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Big crowd on hand for Hank Williams memorial service
Alvin Benn, Special to the Advertiser
Cold, drizzly weather couldn’t deter Hank Williams fans from gathering at Oakwood Cemetery Friday morning to honor the memory of an iconic entertainer whose legend continues to grow with each passing year.
One of the largest crowds in the history of the memorial was on hand to hear “I Saw The Light” again and no one left the site as it got chillier and wetter following the 10 a.m. start
“We’ve had good weather for most of these events,” said Jeff Petty, who has served as emcee at the memorial for the past 12 years. “We had no thoughts of canceling and this big turnout just keeps us going.”
After the ceremony, everybody adjourned to the Hank Williams Museum in downtown Montgomery where musical entertainment provided a warm, dry respite for those who attended the event.
Williams died on Jan. 1, 1953 while enroute to an engagement in Ohio. An apparent heart attack claimed his life in the back seat of his new Cadillac. It’s been on display for years at the Williams museum.
A funeral believed to have been one of the largest in Montgomery history attracted thousands of fans devastated by Williams’ death at the age of 29. The memorial service was the first of 63 that have been held since that time.
The turnout continues to grow each year and Friday’s was no exception with fans arriving in Montgomery from across the country.
Pennsylvania transplants Michael and Jodie Wagner came on their motorcycle from Birmingham where they’ve lived for the past two years. Michael wore a bright yellow “shock mask” that helped keep him warm.
“I grew up listening to Hank because my father was a big fan himself,” said Michael, 52. “I also like Johnny Cash and other country singers, but Hank has always been my favorite.”
Bill Jenkins, 89, may have been the oldest to attend the memorial. He said he saw Williams at concerts several times, including some at the Grand Old Opry in Nashville.
He said he wasn’t bothered by the cold, wet weather and pointed to the big turnout at the final resting places for Hank and his former wife, Audrey.
“This crowd shows you there was only one Hank,” said Jenkins, who added his support of country music artists, particularly Williams, is as strong today as when he was a young man.
Reginald and Mamie McClure were the only black fans at the ceremony and while they may have stood out in the crowd it didn’t bother them because they shared the same love for Hank Williams as other admirers standing around them.
“He was able to cross the color line and it all seemed to happen during a 5 year period,” said Reginald McClure, who mentioned Tony Bennett’s decision to record “Cold, Cold Heart” in 1950. It was one of Williams’ most popular songs and Bennett’s version introduced him to a whole new audience across America.
Hank’s fame may not have had a four leaf clover effect on Rush Rice, but he’s not dismissing anything because of the good things he said have been happening to him in recent years.
He said the start was New Year’s Eve in 2008 when the American economy had tanked in the worst recession since the Great Depression of 1929.
“Things had been going badly for me personally at that time,” Rice said. “I hadn’t had a job or a paycheck in 18 months and a friend urged me to go to the cemetery for the Hank Williams memorial the next morning. He said it might change my life.”
Did it ever! He said a bank offered him a job a few days after he attended the memorial and things have continued to be much rosier since that time.
“I haven’t hit the Power Ball yet but there’s always hope,” he said with a laugh.