George Shultz, an embodiment of public service, has died at the age of 100. At different times in different administrations he served as Secretary of State, Secretary of the Treasury, Secretary of Labor and Budget Director.
I had a brief, awkward encounter with him about 20 years ago and in 2014 wrote about it in a newspaper column headlined:
It was just one of those moments; what to do?
Ever been in a socially-awkward situation with no clue on how to proceed?
I was once among a couple dozen people visiting Stanford University’s Hoover Institution where we would meet with George Shultz, one of only two people to serve presidents in four Cabinet positions.
Our group was seated in several rows of chairs, mostly college students. I was long past that age, presumably among those in the group with more social experience and savvy. I stood at the back, off to the side.
Shultz, who was about 80 at the time, entered the room from a door directly in front of the group, properly attired in a suit and tie, befitting a former U.S. secretary of state. He stood behind a desk for a moment, then stepped in front of it to deliver a few comments and field questions.
That’s when I noticed. His fly was open. Not just a little. Enough to demystify the boxers-or-briefs question.
There’s not a man alive who hasn’t forgotten to zip up. But what to do?
It seemed impossible that I was the only person to notice. I looked around the room, hoping there might be a Hoover staffer who would address the situation. I saw none. Nobody else seemed moved to action.
In fact the students, in an exhibition of decorum and dignity, were choosing to ignore the situation, properly focusing on what this senior statesman and economist had to say. Respect ruled the room. But I was distressed.
Should I try to get his attention with the obvious below-the-belt pantomime that would communicate the nature of the crisis? Or would it confuse him? Draw attention to the state of affairs? And if he got the silent message, could he fix the problem without embarrassment?
Then, as I weighed the options, Secretary Shultz — the man who negotiated a Cold War reduction of nuclear forces in Europe, a confidante of President Reagan — moved back behind the desk, sat down and remained there for the rest of the absorbing discussion.
When the session ended, I quickly moved to the front as Shultz stood up. I shook his hand, thanked him for speaking to the students, leaned into his ear and quietly said, “Sir, your fly is open.”
He looked at me, nodded, and artfully, almost clandestinely, remedied the situation.
So far as I know, I’ve never been on the problem side of that equation in an all-eyes-on-me setting. But I do recall a time not long ago when I was thankful a lady advised me of an inelegant situation.
Walking into work outside one of those large buildings housing thousands of employees on the east side of Bloomington, I heard, “Sir … sir.”
I turned. The young woman just behind me, someone I didn’t know, informed me the brand-new khakis I was wearing still had the long, mostly-transparent size sticker on the back.
As I floundered for it, found it and peeled it off, there were a couple giggles around me. I told the lady I was embarrassed but grateful, and expressed chagrin she now knew my waist size.
These days I take solace in counsel for all of us from author Richelle Goodrich: “Relax,” she writes. “The world’s not watching that closely. It’s too busy contemplating itself in the mirror.”