It was sometime in the fall of 1976, I’d guess, the day I stepped into an ornate elevator in Buffalo’s old federal court building. I was a cub reporter, roughly dispatched to report a story about which I knew next to nothing.
An older man wearing a tan trench coat got into the elevator behind me. I noticed his trench coat because I was wearing one too. Mine was a shiny green Salvation Army special. His wasn’t
As soon as the doors eased shut, the man turned a curious eye on me, smiled, and asked if I was a reporter.
Surprised by his question – was I that obvious? -- I pleaded guilty as charged.
“News or the Courier?” he asked, citing Buffalo’s two competing dailies.
Neither one, I said. I worked for the Niagara Gazette, a much smaller daily, in neighboring Niagara Falls N.Y..
“Oh, he said “isn’t that a Gannett paper?”
It was indeed, and I told him so. His curiosity about me and his familiarity with the Gazette struck me as odd. After all, who talks to strangers in elevators? About anything?
At the same time, I felt inordinately grateful for his attention. I was just a couple of months on the job and nervous as only a rookie can be. I felt compelled to demonstrate my reportorial expertise.
The Courier, I explained, had brought anti-trust charges against some rich guy who wanted to buy the News.
I didn’t tell him the only reason I’d been sent to cover the story was that this rich guy – who I’d never heard of and whose name I couldn’t remember – was scheduled to appear in court that day.
The man in the trench coat smiled and shook his head in obvious recognition of the story. I wasn’t telling him anything he and every other newspaper reader in town didn’t already know. The battle for the News had been front-page news in both papers for weeks.
The elevator doors wheezed open and we both got out.
“Well, young man,” he said with a smile and wave, “good luck with your story.” Then he strode into a nearby courtroom.
Figuring him for a lawyer, maybe a lonely one, I nodded goodbye and went looking for someone who could tell me where the anti-trust hearing was being held.
A guard directed me to the same courtroom the man in the elevator had just disappeared into.
I walked in and sure enough, there he was, standing in front of the bench, chatting with a couple of his fellow lawyers. Satisfied I’d accurately pegged him and giving him not another thought, I slid into a seat behind his table and returned to worrying about making sense of the story.
The judge entered, took his seat, motioned us all to sit and peered down at the lawyers’ table:
“Ah, Mr. Buffett. Thank you for coming today.”
The man from the elevator rose again to his feet, thanked the judge and said how pleased he was to be there.
Warren Buffett eventually got what he wanted out of that court process. So did I, though I didn’t know it at the time.
I have no memory of what story I filed that day, though I’m sure I made a rookie’s hash of it. And I didn’t ask Buffett for help. I was too embarrassed. Never talked to him again. When court adjourned, I made sure we took separate elevators to the ground floor.
But neither did I leave that court room empty-handed, exactly.
The real story of the day, the one I couldn’t write back then, was how a young know-it-all met a man of some renown who treated this same young man with undue respect. His gently inquisitive behavior back then confirms for me today the popular and widespread assessment of Buffet as a down-to-earth Midwesterner who has somehow become the second-richest man in the world without becoming a world-class jerk. We were absolute strangers, and the only jerk in that elevator was me.
My interview with Warren Buffett lasted a few seconds. Neither of us recognized it as such at the time. But I could not have asked for better, more revealing circumstances. There was nothing for Buffet to gain and no reason for him to act the way he did. He stood revealed, in those few moments, as a man. A gentleman.
This is my oldest scoop. Other writers have spent far more time documenting, analyzing and describing what I discovered that day. But sometimes you don’t need more than a few seconds to take a man’s measure. And sometimes even an old reporter, granted a bit of time, can recognize a class act and a good story when he comes face to face with one.