One of my greatest pleasures as a journalist has been the ability to meet famous people and boyhood heroes throughout my career.
In the 1970s, I traveled in Africa with famed anthropologists Louis and Mary Leakey, and also had the good fortune to have dinner with Haile Selassie, the Emperor of Ethiopia, in his Imperial Palace, in Addis Ababa.
One boyhood hero whom I thought I would never meet was Sir Edmund Hillary, who was the first to scale Mt. Everest with Sherpa Tenzing Norgay in May, 1953. But 12 years ago, in serendipitous fashion, we wound up having lunch together and had quite some fun, too.
Sir Edmund Hillary came into my life in Toronto while I was Chairman of Fund-Raising Activities for UNICEF Canada. He was making one of his sweeps through North America for the UN Children’s Fund and stopped in Toronto for a day to meet UNICEF locals.
We had lunch with a few of the highly dedicated UNICEF staff. Over soup and a sandwich, Sir Edmund admonished me for repeatedly sticking “Sir” in front of his name, and said, “Please, call me Ed.” Which, of course, turned the session into a much more relaxed, productive affair.
As it turns out, “Ed” died this week at the age of 88 in New Zealand, where he lived, and while this website is not about beekeepers or mountaineers, both of which Ed was, it IS about life, what constitutes a healthy one (wine and food, of course!) and the pleasures of the table, which is where I met Ed.
Over lunch at Sutton Place Hotel, I asked Ed if he wouldn’t mind drawing something – to provide us with an autographed image that we could then auction at a forthcoming fund-raising event.
Always chipper and agreeable, Ed said of course, so I ran down the block to Curry’s Art Store to purchase a large artist’s pad and some inky pens and then raced back to lunch.
Ed drew a few simple lines and said “That’s me standing on the top of Everest,” and signed the drawing.
We put Ed’s drawing up for auction at our annual fund-raising event where, I recall, we raised close to $125,000 in one night for UNICEF.
Carol, my wife, knowing how much I revered my lunch with Sir Edmund, placed the tippy-top, Everest-like bid for the auctioned drawing, and won it! The rustic drawing (Ed was a better mountaineer than artist) has hung in my office ever since, a great souvenir of a great man who did a whole lot of great things for mankind as a dedicated philanthropist.
During our time together, I got to ask Ed many questions. He answered all of them with a twinkle in his eye. He was affable, had no airs, no attitude, no ego. Oh that today’s celebrities were as down to Earth as Ed (an ironic expression to use for a guy who had been at the top of the Earth!).
I asked Ed: “What kind of clothing did you wear for your Everest ascent?”
Ed replied: “We climbed a long time ago, long before they invented polyester, nylon or any of the climbing materials that trekkers use today. In fact, I just wore my heaviest wool tweed and a scarf!”
I had one other question, which led to a long, colorful reply.
Me: “Why do I always think of you and (runner) Roger Bannister in the same breath…? I was a child when you scaled Everest, but something in the back of my mind ties you to Bannister who broke the 4-minute mile…?”
Ed: “Funny you should mention Roger because we became good friends after I came down the mountain and before he broke the 4-minute mile (May, 1954).”
“Before Tenzing and I had even started down Everest, the whole world had learned, via radio, of our accomplishment. By the time we reached base camp, we were seemingly world-famous.”
“Immediately, the Queen (of England) radio’d that we were to be knighted and invited us to England for the occasion. By the time we got to London, however, June (Hillary’s wife) and I had been wined and dined and feted in capitals around the world.”
In England, I met Roger (Bannister -- who was a neurologist/academician at Oxford) who asked, ‘Edmund, would you permit me to do some medical tests on you to determine just what it is that you have that gave you the super-human stamina to ascend Everest? I’d like to figure out what physical advantage you have over others.’”
Ed continued: “’I said of course,’ so Bannister proceeded to poke me with needles, took blood, and put me through a series of medical tests.”
“As I say, June and I had just spent a month being wined and dined by world leaders. By the time we met Roger we’d had two fortnights of caviar, excessive amounts of Champagne and mounds of foie gras every day and night to toast our Everest achievement. A few days after Roger conducted his tests, he asked me to come ‘round to his office for the results. Roger looked at me, looked down at my medical record, shook his head and said, ‘Quite frankly Sir Edmund, I’ve analyzed your results forward and backward and can’t, for the life of me, figure out how you ever made it up the mountain. You’re a wreck!’”