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Mark Lucas meets the "Man with the Golden Voice," Ted Williams. (Credit: Chris Casella)

Parting Shot: Better Off Ted?

By Mark J. Lucas

Published February 1, 2011

During this bleak, dreary winter, with the economy still recovering, there are likely more than a few Columbus residents daydreaming about what they'd do if they won the lottery. Now, all you lofty dreamers out there have a local rags-to-riches hero to look up to.

Unless you've been without radio, TV and Facebook for the past month, you've probably seen the video clip of Ted Williams. The then-homeless man standing by the I-71 off-ramp at Hudson Street, holding a sign declaring his talent of a "golden radio voice" and asking for donations, became an overnight sensation on YouTube. (The original video was viewed more than a million times over a mere two days.)

This guy Ted was going to be offered some high-profile work from his sign flying popularity, and I was going to see the look on his face - at a press junket of sorts at WNCI - when he got the offer. That was the appeal of the Ted Williams story to me when I first heard about it. Everyone likes a tale of redemption, but this was a fellow man coming from the cheap seats of life, and he was going to get a pretty good shot at his dream.

It took me a minute to find the station, but when I did, I found myself in the center ring of a veritable media circus. Heated arguments between the news guys created a near-deafening roar, and some of the cameramen were pissed about the angles they were getting. One of the reporters was talking to another about exclusives.

When I got to the booth, I could barely make out Ted on the other side of the glass, with all the reporters crammed into the space. There I stood, (614) Magazine sandwiched in between the CBS Evening News and Inside Edition - them in their suits, I in the local reporter uniform of black concert t-shirt and leather jacket.

It was clear that Ted and his voice had, in the parlance of the Internet trade, "gone viral" overnight. Very few people have actually been present when an occurrence goes viral. The phenomenon is an elusive rabbit, coveted by many, and there's no telling when it will pop its head up or go shooting down a hole - but this time, I was right there.

In spite of all the excitement, Ted didn't seem completely happy. He almost seemed scared. And, in retrospect, why wouldn't he be?

Here's a guy that, two days prior, was living in a tent, holding up a cardboard sign for money, with 90 percent of the passers-by telling him to get f**ked. Forty-eight hours later, he's the most inspiring thing going, and everyone wants a piece of his voice. Had I had five bucks the week before, I would have gotten an exclusive interview. Now I have to sneak past the evening news crew just to see him.

I've always wanted to be able to fly, like Superman. The thing is, if I get halfway up a ladder, I start to shake like a leaf - so if I actually woke up tomorrow with the ability to fly, I'd probably lose it. That's what I saw on Ted's face; he was afraid of heights, and suddenly he was way up in the clouds. I could almost hear the questions that must have been running through his head:

What do I do with it all? Do I take this opportunity, or that one? Is this a dream? What if I wake up and it's all gone? Who might come out of the woodwork, now that I'm in the spotlight? Who can I trust?

Just like Susan Boyle, of Britain's Got Talent instant fame, or that dirt-poor guy in Africa, who found the enormous diamond while he was sifting through muddy water; Ted had something in his hands that you don't get twice.

I was happy for him. I was nervous for him, too. And at the same time, I found myself a bit jealous.

I think everyone in the room felt the same way to some small degree - even the national news guys. Why wasn't it me, or one of my friends? Sure they'd never endured the kind of hardships Ted had faced, but he readily admits that he brought some troubles on himself.

Though this sentiment was a very small part of the whole thing, it still peppered the experience a little. That might be another obstacle for Ted to hurdle: the jealousy, however brief, in others that he'll always be able to pick up on some subtle level.

But, those are the cynics, I suppose. There was also a part of everyone involved that didn't just want, but needed to see Ted do well. I could see, I could hear people - myself included - needing to know that dreams could come true if you wanted them badly enough.

I finally got to ask him a question: How you doin' Ted? All this because of your pipes, huh?

He answered in his famous voice.

"Yes. God blessed me with a beautiful set of pipes. This just means the world to me. I want to just thank you for coming down, just to say hi. And happy New Year, too."

Then he had to go back on the air, at which time, I had to shuffle out. That was it. That was the whole interview. By the end of that day, Ted had received job offers from Kraft and the Cleveland Cavaliers, and within the week he'd done interviews with the BBC, Dr. Phil and Jimmy Fallon. It happened so fast, it was almost literally fifteen minutes of fame.

No doubt some of the cynics shook their head when Ted was detained by police after an airport argument with his daughter, and when he checked himself into rehab. Us optimists gulped hard and prayed when Ted checked out of that same rehab a week later.

The whole thing reminds me of a lesson from physics. Fame, it seems, is like gravity. It's an attractive force in the universe, drawing things in, and ultimately creating stars. But gravity is also the force that eventually destroys those stars unless it reaches a certain equilibrium.

I sure hope Ted finds that equilibrium.