Blog - June 28,2012

Nora Ephron

Once upon a time there were three exceptionally talented women – all very similar yet, at the same time, all very different.

Their names are Nora, Joanne and Nancy.

Unless you’ve been cryogenically frozen for the last 30 years, you’re aware of the first two women. The third? Probably not.

The first two have given us many unforgettable scenes that have enriched our lives, often overcoming gender barriers in order to do so.

Nora is Nora Ephron. She entered many of our lives as the funny but insightful writer of such screen gems as When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless in Seattle and You’ve Got Mail, as well as other fine screenplays, books and articles. So, when the news flashed on my iPhone that she passed away I felt as if I had lost a dear and close friend.

I never met her and probably wouldn’t have recognized her if I had run into her on the street. But I’ve quoted her movie lines so many times it’s as if she is a part of me. My favorite romantic comedy of all time is When Harry Met Sally, followed closely by It Happened One Night and Bringing Up Baby.

“No. They pretty much want to nail ‘em, too.”

“Mr. Zero knew before you knew?”

“I’ll have what she’s having.”

“Ted Kennedy was shot?”

All are lines from the movie that conjure scenes that I easily remember. When I screw something up, which I have to admit happens way too often, I quote the last line from WHMS: “Amanda Rice.” “Reese.” “Amanda Reese, that’s what I said.” And of course I’m always good for a, “You’re right. You’re right. I know you’re right.”

As I guy, I love the scene in Sleepless in Seattle where Rita Wilson’s character, Suzy, goes on and on about An Affair to Remember and the guys start talking about crying when Jim Brown died in The Dirty Dozen. I’m smiling now even as I am writing this.

So when the news feed – saved only for the most famous people and events – scrolled across my phone, I felt an immediate and deep emptiness. Godspeed Nora.

Joanne is J.K. Rowling. She too has had a similar effect on an extraordinary number of us. Her books have been able to reach across boundaries and oceans to bring a rich otherworld to millions of her loyal fans, although in a very different way from Nora. Where Nora’s “speeches” cut to the heart of things and were memorable in themselves, J.K. used her vivid imagination to describe “Harry’s world” by painting memorable scenes in the minds of her followers. There are few lines I remember quoting from her Harry Potter series (either the books or the movies) but I can see Harry, Hermione, Ron and Hogwarts in my mind as clearly as if I had attended the school myself. So much so that I find myself comparing every other fantasy story I read to hers – including my own. (In fact it was just after reading Steve Berry’s The Charlemagne Pursuit and Harry Potter in succession that I hit upon the idea for my own novel.)

Think of the images that come to mind when you hear such things as Quidditch, Voldermort, the Forbidden Forrest, invisibility cloak, Hogsmeade and more. She was able to tap into our imaginations so that we had a very clear picture as to what was happening in every scene and chapter. And if you’re like me, I then used those images to compare it to what I saw when I finally had a chance to see it on the big screen versions. (For the most part they got it right, although I have issues with a few details – but that’s another blog all together.)

I’m on my third reading of the entire series and when my son asked me: “Why are you reading the same books over and over again?”

“For the same reason so many of us have watched When Harry Met Sally or Sleepless in Seattle or any of the Harry Potter movies over and over again.”

So where does Nancy fit in to all of this? Only a very few people in the world will even recognize her name, but for those of us who do, she is also a woman to be revered.

Ms. Nancy Engelhardt taught English, lit and composition, to juniors and seniors at St. John’s Cathedral High School. Unlike many teachers who drone on during their classes, she brought energy, excitement and love to her subject like few teachers I ever encountered. Where others would be critical and give little direction (my college Composition 101 instructor comes to mind) she was quick to encourage a student while at the same time pointing out how an essay could be improved upon with a simple rewording or more colorful, descriptive phrase. 

My school and class were small by most standards so it made us a very close-knit group. Most of us thought of our classmates and school as a second family. After graduation this made it natural for many of us to stay in touch. Whenever we would get together, either at formal reunions or informal gatherings at many of the local music festivals around Milwaukee, Ms. Engelhardt was always naturally invited. To not do so would be like not inviting our favorite aunt to a family reunion. She always graciously and eagerly accepted unless there was some other pressing conflict in her very active schedule. Unfortunately, at our last “reunion” she wasn’t able to be there. Those in our class, who are able to keep track of what everyone is up to, informed the rest of us she is in poor health. Her health issues and absence diminished the good feelings we felt in being able to see our “second family” once again.

So, just like Nora Ephron or J.K. Rowling, Nancy Engelhardt influenced the world of those she touched in an even more profound way than two of the best-known storytellers in the world.

If you have a teacher or instructor or coach who has influenced your life like Ms. Engelhardt did with ours, make sure you tell her – or him – how much their love, care and support has meant to you before it’s too late.

 

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