Longtime CBS contributor Andy Rooney died yesterday at age 92. While most will think of him as the cantankerous commentator sitting at his cluttered desk, delivering critiques of modern contrivances, I had a bit of a crush on him.
“Whaaat?,” you might ask, envisioning Rooney’s epically overgrown eyebrows and habitually hangdog expressions. But this was more than 20 years ago, when I was in high school, and his books I was reading then were published in the 1980s. Sure, he was already a senior citizen. But on the book covers he appeared rakish and charmingly disheveled. (Or maybe his quick wit and sharp observations just softened my teenage heart!). I didn’t think of him as a curmudgeon but as a world adventurer whose experiences influenced his thoughts on topics ranging from current affairs to what he ate in the morning.
Though best known for his “60 Minutes” TV commentaries, Rooney also was a syndicated columnist and published several books of essays. He served in the Army during World War II, writing for The Stars and Stripes and working with journalists Ernie Pyle and Walter Cronkite.
As a high school student, I dreamed of working at such a job — having a regular space to fill with my own thoughts and observations. I wrote a column for my high school newspaper, then my college newspapers. Later, when I became a journalist myself, I made career decisions based on whether I’d be able to — or have hope of having — a coveted square of space to host my point of view.
With his characteristic whining delivery, Rooney’s “60 Minutes” bits were easy to lampoon. But I looked forward to the segments to see what topic he would choose and what he would say about it. He knew what he thought about subjects as wide as war and as small as the ingredients printed on a product box. Whether on air or in writing, Rooney conserved words, but always used them effectively. His pieces demonstrated biting wit, sometimes scorching sarcasm and microscopically keen observations.
It is those observations that most influenced me as a writer and as a person. He introduced me to a lens that paid close — very close — attention to the details of life, the tools and products we interact with daily, the sights, sounds and flavors we absorb, the trends and personal quirks we encounter. Small things tell stories, whether as they stand alone or when taken as a collection.
“A writer’s greatest pleasure is revealing to people things they knew but did not know they knew,” Rooney once said. “Or did not realize everyone else knew, too.”
Magnifying those small details tells us something about others, ourselves and our shared world.
Though often annoyed or exasperated in his rants, Rooney also wrote memorably of the small joys of life: the solace of a comfortable chair, the value of silence, the pleasures of a nap, the smell of wood or a freshly pressed shirt.
Reading Rooney was one of those small pleasures, amplified manifold.
Mr. Rooney, in light of my high school crush, I say to you: U R 2 Good 2 Be 4 Gotten.