MANATEE -- Don Penny Schneider sometimes has a hard time believing his good fortune.
Never miss a local story.
Born in Brooklyn 82 years ago, he survived combat wounds during the Korean War, and went on to a stellar career in government where he worked for several U.S. presidents. He also worked in the entertainment world as an actor and writer.
Professionally known as Don Penny, he now splits his time between Los Angeles and Manatee County. Through it all, his rapid-fire sense of humor has served him well.
Schneider's first stint of presidential service came shortly after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, when he helped set up a studio in the basement of the White House to film presidential addresses to conventions and other specialized audiences.
He also assisted the administrations of Jimmy Carter, George H. W. Bush, and Bill Clinton, as well as many members of the House and Senate.
But of all the presidents he worked for, he has the most affection for Gerald Ford, whom he describes as a good, honest, and humble man.
"I am here to make the president a better speaker," Schneider told a TV reporter who asked him about his job.
Schneider wrote speeches for Ford, then coached him on how to deliver the lines. Schneider once told Ford that he was a "humfer," a guy who hums and talks at the same time, and encouraged him to speak with more passion.
On another occasion, Ford was sitting and delivering his lines in a way that Schneider found boring. But once the president stood, he began generating an energy that made him more interesting.
Schneider's feedback to the leader of the Free World help him improve his speech delivery.
Schneider also helped Ford look more presidential by recruiting Ralph Lauren to tailor his suits. Previously, Ford had been given to blue suits and white belts.
Even though Schneider once teased Ford that he needed a "charisma transplant," he respected him for his humility and steadiness.
"You immediately knew the man was a great listener. If he agreed with you, he would do everything he could to make it happen," he said.
Ford, who ascended to the presidency after the resignation of Richard Nixon, seemed to turn a page for the United States after the "long national nightmare" of Watergate.
But when Ford pardoned Nixon for possible crimes stemming from the Watergate cover-up, he came in for widespread condemnation and criticism.
"People treated him just awful. He was having a hard time and suffering from that pardon," Schneider said.
Schneider's well-honed sense of humor came in handy, helping lift some of the black clouds around Ford.
"Every time the president got bored, he would say there is a meeting at 2 o'clock and I would like for you to be there," Schneider said. "Ford gave me such a feeling of security. He was doing the best he could every day."
Schneider became friends with both Ford and his wife, Betty. After Betty Ford had her double mastectomy in her battle against breast cancer, Schneider was touched to walk into a room and see Gerald Ford weeping.
Betty Ford recovered her health, and inspired many women to get mammograms, and to fight their cancer with courage.
After Ford left office, he would periodically have reunions with his staff.
Susan Insley, Schneider's wife, does not exactly swoon in the presence of high-powered personalities, not after a career that included serving as senior vice president for Honda, and running a Honda plant in Ohio.
But the Ford reunions never failed to impress, she says. Not with people like Henry Kissinger, Alan Greenspan, Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, all in the room.
Betty Ford invited Schneider and his daughter Lisa to California for one last visit in 2006. A photo of that visit shows Schneider with his arm around Betty Ford, and the president holding Lisa's hand.
Schneider has several large black-and-white photos by White House photographer David Hume Kennerly, showing him working with Ford.
On one of the photos, Ford wrote: "To Don Penny, whose humor makes him unique. And me funny! Jerry Ford."
"The president just loved Don. He had no agenda," Susan Insley said.
Reflecting on his career, Schneider says it has not been so bad, considering that he started out as a comedy writer, and all he ever wanted to do was make people laugh.
Schneider got his first big break in Hollywood when comedian and screenwriter Bill Dana recruited him as a writer for the Steve Allen Show in 1959.
"When I started there, it was a very small business," he said. He would also write for "The Monkees" TV show, and landed roles as an actor in "Gomer Pyle USMC," "That Girl" and other shows.
Among those he assisted with speech preparation was Gen. Jimmy Doolittle, famed for leading the American raid over Tokyo in 1942 in retaliation for the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
"He was the nicest, most genteel guy," Schneider said.
Schneider still has the Charles Lindbergh Longines watch that Doolittle gave him. The watch was worn by Doolittle during World War II, and later by his son, James Jr. After James Jr. committed suicide, Doolittle held onto it for several years, before giving it to Schneider.
"You're a veteran like myself and you appreciate timepieces. I think I'll give it to you," Doolittle said.
Schneider is in awe that the watch was once on the arm of the man who led 16 B-25 bombers against Japan.
"For me this is a holy thing," Schneider said. "It is essentially a slide rule watch to help plot a flight."
Earlier this year, Schneider and Insley met Dick Cole, one of the last surviving crew members of the raid over Toyko, when he visited Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport.
Cole confirmed that he recognized the watch as Doolittle's. Later, Schneider was invited to fly on the B-25 between Kissimmee and Titusville, and allowed to take the controls.
"How do you get this incredible good luck?" he said of that experience and many others.
Not the least of which is being married to Insley, who was an aide to Rep. Clarence J. Brown early in her career, before becoming an attorney, and one of the most powerful women in the auto manufacturing business.
Turning to Insley, he seems to be bubbling over with all the memories and names, figures of history he has known, and the simple joy of living in Manatee County.
"I smile sometimes, and ask, did you ever think we would be sitting in Popi's Place in Palmetto, having a grilled cheese?"
James A. Jones Jr., East Manatee reporter, can be contacted at 941-745-7053 or on Twitter@jajones1.