Children

Pianist and the President

Illustration: Satheesh Vellinezhi  

Spring, 1894 CE,

Stanford University, California, USA

“We’re finished,” Bert mumbled as he trundled his cycle from Encino Hall where he had just delivered a set of freshly laundered clothes to Romero Hall, where he and his friends were currently quartered. “I don’t know what else to do.”

“What’s the matter?” Ray Lyman Wilbur demanded, genuinely surprised. “Something wrong with your course? How many are you taking?” He ticked off. “Solid geometry, algebra, trigonometry and oh, but you’ve shifted your major from mechanical engineering to geological engineering, right? Dr. Branner driving you too hard?”

“I’ve signed up for as many of his courses as I could; they’re so good,” Bert snapped. Then he sobered. “No, it’s just the funds.”

“Your fees? But you’ve sold your newspaper distribution business for a profit, right? You must have a good sum saved. And God knows you slave every holiday, wandering over the hills to map them...”

“Those aren’t the funds I was talking about.”

“Then what...” Ray paused. “Is this about the concert?”

In a soup

Bert drew a deep breath. “I thought it would be a wonderful idea to invite great speakers and performers to the University — excellent lectures and concerts that’ll widen our knowledge. Helps increase university funds too. It’s for all our benefit. Even the professors welcome the idea.”

“So what’s gone wrong? I thought you’d invited that famous piano guy Paddy...Pada...”

“Paderewski — Ignacy Jan Paderewski. The greatest pianist of our times,” Bert’s voice rang with pride. “It’s an honour that he even agreed to come.”

“I still don’t see the problem.”

“I was so confident of his success that I promised, on behalf of the student body, to pay him $2,000 for the concert. But we’ve only collected $1,600!” Bert wailed. “And the concert’s tomorrow. God, Ray, what am I to do? I’m humiliated. And what about him? Wouldn’t this be a terrible insult?”

Ray Wilbur nodded seriously. “It is. But I don’t see a choice, Bert. You’ll have to go and tell him how it is. We’re only students, after all. Explain the situation. He’ll cancel, I expect.”

“Probably,” Bert sounded woebegone. “But maybe there’s a way out.”

Bushy-haired Paderewski stared at the two earnest boys, his moustache fairly bristling. One was rather composed, but the boy called “Bert” was trembling; he seemed to feel the humiliation keenly.

Paderewski stretched out a hand for the money. “Only $1600?” He asked, in his rather thick, Polish accent. “That is … disappointing.”

The boy, Bert, went crimson with embarrassment, stammering and stuttering about “lack of response” and then blushed even more, for, it was an insult to a great pianist. He promised to make up the rest...a personal cheque, drawn on his own account, to be paid later.

“And are you very rich?” Paderewski asked, stiffly, taking the cheque. “You must be, to promise $400 from your funds.”

Bert swallowed, and this time, went pale. “I come from a Quaker family,” he answered in a composed voice. “We are ordinary people, we believe in hard work and simple living. My parents are dead. I do laundry and a dozen odd jobs to pay my fees. But I shall work harder, to pay off your due. I swear it. A Quaker always honours his word.”

Paderewski stared at the proud boy, and the tears that trembled in his eyes. Then, with steady hands, he tore up the cheque into small pieces. His eyes were alight with gentleness and compassion. “Here is your money,” He handed back the cash. “You need this more than I do. I would never fleece students.”

“But...”

“And I will play tomorrow, as I promised. The concert will go on.”

February 1919 CE, Warsaw, Poland

“We’re finished,” murmured the prime minister to himself, as he gazed out of the window of his office. “The Great War has taken its toll. Poland has seen too many uprisings; our people are too weary to fight, to even survive. Farming hasn’t gone on properly in years. Livestock is pitiful. What do we do for food?”

He leaned against the windowsill. “What do I do?” The door crashed opened and he turned, annoyed that someone had entered without permission. “Who is...”

“Sir, Mr Paderewski ...I mean, Mr. Prime Minister,” stammered the aide who had rushed inside, face beaming with happiness. “We’re saved...we have food!”

“How?”

“The American Relief Association, the ARA. has promised to feed our people,” the aide burst out. “Just as they did, the people of Belgium.”

“Thank God for them,” Paderewski replied fervently. “Thanks be to the man who heads the ARA.”

“That would be Mr. Hoover. He headed the Committee for Relief in Belgium too, Sir.”

“Then I must thank him in person, for a debt that cannot be repaid.”

January 24, 1929 CE, Paris, France

In the end, it wasn’t at least until 10 years later that he could get to thank in person, the man who had helped him and both had changed: Paderewski was no longer prime minister, while the other was now President of the United States of America. But gratitude overflowed still in Paderewski’s mind. “I cannot say enough in praise of your efforts to save the people of Poland,” he said, grasping Hoover’s hands warmly. “You saved millions. Despite your own country’s objections.”

“Twenty million were starving,” smiled Hoover. “Whatever their policies, they had to be fed.”

“Which makes you even more generous than I had ever thought.”

“It isn’t just that, Mr Paderewski,” he paused and gazed at the older man, eyes warm with affection. “It was a pleasure. I could finally repay my own debt. You had once been generous to an indigent student.”

“I had?” Paderewski asked, in some confusion.

“Indeed. Herbert Hoover, also known as Bert from Stanford University, at your service.”

Historical Note:

True story.

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