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'I've always got time for you!' encounter with Bob Hope provides lifelong lesson

Bob Hope waves to the crowd seeing him off at an air base in Southwest Asia on Christmas Day 1990. (U.S. Air Force photo by William Scott Hubbartt-Backus)

Bob Hope waves to the crowd seeing him off at an air base in Southwest Asia on Christmas Day 1990. (U.S. Air Force photo by William Scott Hubbartt-Backus)

Bob Hope’s signature on a Saudi Arabian Riyal, the only item the author had to write on during his brief encounter with the celebrity on Christmas Day 1990 in Southwest Asia. (U.S. Air Force photo by William Scott Hubbartt-Backus)

Bob Hope’s signature on a Saudi Arabian Riyal, the only item the author had to write on during his brief encounter with the celebrity on Christmas Day 1990 in Southwest Asia. (U.S. Air Force photo by William Scott Hubbartt-Backus)

RANDOLPH AIR FORCE BASE, Texas (AETCNS) -- About a decade ago, I arrived late for the weekly first sergeant council meeting hosted by our senior enlisted advisor, a grisly, no-nonsense former cop.

I felt his focused stare as I took my seat in the middle of his weekly issues update. As the meeting came to end, the chief asked me to stay behind. I knew he was unhappy. After giving me his spiel on punctuality and meeting etiquette, he asked if I had anything to say.

Well, I've never been one to sugar-coat anything and figured I was already off his Christmas list.

"Chief," I said, "whenever a troop knocks on my door and asks me, ‘Shirt, ya got a minute?' My answer will always be, ‘Yeah, come on in. I've always got time for you.'"

Then I added, "That's what happened this morning. Right before the meeting, a troop stopped by my office with a distressed look on his face, and I knew he needed to talk."

It turned out he was having serious marital and financial problems, and when I asked him if he was thinking of suicide he became silent.

"Chief," I explained, "he immediately ratcheted up on my priority list. I just dropped him off at the chaplain's office, and I need to follow up right after this meeting."

The chief stared at me for several seconds to let what I had said sink in. After a moment he replied, "Good call."

Being late to that meeting wasn't a hard call for me to make. In the 14 years I served as a first sergeant, "I always have time for you" was one of my most effective lines. It often opened the door to countless impromptu counseling and mentoring sessions in hallways, on the flight line, in break rooms and chow halls.

I'd like to say I came up with this philosophy all by myself, but I didn't. I learned it from the best.

On Christmas Day 1990, our air base in Saudi Arabia, not far from the Iraqi border, was to be honored with a visit by the legendary Bob Hope and his traditional Christmas show for the troops serving in harm's way. From the South Pacific, Korea, Vietnam, Lebanon and even Southwest Asia, Mr. Hope had built his reputation as a generous, caring and patriotic entertainer who effectively put politics and even his own personal safety aside to visit and entertain front-line troops.

That day several of the senior NCOs in our small unit, including myself, volunteered to cover flight line operations to allow the junior troops to attend the show. I would have loved to have seen it, but somehow this seemed more important.

Mr. Hope's specially painted and equipped C-141 was one of the planes we were charged to prepare for departure. He was scheduled to leave immediately after his show for another in-theater location to entertain other troops.

When his departure time approached I hoped to catch a glimpse of the entertainer. His entourage arrived as I was climbing out from under the wheel well with the aircraft's flight engineer. Mr. Hope and his wife, Delores, were working their way through the troops and some press members who gathered at the aircraft to see him off.

The 87-year-old living legend made his way to the aircraft and began up the stairs only a few feet from me. Seeing him sign several autographs, I frantically searched my pockets for a scrap of paper.

All I could find was a single note of Saudi currency and without thinking I shouted out, "Mr. Hope! Can I have an autograph?"

By then he was on the top of the boarding ladder looking tired and aged. His watchful wife shook her head and said, "No. Bob's very tired, and we have to be going."

To that, before my disappointment could even register, Bob Hope answered in a loud and cheerful voice, "Sure! I've always got time for you! That's why I'm here."

He came back down the ladder and approached me shaking my hand and took the note and signed it. Then to my surprise he put his arm over my shoulder and led me away from the aircraft and the crowd.

When we were alone he asked me my name, how I was doing and where I was from. He wanted to know about my wife and my three small daughters back home and, for about five minutes, took a genuine interest in me and my well being.

He finished by telling me how much he admired and appreciated me and all the troops there. Then, looking me in the eye, he told me to be careful and come home soon. With that, he again boarded the ladder, turned and waved.

I composed myself and remembering the instamatic camera in my hand snapped a quick shot of him just before he disappeared into the aircraft. Soon thereafter the engines started, and I marshaled the aircraft out to the runway. As it turned away, I tearfully swelled with pride and saluted.

I cannot tell you how special his words were to me and the terrific boost to my morale he provided.

The whole episode was special, but most significant to me was the aged and obviously exhausted entertainer's words, "I've always got time for you."

How easy it would have been for him to yield to his wise and caring wife's urging to board the plane and get some rest before the next stop. Instead, Bob Hope put me, a stranger, before his own needs and desires.

With a simple gesture and a few minutes he touched me like no one else has and taught me all I needed to know about service before self. The next time someone, perhaps even a stranger, asks if you have a minute, think twice before answering.

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