The Roar of the Motorcade


Illustration by Alex Nabaum

The Nobel laureate’s plane was not scheduled to land for another hour, but when I arrived at the airport on that afternoon in 1998, his motorcade was already lined up on the tarmac. We’d been told to arrive early, in case the private corporate jet carrying him and his entourage caught a tail wind. Anyway, since I would be driving my own car—a leprechaun-green Ford Escort—I wanted to be certain I had my place in the lineup of motorcycles, police cars, black SUVs, and limousines. This would be my second motorcade from Hartsfield (now Hartsfield-Jackson) International Airport, and I knew from experience there’d be no dallying once it took off.

Emory and motorcades, or their forebears, have something of a curious history. Emory College basically moved from Oxford to Druid Hills in 1919 in a parade of ancient vehicles. The late Woolford Baker, the long-time biology professor whose name and memory grace the woods behind Carlos Museum, recalled years after the fact that faculty members loaded all their academic paraphernalia into their cars and drove west on the Covington Highway toward Atlanta. “We moved the entire [biology] department . . . in Dr. Rhodes’s car, an Overland of some ancient vintage,” he wrote. Likewise Dr. Sam Guy loaded the chemistry department in his. English and history may have had an easier time, but for all those books.

Farther back than that, the boys at Emory College in 1898 greeted their president, Warren Candler, when he returned to the Covington train depot after being elected bishop—a signal honor that, in their eyes, reflected glory on the students and their college. In their exuberance, the three hundred or so students gathered at the depot, unhitched the gray horses from the bishop’s carriage, and pulled the carriage with the rotund bishop aboard the full mile back to the campus. The gray horses walked somewhere in the procession.

Almost exactly a century later, here I was at a different kind of depot awaiting a different kind of religious leader who would arrive by plane, not train, and get into a different sort of carriage. Was my anticipation as high as that of the boys awaiting the bishop a hundred years earlier?

It’s hard to say. At Emory, even by 1998, we had become a bit unfazed by motorcades. After all, since 1982 we’ve seen President Carter in his small convoy pulling up to front doors all over the campus. And in 1995, the second sitting US president to visit Emory (Carter was the first) had his motorcade parked outside Cannon Chapel, as Emory hosted Bill Clinton’s Southeastern Economic Summit. Legend has it that one of the Secret Service drivers, during a bathroom break, left his key to the locked car under the left front fender, atop the tire, where some watchful rascal retrieved it, unlocked the car, and drove it to South DeKalb Mall. Secret Service agents of course will deny that any such thing ever happened. Just ask them.

Certainly great security was in place as we prepared to bring a motorcade carrying Mikhail Gorbachev to The Carter Center in 1992. The Berlin Wall had been smashed, the Soviet Union had fallen apart, and Gorbachev—Time magazine’s “man of the half-century” and a Nobel Peace Prize winner—was on the speaking circuit to raise funds for his new foundation. Emory had pitched an invitation for him to deliver the Commencement address. Perhaps enticed by a promised meeting with President Carter and, afterward, a private audience with thirty to forty of the Southeast’s wealthiest capitalists, the former president of the former Soviet Union had accepted.

That was my first motorcade from the airport. Standing on the tarmac in May 1992 with Senator Sam Nunn, a couple of Russian studies faculty members, the chair of Emory’s Board of Trustees, and a few other Emory delegates, I couldn’t help meditating on the way I had been taught to think of Russians over the years—from Krushchev’s shoe-pounding at the UN, to Colonel Klebb in From Russia with Love, to Reagan’s “Evil Empire,” all balanced by reading of Chekhov, Dostoevski, Turgenev, Pasternak, and Solzhenitsyn.

All such thoughts evaporated, though, as we spotted the plane above the far end of the runway making its approach to land. Gorbachev had come in on a private corporate jet, owned by Malcolm Forbes of Forbes magazine fame. Emblazoned on the tail was the jet’s name—“Capitalist Tool,” a fittingly ironic ride for the former Communist leader.

My best moment in that first motorcade was opening the door of the limo and stepping out as it was still slowing to a halt in front of The Carter Center, where President and Mrs. Carter and President and Mrs. Laney were waiting. I felt like a Secret Service agent myself. After that, the man of the half-century disappeared into the crush of people, and I wandered off to the reception.

Gorbachev was not the first Nobelist I recall seeing in a car. That would be Desmond Tutu. The South African Anglican archbishop first visited Emory in 1988, to deliver the Commencement address, and that was the beginning of a long and warm relationship with the university. One of his daughters enrolled in the School of Public Health, and he himself accepted President Laney’s invitation to spend a sabbatical semester at Emory in the early 1990s. A university-owned house on Clifton Road south of the campus, often used for visiting scholars, was given over to the archbishop’s use, and he was able to make the short walk from there to the Woodruff Library, to Cannon Chapel, and even to the Woodruff P. E. Center occasionally. Strolling around the campus in his Emory sweatshirt and Greek sailor’s cap, he attracted frequent attention and great affection.

But how was he to get to, for instance, the grocery store, or the pharmacy, or just to a movie when the fancy struck? Emory had no staff to spare for chauffeuring. But there was a spare car in the garage at Lullwater House—the Lincoln Town Car that had belonged to Robert W. Woodruff, who bequeathed it to Emory for President Laney’s use. So it was that one day, walking along North Decatur Road near the law school, I looked up to see a mammoth black car trundling slowly west toward me, its driver visible just over the wheel, a Greek sailor’s cap perched atop the elfin head of one of the most charming Nobel laureates ever.

Now here I was, in 1998, awaiting another Nobelist. Awaking from reverie, I realized that a plane had landed and was rolling along the runway to where I stood with another small delegation. In a moment the plane had stopped; after a pause, the door cracked open and swung wide, and then there he was, a small monk in maroon and saffron robes smiling and waving at us. Down the steps came His Holiness the XIV Dalai Lama, that year’s Commencement speaker. At the foot of the stairs his entourage bustled around him; the police and chauffeurs scurried toward their vehicles. A brief ceremony of handshakes and bows included bestowal of khatas, white silk scarves, around the necks of those who were greeting His Holiness. And then he stepped into his car, and I broke for mine.

Lights. Sirens. Motion. In a trice the motorcade is on the interstate, headed toward the great spires of Atlanta’s skyline, speeding up the inside lane as cars and trucks move out of the way, their drivers no doubt wondering who the important person is. And no doubt wondering, also, who’s driving that little green car, nearly airborne at 80, as it shoots like the tip of a long black whip—or, better, like a Tibetan prayer flag snapping in the wake of the roaring motorcade.

Gary S. Hauk 91PhD is Emory vice president and deputy to the president. He is the author of A Legacy of Heart and Mind: Emory Since 1836 and coeditor of a 2010 collection of essays about the university.

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