Joltin’ Jim McCoy can still remember the day in 1946 when a determined 14-year-old girl named Ginny Hensley walked into the studio of WINC Radio in Winchester, Virginia, and said she wanted to sing on his show.
“We only had one microphone, and the band wasn’t there,” recalled McCoy. “I told her to come back next week. She returned, but we hadn’t rehearsed anything, so I asked her what she could sing. She said, ‘Oh, I can sing lots of songs. I know San Antonio Rose.’ She named several other popular songs, so we gave her a chance.”
A chance was all it took to start Hensley on a legendary journey. In the succeeding years, leading up to her tragic death at the age of thirty, that teen – who the world would come to know as Patsy Cline – would go on to become one of country music’s brightest stars. Though gone for half a century now, Cline is anything but forgotten.
This past weekend, McCoy returned to Winchester to join family, friends and fans, to share cherished memories and to pay tribute to Patsy Cline. Cline died in the crash of a small airplane on the evening of March 5, 1963. The horrific accident also took the lives of country music greats Cowboy Copas and Hawkshaw Hawkins and their pilot Randy Hughes.
Fans have kept Patsy Cline on the charts for over fifty years and many of them came from as far away as California to tour her hometown and to attend events commemorating the passing of the beloved songstress. Along with the historic house on South Kent Street and Cline’s gravesite at the Shenandoah Memorial Park, fans dropped by Gaunt’s Drug Store where the teenaged Ginny Hensley worked as a waitress behind the soda fountain; WINC Radio, and G&M Music, where Cline made a number of her earliest demonstration recordings.
A few even ventured just past the state line to see the Rainbow Road, a honky-tonk roadhouse connected to Patsy Cline’s early music career – both in real life and in her cinematic biography.
A Celebration of Life get-together was held on Saturday evening at The George Washington Hotel on East Piccadilly Street in downtown Winchester. (see feature photo of fireplace at hotel) On Sunday, a memorial service was held at The Omps Funeral Home along Front Royal Pike just south of the city.
About 150 fans were on hand for the Saturday evening event. Liz Ruffner, a local tribute artist who provided the entertainment for the crowd, reflected on Cline’s enduring appeal. “All of her songs pretty much tell a familiar story. A lot of people can relate to those songs.”
Two history buffs from Damascus, Maryland, Donna and Ed Gordon, told the Baltimore Post-Examiner they had been to several sites around town and were enjoying the laid back atmosphere of Winchester. The couple said they were transported by Ruffner’s tribute show. “Those songs just give me goosebumps,” sighed Donna Gordon.
Also visiting Winchester from Maryland were karaoke companions Vicky Wallis and Elva Hartleib. Wallis, a Middle River resident, remembers her father playing Patsy Cline records. “Growing up, that’s practically all I ever sang.” Hartleib, who hails from Joppatown, said she once won a Patsy Cline look-alike contest. Like Wallis, Hartleib enjoys singing the iconic artist’s songs. She also has an interesting family connection to Patsy Cline: her late aunt Blance used to babysit Cline’s daughter, Julie.
Many out-of-towners were present, but one local had a lot of stories to tell.
“Patsy sang a song in a talent contest at Handley High School,” said “Rusty”, a one-time classmate of Cline’s younger sister. “I think it was Come On-a My House. She came in second. A tap dancer named Benny Brown won. He ended up appearing on Ted Mack’s Amateur Hour. Later on of course, Patsy was on the Arthur Godfrey show.”
Rusty told the Baltimore Post-Examiner that he once worked part-time as a delivery boy at Gaunt’s Drug Store. “We’d deliver packages on our bicycles and when we got back, Patsy would say, ‘You look like you’re hot. Let me get you something cool to drink.’ Then she’d get us a coke from the soda fountain and pretend that we’d paid for it, by opening up the cash register and acting like she was dropping in some coins.”
Rusty also remembers the delivery boys snickering whenever Patsy would say she was going to record some songs.
Rusty may have snickered when the budding singer said she wanted to cut demo records, but before he knew it, he had become a real fan – almost to a fault.
“I was with my friend Bill one night. I guess this would have been around 1957. We were going from bar-to-bar, having a beer at every stop, when we ended up at the High Point Restaurant down in Stephens City. There was a jukebox – a nickle a play – so I dropped in a quarter and selected Walkin’ After Midnight five times in a row. When it was done, I played that song five more times. The jukebox stopped about the time we had finished eating and we were about to leave, when a trucker at the counter growled he’d kick the butt of the next guy who played Walkin’ After Midnight. Bill looked at me and said, ‘You wouldn’t,’ but I dropped another nickle in, and we got the heck outta there.”
Rusty’s reminiscences were fun, but the merriment of Saturday night was somewhat muted for the Sunday afternoon memorial service. About 75 people gathered in the chapel of the Omps Funeral Home to hear tributes in word and song and to stop at Cline’s grave to pay their respects. The funeral home is adjacent to Shenandoah Memorial Park and sits some forty yards from where Patsy Cline was laid to rest. The officiant for the service was David DeCarlo, a docent at the Patsy Cline Historic House. JudySue Huyett-Kempf, executive director of Celebrating Patsy Cline (CPC), offered introductory remarks. She was followed by Winchester Mayor Liz Minor, Tracie Dillon, Harold “Doc” Madagan – the proprietor of Gaunt’s Drug Store, Jim McCoy and Dana Evans – executive director of the Museum of the Shenandoah Valley.
In his opening prayer, DeCarlo said, “Fifty years have passed but time has not silenced her voice.” DeCarlo also said he was certain Patsy’s indomitable spirit was in our presence.
Mayor Liz Minor offered the mirthful opinion that, “Anybody who isn’t a fan of Patsy Cline is totally un-American.”
“Her talent in telling a story in song is unmatched.” The civic-minded mayor concluded her tribute by saying, “I love the fact that Patsy Cline was born and raised in my hometown. And I love walking the very same streets that Patsy used to walk – just not after midnight.”
“Patsy proudly proclaimed where she was from, whenever she appeared on stage,” said Tracie Dillon, a former board member of CPC. “She carried what was important in her heart and it bled into her music.” Dillon called to mind the words of singer-songwriter Frank Ocean in summing up how Cline continues to touch so many lives. “When you’re happy,” Ocean once said, “you enjoy the music but when you’re sad, you understand the lyrics.”
One of only two surviving pallbearers from Cline’s funeral, Jim McCoy was visibly moved as he stepped to the lectern. “It was the saddest day of my life,” recalled McCoy. “The biggest funeral in Winchester. The biggest funeral I’ve ever seen.”
The final tribute speaker, Dana Evans, reminded the audience of the inscription on the plaque above Cline’s grave: “Death Cannot Kill What Never Dies: Love.”
“The truth of the words on Patsy’s tombstone,” Evans said, “is that they are the lyrics of her life.”
Following two a capella hymns by Liz Ruffner, Julie Fudge, who was only four years old when her mother Patsy died, reflected briefly on how the memories of others helped fill in the blanks for she and her younger brother.
“We are very fortunate that she is always remembered. Others don’t have cameras and recorders around when people talk (about those who have died) but we’ve had that and many tributes over these last fifty years, and that is a blessing.”
Fudge also paused to recall the names of the others who were lost when Patsy’s plane went down. “My mother was the youngest one on that plane, but we must never forget that three other people died that day. Hawkshaw Hawkins’ widow, Jean, was eight months pregnant with her second child. They were afraid she might lose her baby. Cowboy (Copas) was Randy Hughes’ father-in-law. That family buried two loved ones that week. And Jack Anglin (of the country music duo of Johnny & Jack) was killed in a car accident on the way to one of the memorials. There was a big turnout for each of the services, but the sorrow (for so many) was immense.”
Just before adjourning to Cline’s nearby grave for the closing prayer by longtime Winchester resident Jim Longerbeam, Fudge ended the touching memorial service inside the chapel, saying, “Thank you all for the memorials, but remember, this is a celebration. There is no sadness where she is. Fifty years ago was a sad day for us, but it was the beginning of her eternity.”
Editors note: In addition to being the first female solo artist to become a member of the Grand Ole Opry and the first woman to be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, Cline is listed in the 2005 Guinness Book of World Records as holding the record for the most weeks on the U.S. charts for an album by a female artist. For more about Patsy Cline, click here.