Skip to main content


The Commander and the Gravy Boat

April 2024
1min read

A great man never loses his sense of humor

Near the end of the flapper era, most girls’ finishing schools were islands in a sea of young people suddenly gone mad with freedom, and Highland Hall was no exception.

Miss Keats, our principal, was dignity personified. We all loved her but stood in great awe of her. Since an important part of our education was table manners, we had to take turns sitting at Miss Keats’s table, where, among other things, we were taught the art of table conversation and etiquette.

Most of the rules were observed without protest, but one seemed completely unreasonable: A lady must never put gravy on her mashed potatoes. This act, we felt, could not possibly be interpreted as unkind, and gravy improved the taste tremendously. But Miss Keats was adamant; no gravy on mashed potatoes.

One evening Commander Richard E. Byrd was to give a lecture at the school. When there was an important guest, several girls were selected to entertain him while waiting for dinner to be announced, and this time Sally, Marnie, and I were chosen. I started out bravely: “Did you come by train, Commander Byrd?”

“I did indeed,” he replied, “and while I was eating my lunch in the Harrisburg station, I became so interested in watching a mother and two small boys saving good-bye to a little dog that my mashed potatoes got cold. Is there anything worse than cold mashed potatoes?”

Sally blurted out, “Do you like gravy on your mashed potatoes?”

The commander looked startled but said that he did, and Sally proceeded to explain the situation at Highland Hall.

Our distinguished guest listened attentively, occasionally nodding his head in agreement. I felt embarrassed by this unorthodox turn in the conversation and stole a glance across the room at Miss Keats, who smiled at me sweetly, thinking that we were discussing penguins and the weather at the South Pole. My attention came back to Commander Byrd just in time to hear him say, “I understand perfectly, and I think I can help you. Leave everything to me.”

The news traveled fast, and as we followed Miss Keats and the commander into the dining room, an air of hushed expectancy hung over us all.

Fruit cup, veal cutlets, lima beans, and mashed potatoes were served. Then the gravy was passed to Miss Keats, who ladled a little on her cutlet. The atmosphere was tense, the room so quiet I could hear a squirrel chattering outside the window.

As the gravy reached Commander Byrd, he hesitated ever so slightly, then nonchalantly poured it over his mashed potatoes. There was an audible gasp from the girls. Miss Keats asked for the gravy and quite calmly, but with a twinkle in her eye, poured some on her potatoes.

A very unladylike cheer went up. Commander Byrd laughed out loud, and from that day on, gravy and mashed potatoes were like pepper and salt at Highland Hall. We had learned two important lessons: A great man never loses his sense of humor, and a truly gracious lady can accept defeat so gracefully it appears to be victory.

We hope you enjoy our work.

Please support this magazine of trusted historical writing, now in its 75th year, and the volunteers that sustain it with a donation to American Heritage.