Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker is my fourth cousin; we share the same great-great-grandparents on my father’s side. I pieced together that branch of the family tree while reading a popular business magazine a few years ago.
But don’t approach me seeking a piece of the Pritzker family fortune, because cousin Jay Robert likely is clueless that I exist.
No, I was not invited to his inaugural ball. And no, I cannot stay free at his family’s Hyatt Hotels. I pay the same rate as everybody else.
We have a few other well-known folks in our lineage.
Composer Arnold Schoenberg was my paternal grandpa’s cousin by marriage. And, guys, those leather toiletry cases that you travel with were invented by Charles Doppelt, another of grandpa’s first cousins, a leather craftsman who came over to America on the boat, like many other Jewish immigrants, needed work and invented the “Dopp Kit.”
On mom’s side of the family, we have businessman and philanthropist Phil Sokolof, mom’s first cousin, who challenged large companies such as McDonald’s in the 1980s and 1990s to fight for heart-healthy foods, turning “cholesterol” into a household word. Perhaps you’ve seen cousin Phil’s commercial during Superbowl XXXIV. You certainly haven’t heard of him, but his work may have saved your life.
During my seven decades, I’ve had various personal encounters with some famous non-family members.
In April 1964, on a family road trip, one of our stays was at a Holiday Inn motel somewhere in Arizona. At breakfast the next morning, sitting right beside the five of us was Col. Harland Sanders, the fried chicken magnate, and Mrs. Sanders.
He was clothed the way we remember him, looking rather dapper in white formal attire, including his signature necktie.
He gave me a booklet of chicken recipes and autographed it. To this day, I’ve never cooked chicken, but I do still treasure this souvenir.
Around 1983, mom and I embarked on an Amtrak trip from Chicago to Boston to visit my brother. And who was sitting beside us in the observation car but South Dakota Democratic Sen. George McGovern.
I’m not sure he was still in office during those Reagan years, but he was on the train with us common folk trying to promote the railroads.
Mom started telling him all about my sister’s recent wedding. Like a good politician, George listened to every detail she shared, expressing great interest. I, on the other hand, embarrassingly just wanted to become invisible.
My father is “almost famous.” In the summer of 1991, living in Chicago and being a longtime Cubs fan, dad had the opportunity to land a role as an extra in the film “A League of Their Own.” He played a coach. This was clearly his moment of glory, and he created a big scrapbook with mementos of his summer on the playing field at Wrigley.
Watch carefully about 20 minutes into the film; you’ll see dad garbed in a 1940s baseball uniform carrying a clipboard and “coaching” the players.
Madonna was in the film and admired dad’s camera, so dad bought her a camera. Of Rosie O’Donnell, dad said “she’s a nice girl.” (That was before her numerous well-documented feuds with other famous people.)
After the opening of the new Champaign Public Library, around 2008, Author Elizabeth Berg came to speak and read from one of her upcoming novels.
For a long time, Berg has been one of my favorite authors. I’d just finished writing my own novella and was trying to decide how to publish and promote it. You can’t imagine what a thrill it was to be standing face to face with Berg, telling her about my novella, and have her suggest ideas for agents and book tours.
Others have had connections to well-known people. A high school friend was pals with one of the guys in the 1960s rock band Strawberry Alarm Clock, who sang “Incense and Peppermints” and other less-memorable ’60s tunes. My friend living outside Burlington, Vt., was neighbors to Ben Cohen, the “Ben” of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream.
Truly, all these people are just like you and me. They need to go for yearly medical and dental checkups, root canal procedures and undergo mammograms, prostate exams and colonoscopies, pass their driver’s license tests if they drive themselves around, get their bills paid, and do regular stuff like all the rest of us do.
Famous people didn’t start out being famous, except perhaps newborns of the British Royal family. Famous people are just like you and me.