Beloved journalist Bill Geist, author of nine bestselling books, has a new title out—Lake of the Ozarks: My Surreal Summers in a Vanishing America. By turns hilarious and sentimental, it chronicles Geist’s experiences working at a relative’s Missouri resort each summer during his teen and early adult years. We asked Bill’s son Willie, co-anchor of MSNBC’s Morning Joe and anchor of Sunday Today with Willie Geist, to interview his father about the book and its inspiration.
Willie: You were young when you started working at your Uncle Ed’s lodge. These days, it seems like kids’ summers are programmed down to the minute, maybe even with a career in mind. What do you think a 15-year-old kid, like you were back then, misses by having such a regimented summer schedule geared toward some future adult life?
Bill: They miss dealing with people—co-workers, bosses and customers— amidst ever-changing problems, situations of every kind, making adjustments on the fly. That is, we learned how to think for ourselves.
Willie: The best part of Lake of the Ozarks is the characters. I’ve been hearing about them all my life. They are legendary. How did they begin to shape your personality, your life and ultimately your career?
Bill: I learned to appreciate eccentrics, I was drawn to them and continued to be infatuated with that type of person as a newspaper and TV reporter. I never really cared for “normal people.” My entire career has been seeking out people who march to the beat of their own drum, in every state in the union and many countries around the world.
Willie: What did you learn from Uncle Ed, or just from being at the lake alone, that you hadn’t yet learned back in real life growing up in Champaign, IL?
Bill: My uncle insisted that I develop a good work ethic, or be fired. I learned to appreciate the differences in all kinds of people. Also, I learned early to take responsibility for myself, like ironing my white shirt every day to make a good impression in the lobby. I often burned the shirt, but the good news is that the shape of the brown burn of an iron looked just like the logo for Arrowhead Lodge. It worked out nicely.
Willie: What is something about your time at Lake of the Ozarks that you wish everyone could experience?
Bill: I wish that everyone could experience the independence of living away from home at an early age.
Willie: Clearly, Libby [Willie’s sister] and I inherited the spirit of Lake of the Ozarks. The humor, and the appreciation for strange characters, but I noticed you never sent us to clean septic tanks at a lake resort in the summer.
Bill: There really isn’t anything like this experience anymore, nor is there another Uncle Ed. Although we tried not to be “helicopter parents” we still found that your summers were more scheduled in camps and family vacations. Your summer jobs were near home and I’m afraid your mom would have been horrified if you were given some of the jobs that I got.
Willie: I’m 44 and I can’t remember a time when you weren’t talking about Lake of the Ozarks and flirting with the idea of writing this book. Well, Dad…you did it.
Bill: This book was 40 years in the making. Thirty years ago as I was leaving The New York Times to go to CBS I was quoted as saying I would be working in TV and also on a book about Lake of the Ozarks. It didn’t happen then. Finally, when I retired from that job last year I was able to find time to actually write it. I’m so happy I did.