Ken Burns Visits Barack Obama, Then Me — But Only One of Us Fed Him Hoagies

On Monday, I picked up Ken Burns at the 30th Street train station in Philadelphia and brought him to the campus at Rowan University in New Jersey, for a semi-stealth visit at a deliberately underpublicized Talking Pictures campus event in which he slipped into class for a two-hour talk — showing clips from recent and upcoming productions, fielding questions from students, and telling some great stories and bad jokes along the way.

I may not have mentioned it here — but as an under-the-radar event, we were outed the next day. His visit made the front page of the local Gloucester County Times newspaper…

Jessica Driscoll, who wrote the article, did an excellent job recounting the event, and staff photographer Kristen Vaughn supplied the pictures, including the one at the top of this column that I like a lot. It shows me thoroughly delighted, listening to Ken speak off the cuff — which could have been taken at any moment during the entire two-hour session. I thank them for the coverage — as well as Professor Mike Donovan for the Talking Pictures sponsorship, and College of Communication Dean Lorin Arnold for her support and enthusiasm.

The entire story, posted Tuesday on NJ.com, can be read HERE.

What I loved, from my perspective — we were seated at stage right, so as not to block the large projection screen, with Ken on my left and fellow interviewer, Rowan documentary film professor Diana Nicolae, on my right — was watching the students in the auditorium as the two hours progressed.

The more Ken talked, the more the audience was charmed. His passion ignited theirs, and his honesty commanded their respect. And every clip he showed — from last year’s Prohibition, and from upcoming productions on the Dust Bowl, the Roosevelts and the Central Park 5 — had them leaning a little more forward, eager to see more, hear more, and ask questions.

It’s clear that Ken Burns, if he wanted, would be a fantastic teacher. Except, I realize, he already is, on a much larger scale than even thousands of the largest classrooms could accommodate. He has the true teacher’s spirit, and commitment. On the morning before be boarded the train from Washington, D.C., he had met privately, for a few minutes, with President Barack Obama.

Imagine, spending private time with the President, and with me, on the same day. How lucky is Ken Burns?

(Lucky enough, at least, to drive home with a bagful of the area’s best Italian hoagies — a bonus stipend for a guy who eats meat only once a month, but appreciates greatness in comfort food as well as historical figures.)

But seriously — the way he carved out time for these students, and talked to them so unguardedly and inspiringly, is just as much proof of his dedication and passion to his art as are his finished films. He even swore a few times while telling stories, which is one sure way to get on the side of students right away.

I’ve known Ken for more than 20 years, and I still marvel at both the breadth and depth of his work and his interests. He told the class he worked harder than anyone he knows, and I believe him. I used to say I worked harder than anyone I knew, except for Terry Gross — but when Ken showed up carrying clips from three different works in progress, on a same-day stop halfway between the President and his New York apartment, I realized I was face to face with another dedicated workaholic to admire.

Oh — and he told me, and the class, that The Roosevelts, a joint biography of Teddy, FDR and Eleanor, may be the best film he’s ever done. From the looks of the introductory eight minutes, even in rough-cut form, he may well be right.

You heard it here first.

Thanks, Ken.

- David Bianculli