The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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January 12, 2013

Longtime aide recalls: Fast food and a keen wit

— Behind the bespectacled face of an intense man dealing with heavy political issues of the day beats the heart of a man with a strong appetite for fast food, hot cars and America’s pastime.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller always assumed a serious tone when discussing the heavy issues of the day.

Away from the microphones and recorders of the media or a stuffy Senate committee room, however, he often seemed like a teenager with tastes of the very young and a penchant for teasing his aides.

In making the rounds across West Virginia, a longtime aide says it was all she could to do to steer Sen. Jay Rockefeller away from McDonald’s and Wendy’s so he could reach a conference on time.

“One thing that would surprise people is his love for fast food,” longtime aide Lou Ann Johnson said Friday.

“He knows where every McDonald’s and Wendy’s are.”

A few years later, the two were running behind schedule and didn’t have time to chow down en route to a conference at The Resort at Glade Springs outside Beckley.

“I was trying to figure out how to get him to Glade Springs without going past a McDonald’s,” the Sophia native said.

“I knew it was impossible. I finally got to Harper Road and said, ‘There’s a McDonald’s. We may be late.’ But he was very happy.”

For Jay, a multi-millionaire who could have sampled the world’s finest cuisine, the simple fare of a cheeseburger was more appealing. Just hold the mayo. And no Big Macs, either. His taste buds rebelled against the special sauce. Just plain burgers, please, with a touch of ketchup.

Rockefeller had a habit of squeezing the very last drop out of a milkshake, startling new aides when he made that annoying, slurping sound at the end of the straw in a paper cup.

If a new aide were riding in the car, Johnson glanced into the rearview mirror to catch the reaction when the slurping began.

“He was always teasing,” said Johnson, who was his state director 23 years. “That was the most important thing to him, the teasing.”

It was almost a condition of employment to endure the senator’s teasing, she recalled.

Often, Johnson and Rockefeller ran late, so she would hit the accelerator, prompting him to nickname her “Leadfoot Lou.”

Not that Rockefeller kept within the confines of the posted speed limits, himself.

“I didn’t like for him to drive,” Johnson said.

“He liked taking the curves a little fast. Literally, he had one time with white knuckles. He had just bought a new car and wanted to drive it. I couldn’t very well say you can’t drive your new car. We were on a section of curvy road in Hardy County. I knew what was going to happen when we hit the mountains. He was going to scare me to death. And he did.”

In Pittsburgh one night, en route to a steel conference, Johnson shot past Rockefeller’s hotel, so the senator merely told her to make a U-turn. Johnson protested, fearing a traffic citation. Her fears were realized when two headlights edged closer and the bubble light came on in the rearview mirror.

“Senator, it’s a cop,” she announced.

“No, it’s not,” he said.

“Yes, it is, I’m telling you.”

Indeed, the two were pulled over and were both laughing uproariously when the officer approached the driver’s side. But the officer was in a generous mood, figuring they simply were lost in the big city. He didn’t recognize Johnson’s passenger.

West Virginia police did on other stops, but “generally they were nice,” Johnson said.

On election night in 1984, the victorious senator stopped at the United Press International bureau in Charleston, mesmerizing one newsman with his instant and accurate recall of major league baseball stats from earlier decades.

“He was a huge Braves fan,” Johnson said.

“One night, coming back from Franklin in Pendleton County, it was the playoffs, and he wanted to listen. This was before Sirius (satellite radio). We found an AM station without a great signal. I was tired and anxious to get to where we were going that night. Every few miles, the signal would fade. We got on Route 50 and I had to pull over. He was so fanatical about it. He would have all the Braves games taped. He would stay up late in Charleston watching the Braves games, taped them, then get back to Washington a few days later and watch them again.”

Rockefeller’s sense of humor never swayed.

Once, while en route to an interview at WOAY-TV in Oak Hill, Johnson by habit made the left turn from Crossroads Mall as if going back to Charleston, but soon realized her mistake and swung the car around in what then was an unpaved entrance ramp, kicking up a huge plume of dust.

“The Iranian Hostage Rescue Maneuver,” is how Rockefeller characterized it.

At times, he indulged in self-deprecating humor, such as the day he told a campaign crowd, “I was born rich and with a long nose, and I couldn’t help either.”

Former state Sen. Shirley Love, D-Fayette, in his biography, “A Man Called Shirley,” recalled a campaign swing through Fayette County where a group was hawking hot dogs and coffee as a fundraiser.

Rockefeller called on Love for an on-the-spot loan, explaining he wasn’t carrying any cash with him, so Love obliged and dug out a couple of bucks for the senator’s lunch.

“He still hasn’t paid me back,” Love said.

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