What I Learned About Happiness From Interviewing Famous People

From Elvis Presley to B.B. King to Buzz Aldrin to Clint Eastwood and so many more, I had the pleasure and opportunity visit with some of the most influential people of our times. I always asked questions about happiness.

by Jack Dennis

Rudy Giuliani

Rudolph Giuliani is best known for being mayor of New York during the September 11, 2001 attack. In 2008, I had the opportunity to meet Giuliani in San Antonio. The American leader expressed his thoughts on his personal change, compassion, hope and faith during the disaster.

“Most people are surprised to know that I changed more from having prostate cancer than from September 11,” Giuliani stated, backstage at the Alamodome, where he was to give a speech later. “Dealing with the cancer forced me to gain the wisdom about the importance of life and the lack of control we have over death.”

“I needed the confidence and character I gained from coping with the cancer to prepare me to deal with, and even survive, the trials of September 11,” the former mayor said.

Giuliani found himself surrounded by firefighters, police officers and emergency workers on that fateful day in 2001. The worst attack on American soil became the most successful rescue operation in our country’s history under his leadership.

That evening, as Giuliani prepared for bed, he found solace in the words of Winston Churchill and “realized that courage doesn’t simply materialize out of thin air.”

Giuliani attended hundreds of funerals and visited Ground Zero daily.

“I grew physically and emotionally exhausted,” he recalled. “When I saw the families of the victims, I was revived knowing if they can do this, I can do it.”

“Courage begins years before, sometimes in our early childhood, as we develop our character,” he spoke. “Every choice we make in life can strengthen or weaken our character.”

Here are highlights of Mr. Giuliani’s views.

“When I was in my teens, I seriously planned to become either a priest or a doctor as I have always been faithful and enthusiastic about my faith in God and helping others. Religion was a favorite topic I enjoyed talking with my teachers about. Prayer and faith in God provided me with the strength I could not acquire from any other source. When things are tough, it’s always a good idea to pray for the guidance and strength necessary to get us through.”

“Most of my time as mayor was spent under the maxim that it’s better to be respected than to be loved. September 11 unlocked compassion in me that I typically reserved for my family and very close friends. I discovered that revealing your love and compassion does not weaken leadership. It makes it stronger.”

“Allowing doubt, fear and worry to overtake us is an inevitable path to failure. I could not afford failure after September 11. It was very necessary to reach inside and push the doubts away, and even out, of my thinking.”

“I’ve spent much of my reading on learning about how great leaders that I admired grew up and forged the character each had to deal with different substantial challenges. Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt came to mind. ‘Then only thing we have to fear is fear itself.’”

“Love can spark deep moments of profound goodness. When I saw the love of our heroes in New York who looked beyond their own safety or what was best for themselves and focus on the lives and safety of others, I learned that love can help us push aside differences to share our humanity and those things that we have in common.”

“I prayed with these brave men and women. I became very close and was able to learn from these firefighters, police officers and emergency responders, not to mention ordinary every day civilians. At the root of all of this, it was love, and not so much the sense of duty, that caused those firefighters to run into the flaming towers to save those he or she had never met. Love can so powerful it can help us be kind to even those who are cruel to us.”

Jerry Lewis

Jerry Lewis, “one of the 5 most recognizable people in the world,” according to Newsweek magazine was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1977 for his efforts and results with the Muscular Dystrophy Association.

The “King of Comedy” died August 20, 2017 at age 91. Millions know him for helping the Muscular Dystrophy Association in 1950 and helped raise more than $2 billion for almost 60 years.

He teamed up with Dean Martin at age 19 to launch their careers to the top of the movie charts and worldwide stardom. 

 In 2008, I had the opportunity to meet Lewis in San Antonio. The American comedian, actor, and director expressed his thoughts on happy and the key to success in life before he went on stage to address a crowd of 18,000 people in the Alamodome.

“No one gets through life unscathed,” Lewis told the audience. “Pain, rejection and sorrow have been obstacles in life, but they have also been a source of inspiration.”

“My parents were performers on the road and were never home, so relatives raised me. I missed them so much,” he recalled. “Comedy, and being the center of attention and making people laugh, began as a means to fill the emptiness. It became my life.”

“At first I didn’t know what I was doing,” Lewis laughed. “I kept going on and I found the key and that was to squelch the fear!”

“Don’t let fear rob you of opportunities,” he pointed up. “Take risks. There is no limit to what you can do, but you have to take that first step past fear. You can make it work for you.”

Here are highlights of Lewis’s views, both backstage and onstage:

I had met Jerry Lewis briefly behind the Majestic Theater in San Antonio in January 1995 where he was performing the play ‘Damn Yankees.’ It was after a matinee show, his throat was hurting and his voice was hoarse to the point he had to be relieved of showing up for the evening performance.

He was staying at the La Mansion hotel on the River Walk just across the street from the theater but was unable to meet. It was a pleasure to get to go backstage at the Alamodome years later and talk with this great American entertainer.

Lewis had been watching the monitors backstage to see those going on before him onstage. Dressed in a back suit, with a red shirt and handkerchief in his front pocket, Lewis smiled from his electric mobility scooter as I approached. (Note: I had just won a dance contest by process of elimination from the audience crowd roar among 21 contestants. The prize? A free trip to Walt Disney World for my family.)

“Mr. Energy, come shake my hand,” he offered his hand to me. I was exhausted and happy to win, but especially excited to meet him. He laughed when I asked what was his key to happiness in life.

Looking at me square in the eyes, Jerry Lewis grabbed my arm with his right hand and pointed to me with his left. He was serious. Then smiled again.

 “The key to happiness and maintaining joy in your life is easy,” he grinned. “Do you remember when you were nine-years-old?”

He paused.

“If you can remember that time and always be the person you were when you were nine, you will have a happy life.”

“Applying that same sense of humor, the childlike humor of a nine-year-old, as I see it, is the secret to getting through life and getting the most out of it,” Lewis explained. “Laughter is healing. Many doctors now know that it is the truth that laughter is a terrific safety valve.”

“When I see how serious people are, it becomes automatic for me that I must stop this seriousness,” Lewis spoke. “Immediately, I become mischievous and do whatever I can and whatever it takes to lighten the mood.”

“The smiles and laughter that follow make me happy and make me know and remember I’m doing exactly what I was put on this earth to do.”

Jerry Lewis’s legacy includes more than 60 films (including 18 he wrote, directed and starred in), concerts, radio, television, and standup performances since age 5.

Interviewing Others

Over the years I made it a habit to always ask the question, “What makes you happy?”

If they answered and had the time, I would ask for elaboration. I didn’t always get it and some where reluctant to pursue that line of questioning. The biggest surprise was from Merle Haggard (I will write about later). But here are some notable personalities who were enthusiastic about the subject of happiness.

The age they were when I asked them.
Jerry Lewis83“…remember when you were nine-years-old? Always be the person you were when you were nine.”
Elvis Presley41“Knowing and appreciating what God has blessed me with.”
Gene Krantz72“Always reach for the stars.”
May Pang60“John said it best: IMAGINE.”
Clint Eastwood46“Working hard, and long enough, to pay my dues and earn the right to do what I want to do.”
B.B. King85“Well, Son, it music of course. Singing and playing.”
Buzz Aldrin76“Continuing to learn and continuing to have opportunities to apply what you learn.”

Kicks On 66, Grins in Uranus

When I asked the legendary comedian Jerry Lewis, who was 83, what the key to happiness is for him, he immediately had an answer.

“Do you remember when you were nine years old?” he smiled. “Always be the person you were when you were nine.”

I definitely was nine years old Saturday, July 11th. Dodie thinks she was about twelve.

“It was the first time I laughed so much in one place in such a long time,” she said later.

St. Louis was depressing and felt unsafe. Tent compounds downtown and on the lawns of government buildings told me all I needed to know about their lack of government leadership. Spray painted statues and walls sent a message of anarchy as if it was welcomed. Tourists certainly aren’t.

We learned that the Jefferson Memorial National Monument which the Gateway Arch is part, is not “Jefferson” anymore. A couple of years ago is became Gateway Arch National Park.

Built in 1965 to commemorate westward expansion, the Arch stands 630 feet high and is also 630 feet wide at the base. Underneath it is a museum about the exploration of the Louisiana Purchase. The other part of the memorial is the old courthouse, where the Dred Scott Decision ruled that a slave did not become a free man because he was taken into a free state.

We drove out via the old and historical Route 66. Originally, about 2,400 miles of highway snaked through eight states — Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and finally California.

Since the highway was decommissioned, Route 66 no longer exists on modern maps. In some places the physical road is actually unpaved and virtually impassable.

But when possible, and I have the time, it’s fun to follow some of the original road and enjoy the nostalgia. Because it wound through so many small towns, hundreds of odd little trading posts, motels and attractions popped up along the way. Although Route 66 faded into obsolescence, many of these pit stops remain.

Route 66 holds a special place in American history. It illustrated the evolution of the American road from unpaved dirt to superhighway. It provided an economic and social link between the West and the Midwest, offering an artery for millions of people to relocate and change their lives. Route 66 assisted in transforming the West from wild frontier to modern community.

Route 66 also showcases some of the most beautiful scenery in America. The longest drive I’ve ever experienced of the Route was in Arizona around Flagstaff, Sedona and the Grand Canyon regions.

In some states, Route 66 parallels the interstate highway and known as “Historic Route 66.” When leaving Wildwood, Missouri Saturday morning, we elected to travel on Highway 100 because of the Route 66 designation. The winding road and scenery forced a more slow, but relaxing pace southward.

We eventually caught up with IH-44 (with on and off Route 66 designations along the way) heading towards Branson.

Route 66 themed rest stop.

That’s where the “Kicks” began. Even the roadside rest areas have the Route 66 theme. It was at one that I read about Andy Payne.

Back in 1928, a year before the Great Depression, Payne ran — and won — an event called the “Transcontinental Footrace.” It started in Los Angeles and ended in New York City. It covered 3,400 miles and the entirety of Route 66. Payne, a Cherokee from Oklahoma, won $25,000 for his 573-hour run. Today a statue in his honor stands in Foyil, Okla., along historic road.

Popping up like old Burma Shave or The Thing signs in Arizona, Mermac Caverns advertising is painted on barns and scattered on billboards along IH-44. Located near Stanton, Missouri, they bill it as “The Jesse James Hideout,” a disputed claim. There’s even a Jesse James Museum across the highway claiming he lived until 1951.

Although not as many signs as the Mermac Caverns, it was the Uranus Fudge Factory billboards that drew us to our 9 and 12 year old selves. Immature and hilarious, we laughed so hard it was impossible not to want to go in.

Welcome to Uranus.

Uranus Missouri is definitely my favorite pit stop of all time. When pulling into the parking lot, we were greeted by dinosaurs, the “World’s Largest Best Buckle” (certified by Ripley’s), a space rocket, a sideshow museum, the Uranus Axehole, Mooncorn Creamery, Uranus Fudge Factory and more.

As soon as we walked into the General Store friendly staff greeted us with a rootin-tootin, “Welcome to Uranus! The best fudge in the world is right here in Uranus!”

Everything is just wacky. I’m sure the borderline humor would trouble some folks. We just went into pre-teen mode, got past the innuendo and just rolled with the humor.

Sure, it’s tacky and touristy, but we grinned, smiled and laughed the whole 40 minutes we were there.

Dodie and the Uranus Animals.

Won a Dance Contest and All I Got Was…

If you think and know you can do it, then you can!

In May 2006, 21 people were brought up on stage in front of 18,000 people at the Alamodome during a Get Motivated Live Conference in San Antonio.

There was to be a dance contest with the winner to be decided by the roar of the crowd. Instinctively, I knew I’d be chosen to go on stage. Don’t ask me how, but I was 99.99% certain of it.

As soon as I was selected to go up there I looked at my secretary and told her “I’m going to win this.” She said, “I know you are.” There was absolutely no doubt in my mind!

Placed back in a corner far stage right, and turning 50 the previous December, I knew it would require everything I could spontaneously muster and imagine to win against 20 others, all younger and obviously more athletic.

As the Beach Boys Surfin’ Safari belted out to the crowd, I shimmied, shaked, did the Watusi, Mash Potato, Jerk, Pony, Jitterbug, Moved Like Jagger, Humped Like Elvis, did the Peppermint Twist Like We Did Last Summer, waltzed and crawled around on my belly like a reptile.

Judges eliminated contestants like they did in the movie They Shoot Horses Don’t They, by simply touching a dancer’s shoulder and proclaiming, “You’re out!” baseball umpire style.

I survived the first round. Where were the oxygen tanks? I need my oxygen! Next round, you guessed it Surfin’ Friggin’ Safari again. Get your dialing finger ready for 911.

To my amazement, there were five left standing: two in military uniform, a tall former Kilgore Rangerette dancer, an obvious robotic-like contortionist, and an out-of-shape-overwhelmed H-E-B Food-Drugs facilities management executive (me).

Guess who won a free trip for four to Walt Disney World? ….AND I was able to meet comedian Jerry Lewis and mayor Rudolph Giuliani backstage!