Columnist: A friend’s back story holds big surprises mixed with some tragedy
Your friends don’t always meet up with you with a biographical sketch in the vest pocket of their sport coat, but if you take the time to discourse with them about their past, you may find something illuminating and interesting, evidence that there is a story everywhere you look and with everybody you meet.
Over the years, there have been many social encounters with Reese Lanier, but I had never taken time to venture into his past. I had found him interesting, knowledgeable and entertaining, but knew little of his personal life.
There were a couple of quail hunts on his farm in Carroll Country. We had taken in a Super Bowl with our sons along with a close friend and his son.
There were dinners here and there and cursory interacting at the mountain house of a mutual friend. I knew that he was a Georgia graduate and that he had married an Athens girl, Mimsie Roberts, but I didn’t know about his friendship with the renowned golfer Arnold Palmer and that his parents had died in an airline disaster in Paris.
That was the 1962 accident which took the lives of 120 people, including many of Atlanta’s cultural and civic leaders — all art aficionados. Known as the Orly Field crash, it left shock waves that still reverberate in northside Atlanta.
It was a chartered Air France flight in the early days of transatlantic jet travel, the passengers returning home from an art tour of Europe. Mayor Ivan Allen subsequently flew to Paris to represent his beloved city at a time of sadness that would not subside for months. Aubrey Morris of WSB went along and filed somber reports for days.
For Reese, whose great, great, great uncle of French descent was Georgia’s poet Laureate Sidney Lanier, the accident came at a most poignant moment. He had graduated from Northside High School the day before the airline disaster and was prepared to lobby his dad, upon returning from Paris, to enter the University of Georgia.
His father wanted Reese to follow in his footsteps and enroll at Vanderbilt. Suddenly and regrettably there was no issue about which campus he would choose.
“Every morning when I woke up,” Reese says. “It hurt. After a while when you are stricken with a tragedy like that, reality hits you in the face. I knew that my parents were never coming home, and I had to get on with my life. I went to Georgia, graduated and then began work with the family business.”
The family business, Lanier Business Products, was very successful, but was overshadowed by firms like IBM, Sony, Dictaphone and Norelco. At the time, Reese thought Lanier needed a spokesman whose name and identity would connect with the public consciousness.
In the early 70s, Lanier’s advertising budget was confined to radio. The company spokespersons were actors Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara.
Reese, who began work with the company after graduating from Georgia, was given the responsibility of advertising. He thought Lanier ought to make a splash that would resonate in the business world which meant ending the relationship with Stiller and Meara, a well-known comedy team.
Reese had given it considerable thought and got the company hierarchy’s attention when he suggested Lanier hire golfer Arnold Palmer as its spokesman. Initially, he had no idea how to contact the golfing great, but soon was in touch with Arnold’s agent Mark McCormack.
Before you could say “fore,” Reese was accompanying Arnie to a commercial taping one Sunday morning, simulating Arnold hitting a powerful drive down Wall Street.
One day, he picked up Arnie at the airport and was driving him to a location in Atlanta. Reese mentioned that he had to stop by Muse’s, Atlanta’s fashionable men’s store, to pick up a suit of clothes.
When they arrived at Muse’s, Arnie said, “Let me go in and get it.”
Entering the exclusive men’s store, Arnold asked for the owner, Gene Morris. With the staff and salesmen giddy with shock and excitement, he was told, “Mr. Morris is at lunch.”
When the proprietor returned and learned what happened, he always remembered the episode “…as the one day in my life I should have skipped lunch.”
With Reese Lanier, there were more lunches with Arnold Palmer than he could count, a reminder that big things can only happen when you think big. And get this, he saved the company $40,000 by firing Stiller and Meara.
His dad would have been proud of his Georgia education after making those deals.