the opportunity (sent?) to visit my aunt in the early 1970s. She was one of the many mentors I’ve had over the years. Somehow she put up with this teenaged nephew of hers who seemed to have only the vaguest of plans for the future. Wake up. Drink coffee. Beyond that? Who knows?

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Washington, D.C., was exciting to my teenaged mind and body. The Vietnam War was winding down, Nixon was president, Watergate was heating up and here I was a kid from Fort Worth’s Southside who worked as an assistant taxidermist (that’s another story). I stayed with my aunt just a couple of blocks behind the U.S. Supreme Court. I could walk out around 4 p.m. (it being Eastern Standard Time and all), and watch the evening news correspondents do stand-up reports from the Supreme Court. They stood on these portable wagons to give them a better angle to get the building

My aunt worked in the vice president’s office. Not in the actual White House but next door in this strange building now called the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, which looks like the Crimson Permanent Assurance building in Monty Python’s Meaning of Life film. It was built in something called the French Second Empire style and had more nooks and crannies than a country mailbox.

I soaked it all in, slowly getting the message that there was a world beyond the taxidermy shop. My aunt had a side career as a singer in various churches. She had a powerful soprano voice and so on Wednesday and Sunday nights I would drive her to her gigs around Washington, D.C. The whole time I was finagling the inscrutable street layout of D.C. as she warmed up her vocal cords in the tiny, acoustically challenged Sunbeam.

Sometimes we’d travel to some rather questionable parts of town and I’d voice concerns about our safety. “Who would rob anyone who owned this car?” my aunt would ask. Good point, as I watched limos zip by carrying diplomats sipping champagne.

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I didn’t know it at the time, but I was getting mentored, sponging up advice, learning lessons that have carried me through life. Those experiences that we shared, parking that power-challenged pipsqueak of a car, finding my way around a city designed by drunks, navigating the halls of power, shaped me in ways I can’t explain. How do you get around in this world? Particularly if all you have is a beaten-up Sunbeam? You can, if you put your mind to it. That’s the mentoring I got from my aunt, who had navigated a path from childhood in rural Oklahoma to Fort Worth and then to the corridors of power in D.C.

I do know that once, visiting D.C. again, I asked a girl out around Christmas. “Where are we going?” Knowing she was entranced by powerful people, I said we’d go to a party at the Capitol building. What party? I didn’t know, I just figured there would be a party there.

Somehow I talked our way past the security guard and the fact we had no invite and got into a party in some representative’s office. We had a great time with people we didn’t know. She was impressed.

Later that evening my date said, “You didn’t have an invite to that party did you?”

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No, I answered truthfully and I had my Aunt Lou Ann to thank for it.

Robert Francis is editor of the Fort Worth Business Press.

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