My Hero, Ursula

     My new hero is Ursula Weatherford. She is 82 and lives in Vinita, Okla.
     Ursula made my life better and it took just a few minutes for her to do it.
     Here’s what happened.
     Monday had been bad, driving across the country. It rained on me for 210 miles in Oklahoma. It rained like hell, and then it rained harder, in Tornado Alley. I was a wreck when I pulled into the Holiday Inn in Vinita, in the northeast corner of the state.
     Waiting in line to check in, I made some dumb joke to the guy in front of me. He gave me a look that indicated not only that I am a despicable excuse for a mammal, but that I do not exist. It was such a vile look it made me think that one of us was a serial killer, and maybe it was me.
     As I loaded up on the hotel’s buffet breakfast the next morning at 6:15, pouring coffee directly into my frontal lobes, an elderly lady asked me how I had slept last night. Just fine, I said.
     Where was I going? Vermont, I said.
     Really? She had relatives in Rhode Island.
     Something about her cheered up me so thoroughly I knew it would be a good day. She moved along to the next person, and the next one, keeping the room tidy and the coffee fresh.
     She made everyone in that room happy. It wasn’t the small talk. It was that she listened, and cared how we responded.
     I took a second cup of coffee out to the truck, then went back to the hotel and begged her pardon and asked her name.
     “You’ve cheered me up so much I’m going to write a column about you,” I said.
     We stood by a table occupied by an elderly couple. He looked like a New England banker: stoic, white hair, wearing a tie to breakfast, mouth a grim straightedge. He broke into a big grin.
     “She’s always like that,” he said. “Every time we pass through. Friendliest person in the world.” His wife gave us a big smile.
     Ursula told me her name and her age. She’s worked at the Holiday Inn for seven years. She used to manage a Denny’s. She was born and raised in Vinita.
     Old Grumpy Guts from last night sat at a corner table with a bowl of Special K and skim milk. Something about him indicated that no one, not even Ursula, should try to chat him up.
     Then I realized: Old Grumpy Guts wasn’t grumpy last night. He’s been grumpy his whole life. And Ursula isn’t cheerful and kind this morning; she’s been cheerful and kind her whole life.
     I used to be a cheerful guy. A jazz musician. Broke, obviously, but so what? Then I got into the news business. They made me an editor and for 30 years I’ve been turning into a grumpy guts. Hazards of the profession.
     What a waste of life, I thought. Every 200 miles that day when I stopped for gas I chatted people up and listened to their stories. One old guy walked away from the pump with his arm over my shoulder like we were old pals.
     Now when I find myself turning into a grumpy guts again, which happens most every day, I think of Ursula Weatherford, from Vinita, Oklahoma, and I cheer right up.
     I couldn’t prove it, but I bet Ursula has done more good on this planet than all 535 members of our U.S. Congress combined. Just by actually listening to people, and actually caring what they say.

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