On December 5, Larry Aasen turns 95 years young.
As the big day nears, he’s going through scrapbooks and albums. Recently, in the Ellery Lane home he and his wife Martha have lived in for 54 years, Aasen recalled some intriguing stories.
He was born in 1922, in a log cabin in the middle of a North Dakota snowstorm. There was no electricity, running water, central heating — not even a bathroom.
When he got to New York City in 1949, he heard about a Times Square “gag writers school.” The $5 tuition was put into a hat, at the beginning of class.
Aasen went on to work for the Better Vision Institute. Its mission was to encourage regular eye exams.
The organization used celebrities in its ads. Because he had eye problems, Bob Hope did radio and TV ads for free. Toward the end of the comedian’s career, Aasen did a fundraiser with him in Miami. He was tired and weak. But when the spotlight hit him, he did a jig, picked up his violin and performed well.
One day, a friend gave Aasen Muhammad Ali’s phone number. Aasen told the boxing champ the BVI wanted to use his photo on a poster. Ali, however, was more concerned about how Aasen had gotten his number.
Aasen explained that the poster would read, “Your fists can’t hit what your eyes can’t see!” Ali yelled “Okay!” — then slammed down the receiver.
Aasen and his wife are political junkies. In his long life, he’s met 6 presidents.
In 1950, while working as a writer/photographer for the Journal of Accountancy in New York, he was assigned to take photos of CPAs at the Waldorf Astoria. Hurrying over, he knocked down a frail old man. When he got up, Herbert Hoover gave Aasen a stern look and said, “Watch where you are going!”
Five years later, in Kansas City, Aasen learned where Harry Truman parked his car for his daily walk to work. Sure enough, at 8:15 a.m. he drove up.
It was snowing hard. The former president was all alone. Aasen asked if he could walk along. Truman smiled, and asked Aasen where he was from.
He said North Dakota, and that his wife was from Mississippi. The two men talked about those states’ senators, as well as the Hayes/Tilden “stolen” election of 1876. Then, after a firm handshake, Truman bounded up the office steps.
In 1960, Martha’s father was a Mississippi delegate to the Democratic convention. The state shared a “very poor hotel” with the Wyoming delegation. Though they were small, and seemingly unimportant at the end of the roll call, candidate John F. Kennedy arrived at the hotel to meet them.
Kennedy jumped out of a car, and shook Aasen’s hand. That night, Wyoming’s votes gave Kennedy the Democratic nomination for president.
Ronald Reagan, Aasen says, was even better looking than his photos. Martha and he first met him at a motel in San Mateo in 1963, after a Rotary speech. The actor invited a group to his suite. He told jokes, in a disarming way.
The Aasens saw Reagan other times too, when he promoted the “GE Theater Show.”
In 1975, Aasen was in Atlanta. Jimmy Carter walked down a hotel hall, put out his hand, introduced himself and said he was running for president. He invited Aasen to a speech.
That night he spoke quietly, describing his plans for the country. Aasen thought it was too bad that such a “intelligent, decent man” might never be president. Of course, he laughs, “Carter didn’t know that.”
Bill and Hillary Clinton visited Westport often, usually to meet donors. Aasen says he often forgets how tall the president is, and how he is “always in motion. He has that skill of connecting with his audience — and he will not let them go.” Clinton loves to talk — “which is why he is always late.”
As for Barack Obama: Once, leaving a stage, he posed for a photo with the Aasens. “Let’s put the rose between the 2 thorns,” Obama suggested.
Happy upcoming 95th birthday, Larry Aasen. Here’s hoping you meet many more presidents — and have many more stories — in the years to come.