Close encounters of the famous kind

tamrawilson Uncategorized

A few years ago, a friend challenged me to list all of the famous people I’ve ever seen in person.

Listing such sightings is the sort of thing you might think about, but never do. I’ll admit I ran out of gas before I got the list project past the on-ramp.

The first “star” I remember meeting was a local children’s TV personality called Sheriff Sid. Most Baby Boomers can relate. Any TV station worth its salt hosted a local children’s show in the 1950s and 60s.

In my case, Sid and his TV sidekicks Captain Eddie and Ruffles the Clown appeared each day on WCIA TV in Champaign, IL. When they turned up at the local airport one Saturday morning and I was thrilled to be in the crowd that turned out to see them.  A year or so later, Sid turned up at an area toy store and drew my caricature. At least I think he did. I don’t think I dreamed it, but childhood memories can be sketchy.

Fast forward to 1965. My family was on a road trip and came across a crowd gathered one evening at a motel restaurant. This I remember for sure.

We settled into a booth when we noticed a middle-aged man with a graying moustache drawing attention across the room.

“Who’s that?” my brother wanted to know.

“I don’t know, but he must be famous,” my mother said. She urged us both to get his autograph.

My brother, who was a teenager, rolled his eyes, so she handed me a pen. “You’ll be sorry if you don’t go over there.”

I was shy at 10, but after some hem hawing, I got up and stepped over to the man’s table.  By then, he was starting to eat his meal, but he paused and said hello. I mumbled something about getting his autograph. I think I gave him a folded white card. Or maybe he had the card. I can’t remember.

He asked my name and gave me a surprised look. It so happened that he was going to play the grandfather of “Tammy” a new TV series on ABC.

“Tammy” was a knockoff of the successful movies of the same name, starring Debbie Reynolds.

If the actor doubted that my name was Tammy, it was obvious my reticence couldn’t be faked. He graciously signed the card “Best Wishes, Denver Pyle.”

I still had no idea who Denver Pyle was. If he’d said he was Briscoe Darling on The Andy Griffith Show, I would have been instantly impressed. The Darlings, of course, were the mountaineers who descended upon Mayberry with the family bluegrass band. I believe Briscoe played the jug.

All said, my mother was correct. I would have been sorry if I’d passed up that opportunity to meet the character actor. His autograph has followed me through several moves over the past 57 years.

Recently I Googled the “Tammy” series. It ran for two seasons, beginning in 1965, the summer we made the cross-country trip. After that chance encounter, we spotted Pyle on several shows and movies including Gomer Pyle (no relation), The Great Race, The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams, The Dukes of Hazzard, Return to Mayberry and more.

My celebrity list includes several famous people who’ve breezed through Catawba County at one time or another.

Astronaut James Lovell showed up at the division headquarters of Centel in Hickory, back in 1983 or so. Lovell was on Centel’s Board of Directors, and it was a thrill to see him in person. Lovell, you may remember, was on Apollo 8, one of the first three astronauts to orbit the moon. He later successfully flew the command module of Apollo 13 back to Earth after an oxygen tank mishap mid-flight. He was a true national hero.

Back when Western Piedmont Symphony sponsored celebrity concerts, I had the good fortune to see Judy Collins and the Fifth Dimension.

Then there are the many notable writers encountered through the Lenoir-Rhyne Visiting Writers Series:  Joyce Carol Oates, John Updike, Tim O’Brien, Geraldine Brooks and Erik Larsen, to name a few.

I saw two famous politicians on campus. One was then-Vice President George Bush in 1986, and former presidential candidate, Sen. George McGovern, who appeared on campus years later.

Airports attract famous people. I would say that I saw President Trump at Hickory Airport in 2020, except it would generate hate mail. But I’ll say it anyway. He’s pretty famous, and I regret I left early and missed his guest, Rev. Franklin Graham, who’s pretty famous too.

In the late ‘80s, L-R hosted John Rosemond showed up from Gastonia. He’s the psychologist who has penned a popular parenting advice column for decades. His straightforward approach to child-rearing has sparked its own range of hate mail.

And then there’s “Captain Kangaroo” Bob Keeshan. I don’t remember why he was speaking at PE Monroe Auditorium, but there he was, my for-sure preschool hero. Maybe more so than Sheriff Sid.