I recently stumbled across the picture of the hat shown to the left. A part of the America's History collecton at the Smithsonian Institution, it was a reminder of the day in 1967 that I had a chance to interview Minnie Pearl.
Thanks to the Internet, where I found the picture of the hat, I found a couple more items from April 18, the day when Minnie and her husband's plane crash landed in the pasture of a dairy farm just west of Knoxville, TN.
The couple was close to escaping unscathed during the forced landing until a small drainage ditch snagged the nose landing gear on the Beechcraft Bonanza. Their seatbelts kept them from suffering injuries beyond bruises.
The following AP story, found on the Internet, is a shortened version of the one I wrote for the local paper. The story behind this story is one of the highlights of my days as a newspaper reporter.
When news of the crash reached the Knoxville Journal, where I was working as the police reporter, I headed to Fort Sanders, the Presbyterian hospital where the couple would be taken. I rushed into the ER, found a nurse I knew, and asked where I could find Minnie Pearl, and if I might be able to see her.
I was told I was in luck. A hospital official had met Minnie upon her arrival and asked about her desire for privacy. Her response, I was told, had been she would be glad to talk with any member of the press that might arrive. “You’ll find the lady in the second exam room on the right, waiting for the doctor.”
This would not be my first interview with a nationally known public figure, or for that matter, a member of the Grand Olde Opery cast. But this was Minnie Pearl. Yeah. I still remember being a bit nervous as I walked down that hallway and opened the door.
Minnie Pearl was nowhere to be seen. One of the chairs in the room was occupied. I was a bit stunned by the appearance of the woman that prompted another author to later write, (She was) “a lady who could only be described as cultured and reserved, the very model of a genteel Southern lady.”
That was my introduction to Mrs. Sarah Ophelia Colley Cannon. Her voice, when she responded to what I remember as my stumbling words about looking for Minnie Pearl, was the educated utterance of a graduate of Nashville’s most prestigious school for women, Ward-Belmont College, now Belmont University.
My face-to-face visit with Minnie lasted almost an hour that day. I would later watch her on the television show, HeeHaw. But when I saw her in those frilly dresses, that hat, and heard her signature greeting—“How-w-w-DEE-E-E-E! I'm jes' so proud to be here!"—I was reminded of the brief opportunity I’d had to get to know the lady behind the on-stage character.
In today’s world, she would probably be called corny, or smaltzy. But there is one point to be made. One fan said it best. “It is important for all comedians who feel they need off-color innuendo or vulgarity to be successful to remember that Minnie Pearl's career thrived without ever lapsing into such base trappings.”
As the pictures show below, Minnie had a very expressive face. She could get a laugh with a subltle expression as easily as she could with words. As it is with all good actors, dress and makeup can hide the true appearance of the person. There are no pictures to be found that show the attractive lady that was Sarah Ophelia Colley Cannon.