June, 1999

by Roy H. Williams on November 2, 2015

Roy H. Williams · Invisible Heros · November 02, 2015

Pendulum in Action, invisible heroes, James Michener“Is this William Lederer?”

“Yes, it is.”

“Hello, my name’s Roy Williams and I’d like to include the letter you wrote to Admiral David McDonald in a book I’ve written that’s about to go to press. May I have your permission to do that, sir?”

“Where you calling from, son?”

“Austin, Texas.”

“I was in Austin not long ago.”

“I wish I had known, sir. Maybe we could have gotten together.”

“I was there to bury a friend.”

“I’m sorry to hear that, sir.”

“You’d have liked Jim.”

“I’m sure I would have. Now about that letter to Admiral McDonald…”

“Have you got a minute?”

“Certainly, sir.”

“I’d like to tell you about Jim. I’m trying to remember if I ever told this to anyone, and I don’t think I have. But I always meant to.”

“I’m all ears, sir.”

“What was that?”

“I’m listening.”

“Well, I was a journalist and I had written a book. But before I gave it to the publisher, I asked Jim to read the manuscript and tell me what he thought of it.

“What did he tell you?”

“He said, ‘William, you tell this like it’s a true story.’ And I said, ‘But Jim, it is a true story. I was there and I’m a reporter. I’ve got detailed notes. These things actually happened!’ Then Jim told me something I’ll never forget.”

“What did he say?”

“He said, ‘William, the public is more willing to believe fiction than non-fiction. Change the names in your story so that they’re all imaginary and you’ll find people will be a lot more willing to hear what you’re trying to tell them.’”

“Did you do it?”

“Yes, I did.”

Here’s what I learned after I hung up the phone: Shortly after William Lederer’s book was released, a young senator named John F. Kennedy bought a copy for every member of the United States Senate. Historians today believe Lederer’s little book did more to change American foreign policy than any document since the Declaration of Independence. Then on October 14, 1960, after completing his third debate with Nixon, JFK flew to Ann Arbor, Michigan, where he found 10,000 university students waiting for him at 2 o’clock in the morning. With a copy of Lederer’s book in his pocket, Kennedy climbed the steps of the student union building and launched into an extemporaneous address, challenging the students to spend a few years of their lives helping the underprivileged peoples of the world. The audience went wild and in that magic moment an organization known as The Peace Corps was born. Since then, more than 157,000 volunteers have traveled to the remotest places on earth to deliver what William Lederer cried out for in his book, The Ugly American. And none of this would have happened had it not been for the advice of William’s buddy, Jim.

“I really wish you could have met Jim,” said Lederer. “I’m sure you read about it when he died.”

“No, sir, I don’t often read the obituaries.”

“But it was national news when Jim died. It was news all over the country. It was on all the TV shows.”

Unable to think of an appropriate response, I silently thought to myself that this man was, after all, 87 years old and people at his age don’t always think as clearly as they should… William J. Lederer broke that awkward silence with something that will be forever etched in my memory:

“Oh, I’m sorry, son. You probably knew him better as James. James Michener.”

And so it wasn’t his 40+ bestselling books, or the $100+ million  that he gave to charity that was Michener’s greatest gift to the world, but the single word of advice that he gave to a friend; advice that helped his friend to inspire thousands of people to begin helping millions of others.


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