Editor’s Desk

Column: Who’s on your dinner list?

January 3, 2014 

Rotary International sponsors a lot of amazing programs for young people. One that is of particular interest to me is called Youth Exchange. The program gives high school students the opportunity to spend a school year overseas, living with host families, attending school in their exchange hometowns and soaking up culture in a way no vacationer can ever hope to.

Each year, our Rotary district, which covers 10 counties in north-central North Carolina, sends a group of students overseas and we received a like number from other countries.

Part of the process for students who want to be sponsored by our district to go overseas is an in-person interview with members of our Youth Exchange Committee. My friend Jim Harrington, of Hillsborough, has one question that he asks every applicant: If you could go to dinner with any three or four people, dead or alive, who would you invite?

Jim’s question isn’t original. I’ve seen it in various forms in other situations. But I love when he asks the question, because I really look forward to the answers. They give you a really interesting inight into the person who’s answering the question.

On Monday night in Durham, we interviewed a candidate who thought for a few moments, then answered. He named a soccer player whose name I didn’t recognize. Then he reeled off three more interesting ones: Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Ghandi.

Of the last three, he said would like to learn something about their views of the world and how they thought they could change things.

It’s interesting to hear a teenager thinking in those terms. Like most people who answer that question, he had to think about it for a little bit before he came up with his answer.

When I got home Monday night, I asked my daughter, Pitt, the same question. She answered with surprising quickness and her response caught me off guard.

“Your grandparents and Mom’s grandparents,” she said. “Granny and Pappy and Granddaddy Jarvis and Grandmama Pitt.”

The obvious namesake connection made my grandmother the only one I thought I understood. All four of those people died before she was born, but she’s heard a lot of stories about all of them. I suppose, somehow, my daughter might think getting to know them could give her insight into her parents.

I’ve pondered the question myself and, honestly, I find it a difficult question to answer. The hardest part is narrowing the list to just four. The first list I made had nine people on it: 8 men, 1 woman; 5 dead, 4 still living. Three of them I’ve met. One lives in eastern Wake County. The final cut came down to this: Johnny Bench, Johnny Cash, Mike Ward and George Knuckley.

Bench and Cash have been idols since I was a child. Attracted at first by their names, I grew to appreciate the skill with which each man plied his trade. Bench was a catcher for the great Cincinatti Reds baseball teams of the 1970s and Cash was one of America’s greatest contributions to the world of music.

Ward is a former N.C. Superintendent of Public Instruction, although I first got to know him when he was a school superintendent in Granville County. I would argue that he is one of the great thinkers in North Carolina today.

Knuckley is part of the Kannon family in Wendell.

If you spend much time talking to George, you’ll learn how passionate he is about his hometown – which is my hometown, too – not just because it’s where his family plies its trade, but, I think, because he knows this is the place that nourished him and made him what he has become.

So, who’d be on your list, I wonder? Drop me an email at jwhitfield@newsobserver.com, if you’d like to share.

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