By Dan Miller
April 27, 2007
Surprising because Irving was usually standing or walking.... creating a magnetic presence in whatever room he occupied.
I thought about the last time Irving and I had lunch, and how the young woman serving us -- probably in her 20s -- seemed so utterly charmed by the humor and powerful personality of this man in his 90s.
Surprising because, here was a man who -- in his 80s -- had traveled around the world in 11 days.... and had gone off-road biking in Canada.
And though the death of Jean -- his beloved wife of 70 years -- had taken an obvious emotional toll during his final year, his strength and stamina seemed inexhaustible.
But just days ago, in that hospice room -- with his eyesight betraying him -- Irving's once booming voice strained to be heard.
There was still laughter, coming mostly as a slight movement in his chest, and a hint of a sound.
And his mind was still inquisitive and clever.
As I sat with him, I talked about the first time I met him, 38 years ago.
At that time, he was president and general manager of the WSM radio and television empire.
It was a warm Saturday afternoon in April 1969, and I had just flown to Nashville from South Carolina.... my first time ever on a commercial flight.
I was escorted into his corner office at the WSM studios on Knob Road.
After a short wait, he walked into the room, looking for all the world like a movie star.... a striking man in his 50s.... dressed in a perfectly fitting yellow golf shirt.... with a giant, modified pompadour of mostly golden hair.... perfect posture.... and a booming voice.
Only much later did I learn that, with only a slight twist of fate, he might have actually been a movie star.
He was an actor early in his career, and had even "read" for the role of Ashley Wilkes when they were casting the movie "Gone With The Wind."
The role ended up going to Leslie Howard, but -- to this day -- I'm not convinced they made the right choice.
"Hello lad, thank you for coming" were the first words he ever said to me.
Over the next 38 years "lad" was mostly what he called me.
But, then again, that's how he addressed most men younger than himself.
It was one of his nice little quirks.
So was his distinctive way of answering the phone.
While most of us say "hello".... Irving would pick up the phone and say, "alright".
If you didn't hear that word, you'd know you had the wrong number.
He watched everything on Channel 4 closely over the years.... even after he had retired from the station.
And he had a little two word mantra to try and inspire us to do better work.
He'd say, "Surprise me!"
Irving didn't like anything on TV to get stale or predictable.... he liked surprises.
He never relied on consultants or researchers to tell him what to do.
He always seemed to know the way things should be, and the rest of us -- consultants included -- would simply have to catch up.
When changes were needed, Irving would make strong, insightful suggestions.... then he'd say "now, surprise me"... and he'd wait to see what happened.
Irving was a visionary, whose career was rich, inspiring, and full of surprises.
He joined WSM radio in 1941, and was the first journalist during World War II to broadcast from Japan as American forces occupied the country.
He led WSM-TV through its early years in the 1950s....
He was almost single handedly responsible for putting the CMA Awards Show on national television....
He's the one who proposed the new Grand Ole Opry House....
He conceptualized and convinced National Life to build Opryland theme park and hotel.
He's responsible for the Friday night Opry, and originated "FanFair" -- now called the CMA Music Festival.
He discovered Huell Howser, John Tesh, Carol Marin, Floyd Kephart, Lamar Alexander and countless other uniquely talented people, and convinced them to come be a part of the Channel 4 family.
When Lamar was elected governor, he recruited Irving to serve as Tennessee's Commissioner of Tourism, which he did -- reluctantly -- for several years.
Irving was not even slightly fond of the political arena.
So last week, here we were again.... in 2007.... another warm April afternoon.
I walked to his bed and asked if he was OK.... was he anxious to leave the hospital?
He said, "I'll be leaving."
After a pause for breath, he added, "I'm ready to go."
I asked him, "So you're OK flying out of here this time?"
"It'll be interesting" he said.
It'll be interesting.
That was so typical of Irving.
Probably hoping God would surprise him with something unique and wonderful!
I was beginning to worry that I might be staying too long in his hospital room, so I said, "Irving, I hope to see you again, but if I don't, thanks for everything".... and I put my hand on his shoulder.
He whispered, "Thank you lad, thanks for coming."
It struck me.... those would be both the first and last words Irving would say to me.
I'm glad we got to visit.
I hope I sorta surprised him.
For me, the big surprise is that Irving died so young.... at 94.