Martinis and smoke – one magical mixture

Dr. Ed Banner gave me a glimpse into a part of the world of which I was mostly unaware, but in ways that made me feel there was nothing I couldn’t accomplish.  We were vastly different in age and light-years apart in economic and social status, but he treated me as an equal and friend.  This story from nearly 50 years ago would be impossible in today’s world – for many reasons which you will discover.

As manager of Schaak Electronics in Rochester, MN in the 1970s, some of my best customers were from the Mayo Clinic, one of the largest employers in town. These men (nearly all buyers of high-end stereo equipment were male), had more money than my family and friends had growing up.  In Fairmont, where I lived until I was a junior in high school, people with this amount of wealth didn’t even exist.  Attending my senior year of high school in Rochester, I became aware of people like this, but was largely oblivious to resentments some students felt about “those stuck-up rich doctor’s kids.” My interest at Schaak Electronics wasn’t about status, it was about selling more stuff and winning sales contests. Going out of my way to help those who could make larger purchases was part of my job. Lessons from my Schaak year’s paid huge dividends later when climbing the corporate ladder at IBM and AT&T.

When managing Schaak Electronics in the 1970s, I sent Xmas cards to customers, featuring my whole crew. These three survived.

One of my favorite Mayo Clinic customers was Dr. Ed Banner.  Not only was he a doctor from the large, mysterious white building in downtown Rochester, he was originally from “the big city” (Chicago), drove a Ferrari, and sported a shock of red hair.  His coming into my store was more like a “grand entrance” than someone casually strolling in to shop. He’d purchased stereo systems for his living room, office and other spots in his house and frequently shopped for electronic-oriented gifts for family and friends.  Not only was he a good customer, I considered him a friend.  One evening he heard me coughing and told me to call his office at Mayo the following day.  Even then I knew people waited months for an appointment at the Mayo Clinic.  But when I called his office, his assistant told me she’d been expecting my call and to come right down.  After a quick stop in his office, soon I was being examined by the head of Mayo’s ENT department. As head of the Gynecology Department, Dr. Banner would not be treating me himself.

Anyone spending even a short time in Rochester, MN heard stories about Dr. Ed Banner.  His exuberance, confidence and style made him the center of attention everywhere he went. He lived large and possessed a bigger-than-life presence. He was hard not to notice and impossible to forget. His Ferrari was the only one in town.  If he was in a restaurant having dinner, everyone knew it.

One Saturday morning a few weeks before Christmas, Dr. Banner had finished making some seasonal gift purchases at my store and we were chatting at the counter.  Making conversation, he asked about my plans for the evening. Normally, my life was pretty dull with little to report.   But this time it occurred to me I might be able to impress the good doctor with my evening plans: “Well Doc, tonight I’m having dinner with my girlfriend at the Country Club.” Now Rochester’s Golf and Country Club was a private, exclusive, and expensive-for-me place I’d only heard about.  However, that particular evening, the country club was the venue for a corporate holiday party and my date was an employee of that company.  The company owners were flying in on their private plane from Quincy, Illinois, and had arranged the dinner at the club.  My girlfriend worked at KROC-TV (later to become KTTC), and invited me as her date.  I was excited at the prospect of going to “the country club,” and proud of it.

No sooner had I revealed my plans when Dr. Banner said, “Ah, yes, Alice and I will be dining at the club this evening as well.” He then paused, thought for a moment, stroked his chin, and asked me, “Steve, do you like martinis?” I’d never had one in my life and only seen the odd-shaped martini glasses on television, but I instantly replied, “Yes, I do.” Then he asked, “And do you by any chance also enjoy a good cigar?” And again, although not having ever smoked a cigar other than those horrible Swisher Sweets in college, heard myself answering, “Of course, Doc.” And it was then he made the following proposal: “Steve, why don’t you come over to the house about an hour before you’re set to pick up your date, and we’ll have a martini and a cigar. I think you’ll like that.”  We finalized a time, and off he went.

Late that afternoon, I arrived at the Banner residence just as it was beginning to get dark.  Snow flurries, the big, puffy, slow-moving ones that you can see clearly as they lazily float past, were drifting down.  I parked in the driveway and rang the bell.  Dr. Banner’s wife greeted me warmly, saying, “You must be Steve.  Ed is waiting for you in his library,” and she guided me past windows overlooking all of downtown Rochester.  Wow, what a view!

Dr. Banner stood up from his desk in a large comfortable office that was indeed, full of books.  Classical music played at a low volume from bookshelf speakers I recognized as ones from my store. Mrs. Banner closed the double doors and we shook hands in greeting. After some preliminaries, he said, “Now, let me make you one of my famous martinis.”  He pulled out a large bottle of gin and a smaller bottle of vermouth, and carefully measured them into a stainless steel shaker filled with ice.  Spinning the liquid around, he told me it was important not to be too vigorous, as one could “bruise the gin.” After a minute of this, he left the room and returned with two large martini glasses. From their frosted appearance, I knew they’d been chilled.  He carefully poured the crystal clear liquid from the shaker into the two glasses, turned to me, and said, “Do you know what the ladies say about my martinis, Steve?” I said nothing.  His eyes twinkled and he said, “Well, they say, ‘Doc, I’ll have just one, two at the most, because three I’m under the table and four I’m under the host.’” We both laughed.

Before we could sample the drinks, Doc said, “Now, we’ll leave these here to rest just a bit, while we find something to smoke.” We left the room and entered his garage where he had a large refrigerator.  Opening the door he showed me the entire refrigerator had been transformed into a massive humidor and filled with boxes and boxes of cigars — nearly all he pointed out, were imported from Cuba or South America.  “You know,” he said, “many of my patients are the wives of South American politicians, and when they wish to show their appreciation, they send me boxes of cigars.”   He pulled two boxes out and opened them, saying “Here are my two current favorites. While the fillings are virtually the same tobacco, you’ll see one is wrapped in a green tobacco leaf and the other a brown leaf.  Which wrapper do you think you might prefer, the green or the brown?”  I looked at them for a moment and then said, “I’d like to try the brown one.”  He pulled one of the huge brown cigars from the top of the box and handed it to me.  Then he selected one of the green ones for himself.  But before he left, he took another of the large green cigars from the box and slipped it into my inside suit jacket pocket saying, “Why don’t you take one of these for later,” as he selected a second brown one and put it into the inside of his jacket pocket.

Back in his office he patiently took me through the ceremony of circumcising a cigar and then the right way to light one.  Apparently, you were never to use a lighter — only large stick matches — to light cigars of this caliber. Obviously, he knew I was a novice and unfamiliar with all of this, but he never once treated me like we were anything other than equals performing a ritual together that we’d done hundreds of times before. As we sat across from each other in his classic Eames chairs, I will never forget the smoke and its deep rich fragrance wafting slowly around our heads and filling the room.  I can recall sipping the super-chilled martini while listening to music quietly playing in the background.  I remember us clinking our glasses in a toast or two but not to what. It was like being in a deep and relaxing dream while simultaneously, being fully awake and hyper aware of every sensation.   Before I knew it, Dr. Banner was rushing me to the door, saying I must not be late.  I drove down the hill on an amazing high.  The snow had accumulated about an inch and was still softly falling. Parking in front of my girlfriend’s apartment, I left the car and walked up to the front door – actually, it didn’t feel much like walking, more like I had floated up.  And if you want to know the truth, boys and girls, when I turned and looked back down the walk toward my car to check, it was indeed the case. There were no footprints in the snow as there should have been.  While I can only speculate, I’m quite certain that I had literally floated up the walk on an invisible pillow of cigar nicotine and martini.

Arriving at the Country Club, we soon found the party, which was being hosted in a semi-private room. No doubt due to my girlfriend’s stunning appearance, we were seated at the head table with the owners of the television station from Quincy, the local station general manager and the local anchorman and his wife.  Dinner progressed easily and safely.  I remembered everyone’s names while forgetting which piece of silverware to use when. As soon as people learned I was uninvolved with the television business, they ignored me – and I was fine with that.

We’d completed dinner and desserts were being served when I heard a commotion behind me at the back of the room.  I watched the eyes of the people across the table from me as they stared transfixed.  Someone obviously had entered the room and was heading for our table, but stopping here and there on the way toward us.  Then the voice became recognizable and I heard it say, “Good evening, I’m Dr. Banner, pleased to meet you.” At another table, “Yes, hello Bob, good to see you, happy you could be here tonight, so nice of you to come.”  I turned and watched as he slowly worked his way in my direction, moving along as if running for office and everyone here a potential vote.  With a big brown cigar clenched in his teeth, he shook hands, told everyone how lovely they looked, and finally arrived at the head table where the local managers stood and introduced this local celebrity to the out-of-town visitors.  Banner exchanged pleasantries with them, all the while resting his hand on my shoulder.  Then he looked down at me, with a twinkle in his eye, and said, “Now, everyone knows I like these Cuban cigars with the brown wrappers,” as he pulled the large cigar from his mouth and held it up to admire it.  “But every once in a while,” he continued, “I come across a discerning gentleman who’s been lucky enough to find one with a green wrapper.  Might you be him?” he asked me.  At that moment I remembered the green wrapped cigar Dr. Banner has slipped into my breast pocket several hours earlier.  I slowly reached in and pulled out the cigar, held it in front of my face, and looked at it, then turned to Dr. Banner and asked, “But how did you know?” Dr. Banner looked down at me, smiled and said, “I can smell them.  Here, let me light that for you.”  And he did.

Epilogue: This night, so memorable to me, no doubt was just one of thousands of wonderful nights in the life of this incredible man.  Dr. Banner passed away at 80 years old, on Nov. 5, 1992 in Vail, Colorado.  After getting his medical degree in 1939, he began a fellowship in obstetrics and gynecology in the Mayo Graduate School of Medicine in 1942. In 1947 he was appointed a consultant in obstetrics and gynecology at Mayo and in 1969 became a professor at the Mayo Medical School.  While he’d never mentioned it to me, I learned Dr. Banner was on the board of directors for the Rochester Country Club. His son, Dr. Ed Banner, Junior, graduated from Mayo High School in 1969 as did I. Young Ed Banner did his undergraduate studies at Harvard and went to medical school at the University of Minnesota.  He practiced medicine in Houston, Texas.

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