Celebrities are used to being approached by strangers wanting something from them. But what Vick Knight Jr. asked of hundreds of famous people over the past several decades had nothing to do with pictures or autographs:
“May I have a word with you? More precisely, may I have a word from you?”
The words generated by Knight’s unusual request are enough to fill a book.
Knight’s “My Word!” (Aristan Press) showcases the words--and the reasons behind their selection--of scores of celebrities, ranging from former President Reagan and the Rev. Billy Graham to humorist Dave Barry and weatherman Willard Scott.
Scott’s favorite word is “God"; Graham’s is “decision,” although the evangelist relates the word to God. Barry chose a godless word, “weasel,” as his favorite:
“I’ve learned certain fundamental truths about humor,” he writes. “One of them is that ‘weasel’ is a funny word. You can improve the humor value of almost any situation by injecting a weasel into it. . . .”
Reagan, governor of California at the time he responded to Knight’s query, chose “home” as his favorite word.
“As far back as I can remember, ‘home’ has brought an immediate mental image and almost tangible feeling of comfort, happiness and well-being. Home is synonymous with love and acceptance and being totally at ease. . . .”
“My Word!” is the latest product of Knight’s eclectic career as author, educator, speaker, prankster and all-around instigator.
He has written 21 books--including the nation’s first environmental ecology textbooks for elementary-school children--helped run the Placentia Unified School District and saw to it that W.C. Fields’ mug made it onto a postage stamp. He even published the formidable “Snakes of Hawaii: An Authoritative, Illustrated and Complete Guide to Exotic Species Indigenous to the 50th State.”
Of course, Knight’s 1974 book contains only blank pages as there are no snakes in Hawaii. Reader’s Digest called the 36-page tome “perhaps the perfect book, completely devoid of typographical, factual or zoological error.”
There is no shortage of words in Knight’s latest book.
“I’ve been a student of words all my life,” says Knight, 68. “I revel in words, and I love looking up the definition of words and using them. I got to thinking, ‘Gee, I have a favorite word'--it’s in the book--'and maybe others do too. Wouldn’t it be fun to just collect them?’ So I started out writing the letters.”
Ann Landers wrote back to say she is partial to the word “try": “I would much rather try and fail 50 times than not try and never know whether or not I could have made it.”
Lucille Ball chose “beauty"--"Not in the common connotation, but for what it implies in a spiritual and moral sense.”
Erma Bombeck’s word was “yes"; Abigail (Dear Abby) Van Buren, mindful of Bombeck’s response, took the opposite tack: “My favorite word is ‘no!’ ”
Knight--who grew up in Los Angeles, made his home for many years in Orange County and is now settled in Riverside County--got the idea for the book in 1973.
It was scheduled for publication in 1976, but the small Newport Beach publishing house that bought it went bankrupt shortly after paying Knight his advance.
Disappointed, but happy he had cashed his check, Knight set his word book aside.
A popular toastmaster and lecturer--last year he made 92 presentations to service clubs, chambers of commerce and various organizations--Knight would often quote from what Bombeck, Herman Wouk or someone else had written to him about their favorite words.
And, over the years, he says, “whenever the spirit would move me, I’d send out a few more letters.”
Finally, in 1995, Knight’s wife, Carolyn, urged him to either finish the book or dump it.
He responded by sending out several hundred more letters to famous people. In all, he figures he mailed 600 letters over the past two decades. And he received answers back from half. “My real problem was culling down the responses,” he says.
Given the book’s long gestation period, it’s not surprising that more than a dozen respondents featured in the book have died.
Knight also received some memorable turndowns.
Wrote author Isaac Asimov: “I thought about it and I really don’t have a favorite word and even if I make one up, it will mean getting a picture to you, and making up some soppy paragraph or other, and--well, I just don’t want to.”
Playwright Ira Levin (“Rosemary’s Baby”) scribbled on a postcard: “Sorry, but I’m in the middle of a play and need every word I’ve got.”
When the book was completed and ready to be printed--by the Knights’ own Aristan Press--Knight went down to his post office box and found an envelope postmarked Bangor, Maine.
It was the response from horror meister Stephen King. Knight bumped one unnamed celebrity from the book to make room for King, whose favorite word is “tenebrous"--which means dark and gloomy.
Knight has been in love with words since he was a kid growing up in Hollywood in the late ‘30s and ‘40s. He had read so many books in the children’s section of the local library that the librarian gave him an adult library card when he was 10.
His father wrote, directed or produced many top shows during radio’s golden age, including “Gang Busters,” “Amos ‘n’ Andy” and the Fred Allen show.
While in high school, Knight hosted his own weekly show called “Youth Interprets the News.” After enlisting in the Navy after graduating from Hollywood High in 1946, he spent two years as a writer, producer and announcer for Armed Forces Radio Service in Hollywood.
Majoring in education and English at USC after the service, Knight began his teaching career in 1952.
In 1959, the year the state Jaycees named him one of the year’s five outstanding young men for his work in developing school science programs, Knight became principal at Kraemer Middle School in Placentia. He eventually served as assistant superintendent of the Placentia Unified School District.
Not long after moving to Placentia, he came up with his own answer for whenever people asked where the north Orange County city was: “Where the majestic waters of Carbon Canyon Creek mingle with the Santa Ana River to form the Pacific Ocean.”
Knight’s interests are as varied as the contents of Fibber McGee’s fabled closet.
He has been studying the Mayan civilization for the past 20 years, and, through the Institute for Archeology at UCLA, he has accompanied leading Mayan scholars on trips to ruins in Belize and Guatemala.
He is co-founder of the National Parenting Institute, a nonprofit organization that helps teach parenting skills, and periodically lectures to parenting groups.
He continues to teach specialty classes--English, American history and customs to Brazilian exchange students; the romance of wine to students at Cal State San Marcos--and he often gives motivational talks to high schoolers.
Knight began growing his own grapes and making his own wine after he and Carolyn moved from Orange County to Canyon Lake, a private community near Lake Elsinore in 1981, the year they were married.
The Knights’ home is a spacious, three-story house on 2 1/2 lots. The rear of their property boasts a vineyard with 100 vines. Their label: Knight’s Berry Farm and Vineyard.
Both Vick and Carolyn have their own offices at home.
Carolyn, a former corporate editor for Carl Karcher Enterprises in Anaheim, has written five books and is co-owner and editor of the Canyon Lake Friday Flyer, a weekly newspaper.