When our son was small, he’d sometimes ask on weekends if “the funny man with orange hair” was going to be on TV. He wasn’t talking about Donald Trump, who had yet to enter national politics, but Bill Geist, the carrot-topped correspondent for “Sunday Morning” on CBS who was known for his sense of humor.
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Geist retired from the program last year, but his new book has brought to mind this Father’s Day a few thoughts about what children can learn from men other than their dads.
“Lake of the Ozarks,” Geist’s quirky memoir of the long-ago summers he worked at his uncle’s Missouri resort, is also a reminder that in spite of his long career in front of the camera, Geist is primarily a writer, and a gifted one at that.
I first learned about Geist in 1987, when I spotted a copy of his second book, “The Zucchini Plague and Other Tales of Suburbia,” tucked beneath the arm of another reporter.
Geist, then a columnist for The New York Times, reveled in offbeat stories. Assigned to cover the New York City Marathon, he went instead to the recliner store, interviewing prone customers who offered testimonials about the dangers of exercise.
Think travel author Bill Bryson by way of Dave Barry, and you’ll have some idea of Geist’s style, which especially brightens my favorite of his books, “Way Off the Road.” It includes his account of a cow chip-throwing contest in Oklahoma and a roadkill cook-off in Kansas.
Geist’s unconventional sensibility sustained his career, but it wasn’t often seen as a plus when he was a boy, he tells readers of “Lake of the Ozarks.”
“As an elementary school student, I sat in the hall a lot,” Geist recalls. “Or the principal’s office. I was made to stay after school to clean erasers with the janitor.”
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Geist writes with affection of his parents, who worked hard to support him and give him a good home. Because he wasn’t as restrained as they were, they had trouble understanding each other. In the summers, he began working at the kitschy vacation lodge operated by his Uncle Ed and Aunt Janet. It was an odd place that attracted equally odd characters.
“The difference was, I liked them that way. And have never stopped,” Geist writes. “It took years — until quite recently, actually — for me to recognize the impact those summers at Lake of the Ozarks had on me. I can now trace the focus of practically my entire career back to this brand of characters and to my admittedly odd attraction to them.”
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Geist’s memoir underscores how important it can be for children to have relationships with adults beyond their parents. Sometimes, those grown-ups can understand a son or daughter in ways a parent can’t.
Those important people don’t have a special day of honor like Father’s Day, but in an ideal world, they would.