Monday, June 15, 2009

Brinker influence: Just e-NORM-ous

Toni Brinker is hosting a celebration for her husband tomorrow at the Meyerson. No doubt his family and friends will pack the symphony hall. Undoubtedly there will be plenty of tears shed for the maestro of the restaurant business, who died Tuesday.

But she hopes most of those tears will be from the joy of having known Norman Brinker.

"He had a spot in his heart for every person that he came in contact with," she says.

If the worth of a man is judged by the number of genuine friends, Brinker was one of the wealthiest people I've known.

His two best buddies of more than four decades were Ross Perot and Pete Schenkel. He and Toni called Ebby Halliday every Friday to wish Dallas' first lady of real estate a happy weekend.

Brinker had a way of making people feel they were special.

Perot and his wife, Margot, met Brinker while eating at the first Steak and Ale on Lemmon and Inwood shortly after it opened in 1966. He's helping plan the Meyerson celebration.

"We will have a full-sized [bronze] horse with his polo saddle, boots and his mallet that he rode with in the Olympics and several motorcycles in the big foyer as you come into the symphony hall," Perot says. "And we're going to have a lot of big pictures of Norm with the Brinker smile. No matter how tough things were, he was always smiling, his eyes were twinkling, and he was ready for action."

Everyone close to Brinker knew this day would come. But he'd cheated death so many times that few expected it to come this soon.

Besides his legendary polo accident, Brinker suffered a broken hip from falling off a recumbent bike, a back injury from tumbling downstairs, and throat cancer. The cancer and its aftermath caused the first aspiration episode two years ago while on vacation in Florence, Italy.

"He had a courageous and indomitable spirit," Perot says. "He lived the words of Winston Churchill's shortest speech: 'Never give in – never, never, never, never.' "

Norm and Toni Brinker were having a romantic dinner to celebrate his 78th birthday last weekend in Colorado Springs, Colo., when things went horrifically wrong. Brinker got sick, sucked food into his lungs, resulting in aspiration pneumonia. He died with his wife by his side.

"We had a great love affair, as late as it was in our lives," she says. The couple married on March 1, 2003. "Despite all of the things he was faced with on a daily basis, he smiled in the morning and told me jokes in the middle of the night."

While in intensive care, there was a time when he could communicate by squeezing her hand. Somehow this ardent history buff and steadfast Republican let her know that he wanted her to read him a book about George H.W. Bush. "I'm going to tell the president that when I talk to him," she says.

The milkman

Schenkel, former vice chairman at Dean Foods Co., met Brinker in the early 1960s. Schenkel, who was working at Schepps Dairy, wanted to sell milk to Brinker, who was with Jack in the Box. "Norman used to tell people, 'Pete's the only milkman I ever had.' I was quite proud of that."

For years, Brinker and Schenkel ran around with Jack Evans, the grocery store executive and former Dallas mayor who died in 1997. The trio had their own idea of late-night entertainment. After dinner with their wives, they'd visit a Tom Thumb and then a Chili's to do reconnaissance and boost troop morale.

Before Brinker died, he and Schenkel were planning a couples' trip to Costa Rica. "We were down there last year – the four of us on the beach and Norman with those sunglasses on," Schenkel says. "A pretty girl would walk by in a bikini, and you'd see his head moving, watching her. Toni knew he was harmless, so she let him look.

"Norman was really looking forward to going back to the beach."

In February, Schenkel was in the hospital recovering from a knee replacement when he heard a commotion. "It was Norman Brinker on his red scooter coming down the hallway with a Mardi Gras mask on and beads. It was a sight to see."

On May 15, Methodist Health System Foundation honored Brinker with its Robert S. Folsom Leadership Award. He rode triumphantly onto the stage of the Hilton Anatole ballroom on a roaring three-wheeled motorcycle.

He was joined on stage by a similarly attired Doug Brooks, chief executive of Brinker International Inc.

The 57-year-old credits Brinker with dishing out tough love when Brooks lost his leg in 1998 after a car struck him while he was jogging.

Positive attitude

"He immediately was at my side at Parkland Hospital telling me how I had to be strong mentally and that, even though it was a physical injury, recovery was about positive attitude that would overcome anything.

"All I had to do was remember that this guy was in a coma for three weeks, and a month later, he was walking through our front door. He could sell ice to Eskimos or convince someone that they could hurdle walls."

Brinker was my first big interview in 1972. He helped me craft the concept for my column in 1992 and was my inaugural subject.

My favorite Brinker moment came when we met for lunch at the Romano's Macaroni Grill on Northwest Highway about 10 years ago. The server gave the Norman-inspired, "Hello, I'm Tom. I'll be your server today," and then added, "Have you dined with us before?"

Without missing a beat, he smiled warmly and said, "Yes, a time or two."

I've often wondered how the poor guy felt after his boss clued him in.

Friends say Brinker never complained. But there was a moment with me in a 2007 interview when Brinker let that smile momentarily fade. He admitted frustration with his growing debilitation. Unsteady footing – even with ski-pole contraptions given to him by Perot – made walking dangerous. Increasingly, he was being pushed in a wheelchair. Cancer treatments made talking tough and his voice low.

"This is doggone hard for me. I've always been so active," he said. As soon as he let that slip, there was an emphatic but followed by how he expected to live long enough for modern medicine to stave off or even reverse the damage.

When the Brinkers built a new home, it included a big gym.

"When I watched him work out," Toni Brinker says, "I could see why he was picked for the Olympics, and why he did so well. He pushed and pushed himself."

Brinker's family life wasn't always harmonious. He had five children from his first three marriages. Toni, who has a son from a previous marriage, was determined that she and Norman were going to bring together disjointed factions into one family.

"His intensity and focus on the love that he had for them rose to the top," she says. "I know Norman passed away knowing a little bit more about what the whole meaning of life is."

He'd told me the same thing back in 2007.

"Something like this makes you sit back and think about what really matters," he said. "People have always been the key to my success in business and sports. Now people, especially friends and family, are the central focus to my success in life."

He cast a loving smile at Toni.

"I've always been able to motivate and lead people. Now they really motivate me."