By John J. Duncan Jr.
You would have to be a senior citizen like me to remember Art Linkletter, but he had a show which ran for 25 years on CBS radio and television, and another that ran for 19 years on NBC radio and television.
On one of his shows, he had a regular segment called “Kids Say the Darndest Things” and later published a book with that title. He would interview small children and get comments from them on everything.
I have sort of a local version because kids have said some very funny things to me over the years. After I presented a flag to the Rogers Creek Elementary School in McMinn County years ago, one of the second-grade teachers asked me to say hello to her class. I had just spoken to the entire student body at the flagpole a few minutes earlier and the teacher said, “Boys and girls, do you remember who this is?” One little fellow raised his hand and in kind of a nervous voice asked, “Are you the man on the nickel?”
My father had a very similar thing happen at an elementary school in Claiborne County. When the teacher asked if they knew who he was, one little boy said “I think it’s Frank Sinatra.”
In my 46-year career as a lawyer, judge and congressman, I had the privilege of speaking about 2,000 times to school groups – roughly half in East Tennessee and half in Washington D.C. Most of the questions I got were serious, but at West Haven School one little boy asked, “Where did you get those ugly shoes?” I was wearing Rockport wingtip dress shoes, and I said “I guess they are ugly, but they’re comfortable.”
At St. Joseph’s School, a first-grade boy asked me “What runs through a camera?” I didn’t know why he asked me that until his teacher later came up to me laughing and said that when the kids were told that I was a congressman this little boy had misunderstood and thought I was a cameraman.
During my first week as a judge in January 1981, I had a class in my court on a field trip. I decided to write all the Knox County social studies teachers and tell them I would be glad to have them bring their students to my court. I ended up with classes there almost every week during the school years.
One boy from Bearden Middle School may have been preparing for the future. He wrote to tell me I was “a very nice man” and added, “If I ever come before you, I hope you will remember I am a pretty good boy most of the time.” He signed his letter “Your friend and pal.”
One man brought his seven-year-old son to meet me, and I took him into the courtroom and let him sit in the judge’s chair and made his dad sit in the defendant’s chair. I told the little boy to decide whether his dad should go to jail. The boy surprised me by asking his father in a stern voice, “Where were you last night?” The dad then said, “Sam, if you put me in jail, I can’t get you any of those Krystal’s you wanted on the way home.” A change of expression came over the boy’s face then, and he said, “Well, I find you unguilty.”
During one of Bill Clinton’s many scandals, an eighth-grade girl at Fort Loudon Middle School asked me in front of 1,000 students if I had ever had an affair. I said, “No, and I bet most of your fathers never have either because it is the same men who do it over and over – repeat offenders.”
I received over 6,000 emails in one weekend during the big bank bailout, and probably well over one million letters and emails during my career. I always appreciated all the thank you notes and letters. But I guess my favorite letter came from a boy who asked if he got two million signatures, would I ban homework. The entire letter is a classic and in my book. He wrote in part: “Many kids these days are very troubled by homework and it can put people in a state in which they can’t recover from. Homework is ruining our lives. I’d recommend you limit it, ban it on Wednesday, or just get rid of it. I’m tired of spending 4 hours a day on homework and 8 hours at school. You might as well extend school.” He and his family were very surprised when I called him from Washington to tell him how impressed I was by his letter.