Have you ever stopped to think, "What was my best day?"
Mark Keys of Newport Beach posed that question to more than 1,200 well-known Americans. The answers from 120 of them are included in Keys' new book, "My Best Day: A Collection of Best Day Remembrances of Celebrities and Other Prominent Americans."
The slim volume, published by Seven Locks Press of Santa Ana, includes responses from people in sports, entertainment, politics and other fields.
Astronaut James Lovell writes of his near-disastrous Apollo 13 lunar mission:
"My best day was when I saw the water from the Pacific Ocean splashing on the window of my spacecraft. Then I knew we finally made it."
Comedian Phyllis Diller took a different tack:
"Any day I don't have a root canal is a good day."
Former U.S. Sen. Bob Dole says he has had "many 'best' days," but the day he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom at the White House ranks at the top: "No one could claim to be equal to this honor but I will cherish it as long as I live."
Keys' book is an outgrowth of his interest in celebrities, which began in 1989 after having his picture taken with Magic Johnson at the Forum and later having Johnson autograph it.
He now has more than 3,000 celebrity autographs--from George Burns' and Bob Hope's to Clint Eastwood's and Frank Sinatra's. He got the signatures by either writing to the celebrities or meeting them at celebrity golf tournaments.
Keys, 39, began asking celebrities about their favorite day in 1994. The idea for the project came to him as he struggled to manage constant and debilitating pain from a work-related injury.
Keys, a Newport Beach native who rigged sailboats for a living, has been on permanent disability since injuring his back in 1991 while lifting an outboard engine.
He has since undergone numerous back surgeries and undergoes physical therapy several times a week.
Keys once played basketball, golfed and bodysurfed. Now he can't lift his 21-month-old daughter, Page, whom he takes care of during the day while his wife, Laurie, works at a finance company.
The idea of asking famous people about their best days came to Keys while walking around Balboa Island. He'd walk a couple of blocks and have to sit on a bench. But, he recalls, the sun was out and the people who walked by were friendly. Despite his pain, it was a good day, and it started him thinking, "I wonder what they've done in their lives, if they had any good days.
The first celebrity he wrote to was comedian Joey Bishop "because he lives in Newport." Bishop surprised Keys by writing him back a couple of days later, saying his favorite day is "the day I married my wife--56 years ago, Jan. 14, 1941."
"I thought that was the neatest thing: 'Hey, he wrote me back!' " recalls Keys. "It just made my day."
The book is heavy on celebrity names from the past--names such as Art Linkletter, Clayton Moore, Deborah Kerr, and Alan Young, who wrote that his favorite day was "the day Mr. Ed spoke to me."
Keys says he'd often be inspired to write after seeing someone on an old movie or TV show. He finds it's been more difficult getting responses from many of the major contemporary celebrities. He figures that they're either too busy to write back or that his letter goes through so many channels that the celebrity may never even see it.
When he does get a response from a current celebrity, he says, "it's pure luck. Like Morgan Freeman, I didn't think I'd get him because he's so busy."
Freeman's favorite day: "The day my baby girl was born."
The "best day" responses, which ranged from a single line to three pages, typically revolve around work, weddings and the birth of children.
But if there is a common thread, Keys says, "it's you should enjoy every day. [Actress] Bonnie Hunt said, 'Every day has the best-day potential.' "
Fitness expert Jack LaLanne would agree.
He wrote that his best day "started when I woke up this morning, and tomorrow will be even better because I will make it better."
Keys says that writing his letters to celebrities hasn't kept his mind off his back pain. "It doesn't because I have to sit when I do it. I write a letter or two and I have to stand up. I really have to be aware of not sitting too long."
Publisher Jim Riordan, who had a half dozen meetings with Keys while working on the book, says, "I don't think there was a time he didn't have to get up and stand up and stretch his back every fifteen minutes."
But Keys never mentioned his pain, Riordan says.
"It's when he thinks he's disrupting your conversation by standing up to stretch, he'll apologize for interrupting, so to speak," Riordan says. "For someone who has that much of a problem, he puts a great face on it, and he's smiling."
Keys is the first to admit that his back pain sometimes affects his disposition.
But, he says, "I feel you have to try. You can't feel sorry for yourself."
Asked what his own best day has been, Keys has no trouble coming up with an answer.
"When my little girl, Page, was born," he says, adding that he's had "a lot of best days," including the day he got married and the day his book was published.
"I've had a fun life and a lot of good friends, but it has to be Page. Having Page was everything. There's nothing better than when she's saying, 'Daddy.' "
* * Keys will discuss "My Best Day" at the Round Table West literary luncheon meeting at the Balboa Bay Club at noon Thursday. For reservations, call (213) 256-7977.