Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for
thereby some have entertained angels unawares." -
• Hebrews 13:2 (RSV)
Mary Alice Williams, news anchor for New Jersey Television (NJTV) and co-founder of CNN, was known to me professionally but unknown personally.
On the day former Senator Eugene McCarthy's life was remembered and celebrated in a memorial service at Washington's National Cathedral, Ms. Williams was one of two eulogists (the other was former President Bill Clinton).
She was Senator McCarthy's God-daughter, as she had grown up on a farm in Minnesota, and had known him from her childhood. Her eulogy was the most memorable I have ever heard. (As a eulogist President Clinton was good that day because he's always good; but Ms. Williams was better.)
While a Kennedy person (I had worked for Bobby), I had a close friendship with Senator McCarthy. I admired him greatly and flew across the country to be present at his memorial service.
I had never met Ms. Williams, but at a reception following the service, I introduced myself, told her I was president of The City Club of San Diego, a public forum, and asked if she would be willing, if her schedule permitted, to come to San Diego and speak? She graciously accepted my invitation.
A year or more had passed before she was able to come west from her home in New Jersey, but on a Friday afternoon she flew out of Newark to San Diego. I met her at the airport in the early evening, discovered she had had nothing to eat and was coming down with a cold, so I took her to a restaurant overlooking San Diego Bay.
Over dinner I asked, "Mary Alice, do you believe in angels?"
That is not a question I commonly ask, and certainly not of a new friend. But it is the question I asked, prompted by something within me, but Mary Alice answered:
"I do. Don't you?"
I said I did, that I was haunted by the New Testament's injunction to treat strangers with kindness, because some thereby have "entertained angels unawares."
Mary Alice then told me this story:
The day John F. Kennedy Jr.'s plane crashed off Martha's Vineyard, the entire fishing fleet in Cape Cod was scouring the sound in search of him. From her cottage on Cape Cod Bay, the water looked like glass. Not a ripple or wave. Mary Alice's three little girls asked if she would take them swimming off-shore in the family's Boston Whaler.
They motored in bright sunlight a couple of miles away from the beach, wanting solitude and quiet. But not long after the girls began swimming a huge fog bank blew in, as happens on Cape Cod, and Mary Alice asked her daughters to return to the whaler, they needed to head for shore.
However, the outboard engine on the whaler, wouldn't start, despite repeated attempts.
Mary Alice did her best to hide her mounting anxiety, but finally yelled out, "Ahoy! Ahoy!" Out of the enveloping grayness of fog and rising waves, she heard a voice answer back, "Ahoy."
A moment or two passed, it seemed longer to a worried mom when a fishing boat pulled up alongside the Williams' whaler. There on its deck stood a tall fisherman, beard and all, looking as if he had been sent by central casting, "What's wrong, Missy?" he asked. Mary Alice told him their outboard engine wouldn't start. The fisherman said he would board the whaler to see what luck he might have.
His luck was no better, and he said to Mary Alice and her three girls, "I will tow you in."
By then the sea was angry and dark, with high swell lifting the whaler and fishing boat high and slamming them into the troughs. Riding the stormy sea in toward the Cape was scary, and when they finally reached the beach, the girls jumped in the water and waded ashore; while their mother told the fisherman, "Thank you, thank you, thank you. You saved our lives. How can I ever thank you?"
Before uncoupling his fishing boat from the whaler, the tall, gray-bearded fisherman, said, "Missy, you can thank me by promising that if you ever encounter someone in need, you will do everything you can to help them." Mary Alice said, "I make that promise."
The fisherman was about to pull away, when Mary Alice called out, "What is your name and where can we find you?"
The fisherman answered, "My name is Martin, and you can find me in the village, in the little bait shack next door to the chocolate shop." And with that, he disappeared into the fog bank.
Mary Alice and her girls went home to their cottage. The girls asked their mother for butcher paper and color sharpies; they wanted to make a poster thanking Martin, the fisherman. They finished their posters and Mary Alice drove them to the village.
They went next door to the chocolate shop, but there was no bait shack and no one, no one, had ever heard of Martin.
And that is why Mary Alice Williams believes in angels.