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An Encounter with President George H.W. Bush

Sitting in the men’s locker room in the early ‘90’s at Marsh Landing Country Club, there was a steady stream of guys coming through as usual or a weekday afternoon. I knew most of them and we exchanged the normal pleasantries as they passed through. It’s not unusual to see guys in all levels of dress, suits coming from work, casual clothes headed to lunch, golf togs for the course and even gym clothes with the fitness center nearby.

As I said, I knew most of the guys and having been on television in Jacksonville for more than a decade at the time, most of the guys knew me and greeted me by name (back when people watched TV!) So it wasn’t strange to me each time the locker room door opened for the person entering to look up and say, “Hi Sam!” It also wasn’t strange for the locker room to be empty, mid-day, mid-week, so I was the only person sitting there.

I looked up each time the door opened and said hi, changing my shoes, looking at the newspaper as I was getting ready to go hit some balls.

When the door opened for the umpteenth time I instinctively looked up ready to say hi, but much to my surprise the man coming through the door was the President of the United States, George H.W. Bush.

Just as instinctively, I stood up as he walked across the locker room, alone, and headed straight for me. In retrospect, it was somewhat surreal, since you always see the President with an entourage, that it was just the two of us standing there.

“Hi, I’m George Bush,” the President said as he stood next to me and extended his hand.
“Yes sir Mr. President, I’m Sam Kouvaris,” I said receiving his firm handshake.

“Am I in your way,” he said, glancing toward the lockers in front of us.

“No sir,” I said as I looked a the nameplate above my locker that had been replaced with one that said, “President George Bush.”

He sat down and motioned for me to do the same as he began to untie his shoes. Conservatively dressed in a blue Ban-Lon shirt, blue slacks and white basketball socks, he was getting ready to go to lunch in the main dining room at Marsh Landing.

“Did you play fast?” I asked, knowing a little bit about his penchant for getting through 18 holes quickly.

“Fast? We played in an hour twenty eight,” he said with a big smile. “Played through about five groups, even had time to walk over and shake hands with some guys on what, 13? Aren’t they building a house there?”

“Yes sir,” I answered with a laugh. “How’d you play?”

His answer was perfect. A blend of “guy talk” and humility.

“Actually pretty good, for me,” he said with a wry smile, a raised eyebrow and a mock look over his shoulder to see if anybody else was listening.

As he stood up, he reached in his locker and pulled a navy blue sport coat on, ready to head out the door.

“I’ve got to go this lunch with my host in the dining room,” he said as we walked toward the door, still just the two of us in the locker room. “I’d invite you, love for you to come, but it’s not my thing, you know?” he said in the most gracious way.

“Not a problem Mr. President I absolutely understand,” I said.

The locker room door opened behind us and the famed author Dan Jenkins walked through. Jenkins had invited the President to play golf that day and was a member at Marsh Landing.

“Sam, did you meet my friend George,” Dan said shaking hands with both of us and purposefully saying it backwards.

“I have,” I said with a laugh.

“He’s a fine young man,” the President said, motioning to me as he shook Dan’s hand.

The President noticed that I was looking at his shoulder with a mix of anxiousness and restraint.

“What,” he said, looking down at his shoulder.

“Fix your collar Mr. President?” I asked. As he had put the sport coat on, the collar rolled under as it often does.

He laughed and motioned that it was OK, so I reached over, and unrolled the collar and patted it down.

“Thanks,” he said as we shook hands again.

“I didn’t want to reach out and do that earlier Mr. President for fear one of those guys would come out of a locker after me,” I said.

He looked around, conspiratorially, and said, “You know, they would!” with a huge laugh. And off he and Jenkins went to lunch.

I found out later that the flow of guys through the locker room were members of the President’s Secret Service detail, sweeping the room. The President has his own traveling detail and the local agents augment his security wherever he goes. Maybe Dan Jenkins had set it up, but the local guys knew me and let me stay in the locker room, knowing the President was headed there momentarily. I appreciate that.

Recently I was speaking at a charity golf event at Timiquana when one of the players came up to me and said “You were hanging out with my friend George Bush at Marsh Landing a while back weren’t you?”

“That’s one of the favorite moments of my career and my favorite stories,” I answered.

“He came out to lunch and said, ‘I met this Sam Kouvaris in the locker room. Who is that guy? Everybody knows him,’ and I told him you were on TV and we had a pretty good chuckle. You made an impression.”

I hope it was a good one. I know that encounter had a big impact on me, seeing how one of the most famous and powerful people on the planet could have a common touch.

CAVU, fair winds and following seas Mr. President.