OH, by the Way…

Remember the great TV detective Columbo, who always popped out with the killer question just before he went out the door, prefaced by “Oh, by the way”? Well, in this new bimonthly feature, Nursing Homes/Long Term Care Management columnist Gary Tetz (“Funny You Should Ask”) talks with long-term care leaders about anything that pops into his mind. He's as surprised as you are that they'll speak to him, and apologizes in advance for whatever inanity he might blurt out in the pressure of the moment.

This Month's Victim:

William L. (Larry) Minnix, Jr. President and Chief Executive Officer American Association of Homes and Services for the Aging (AAHSA)
I hadn't spoken to Larry in quite some time, and felt awful about it. I finally tracked him down on his cell phone somewhere in our nation's capital. He was clearly delighted to hear from me.

As you know, AAHSA represents more than 5,700 not-for-profit providers of aging services, and Larry has led the organization since 2001. He holds a Doctor of Ministry degree from Emory University and is an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church. He's known for his down-home Southern charm, sometimes startling candor, biblical analogies, and endless stories.

Larry, it's been a long time. How much have you and the rest of the AAHSA team missed me?

(With barely discernable sarcasm) You know, Gary, one of the problems I face is grief among our staff over how long it's been since they had contact with you. The crying, the temper tantrums—they never end. So it is so good of you to reconnect.

I think your media person is a little nervous about this.

She was really scared. I told her, “Do you want me to tell him the one about…” and she was like, “Please don't.”

Nothing could frighten a public relations professional more than Larry Minnix starting a sentence with, “I probably shouldn't say this, but….”

(Laughs) You're exactly right. And she's heard that a few times.

According to my life journal, the last time we spoke was in October 2003, when you said, “The times are great and I'm happier than the day I walked in about being head of this association.” Were you lying?

No. I have the greatest job in the world, and the opportunity to improve things has never been better.

Back then, public perception of nursing homes was low, Medicare reimbursement was going over a cliff, regulators and lawsuits were out of control, and a staffing crisis was raging. Aren't you glad that's all behind you?

(Laughs) I'll tell you what's changed. Many providers are taking quality improvement seriously, and policymakers are finally facing the fact that we have a broken system and we're all capable of fixing it.

You told me, “We've got resolvable problems, and I'm beginning to see the tide swing in our direction.” Now, that sounds more like President Bush talking about Baghdad.

(Laughs) Maybe it was a joint statement from both of us.

You're known for your biblical analogies. What Bible character do you most closely identify with these days?

It would probably be a combination of Micah, who was a bit of a prophetic figure, and the worker in the vineyard.

I expected you to choose Noah. After all, you're preaching to a lot of deaf ears about a rising flood of boomers.

Or I could have said Jonah because we've [the LTC profession] been swallowed up and spit out.

What did you want to be when you grew up?

When I was about three, I told my mama I wanted to be a cowboy and asked her to mail me to Texas. She resisted doing that, although I'm sure there are days she wished she had.

Why a cowboy?

I don't know. Maybe because when I was just a little bitty kid I listened a lot to Hank Williams. In fact, I remember getting kicked out of Sunday school. The teacher asked us kids which song we liked to sing and everybody else said “Jesus Loves Me” and so forth. But when she came around to me, I said, “Hey, Good Lookin'.” So she made me sit out in the hall.

Besides Hank, who were your childhood heroes?

Well, there was Lash LaRue, a cowboy western movie figure, and I loved Mickey Mantle. But I guess the all-time most lovable character in my life, beyond my mama and daddy, was my Uncle Clarence. He worked at the mill and lived way out in the country. He took me fishing, taught me dirty jokes, and sang “The Wabash Cannonball” to me.

What have you learned since then?

The older I get and the wiser I think I am, the less people seem to listen to me and the more I realize I need to know.

You've been known to say around the office, “We've got serious work. It better be fun.” How do you keep your sense of humor?

I work around fun people who know how to laugh and cry, and I firmly believe the ability to do both is one of the secrets to a healthy life. If I ever write a book about our work [in long-term care], it will be about those times—it usually has something to do with sensitive bodily functions—when you don't know whether to laugh or cry. It's not laughing at people, it's laughing with them. It's deciding that you're going to laugh about a situation because if you don't, you might not stop crying.

I remember a man who still had his mental faculties but was losing control of his bodily functions. One of our nurses was interviewing him about his daily habits and asked, “What time do you wake up in the morning, and when do you normally go to the bathroom?” He said, “Nurse, I wake up promptly at 7:00 a.m., and I have a bowel movement promptly at 6:30.” The two of them broke up laughing. He was able to maintain his sense of humor in the midst of what was no doubt an undignified stage in his life.

A few months back in a column for this very magazine, I came out of the closet and admitted I'm an accordion player. (Larry's laughter at this revelation lasts a little too long for my comfort.) Are there any secret leisure time activities you'd like to admit?

I like to make fused glass, and I like really good country/western music on my iPod. I'm a simple kind of guy. I love my family and I love my work. I love a good story, and I'll tell it over and over. I'll start one, and someone at AAHSA will say, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, we've heard it.”

Did you do anything fun last summer?

My wife got us involved in the Children of Chernobyl project, and the past two summers we've hosted children in our home. They don't speak English. We don't speak Russian. But it's been a wonderful experience. The kids this summer were two little girls, ages eight and ten.

Did you chase them around the yard playing F-tag?

(Chuckles) That's pretty good.

I apologize for that sad attempt at long-term care humor. How about pets?

I have a 104-pound golden retriever named Leo and a 15-year-old border collie named Bear. He's deaf and demented, so he requires his own brand of doggie caregiving at home. It's a “where the dollars follow the client” program.

(I should have told him about the new nursing home for dogs that just opened in Japan. You read about it, of course, in my August column.)

With an election coming up, any advice for sifting through the muddle and making the right choice?

I think more than anything we're looking for people who have led authentic lives—people who have had real jobs, who understand real family problems, and who don't mind giving straight answers about things. I wrote a newsletter column called “Hair spray preachers and Botox politicians” about candidates who have never had to meet a payroll, never had to make decisions about whether they could afford health insurance, never had cancer or Alzheimer's or stress in their lives. Those are the kind of folks who have a lot of difficulty empathizing with others.

You've also said, “Grooming is great for peacocks, but peacocks don't make very good policy leaders.” Somewhere John Edwards is weeping.

Well, you notice I was careful not to mention any names. If the shoe fits, wear it.

You spend a lot of time on Capitol Hill. What's the most ridiculous thing you've ever heard a politician say?

I can think of some examples, but they'd get me into trouble. (Laughs) Let's just say that the lengths these people go to avoid saying anything is really ridiculous. That's why we've got to take hard stances with them, or they'll wiggle off the hook. This is a time for hard talk and truth-telling, not spinning.

Has straight talk ever gotten you in trouble?

(Laughs. Loudly) Oh yes. A time or two. But except when I wound up personally attacking somebody and shouldn't have, I've rarely regretted it.

Another leadership trait you've said is important is the ability to laugh at oneself.

Well, there's plenty to laugh at. And I can tell you, if you're not laughing at yourself, you're probably the only one in the room who's not.

You also wrote, “We need people, not animals in public office.” But the people have just messed things up. Shouldn't we give animals a chance?

As a golden retriever lover, that's definitely one animal that's worthy of our consideration.

They do have a very regal look about them. In what other ways would your dog Leo make a good president?

Leo loves people unconditionally, and he's willing to work his tail off to make you happy. But like a politician, he's always begging for treats.

You've interviewed Walter Cronkite and have been interviewed by me. Who is more intimidating?

Walter Cronkite and Larry Minnix
I would have to say that his eyebrows are much more impressive.

You haven't seen mine lately.

Yeah, you've probably had them done up. You're probably into the media league now where you're doing the hair spray and that capped-tooth reporter look.

I think you're right. So tell us about Mr. Cronkite.

(At last year's AAHSA national convention, Cronkite joined Larry on stage for a conversation about aging.) Man, that was one of the highlights of my career. I'll never forget it. He's just such a wonderful man. It was his 90th birthday, so we gave him a cake. During the interview, I told him, “My wife says you have a certain gravitas. I want to know what that is, and how do I get some?” He kind of chuckled and I added something about him having the voice of God and those eyebrows. He said, “Every now and then I get corn on the cob stuck in them.” The audience was in stitches.

Now I feel like I have to sign off by saying, “And that's the way it is.”

OK, get the corn on the cob out of your eyebrows and take the rest of the night off.

To send your comments to the author and editors, e-mail tetz1007@nursinghomesmagazine.com

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