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Archive for Sunday, June 13, 2004

Minnie Pearl enjoys a porch-eye view of Lawrence

June 13, 2004

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Minnie Pearl Thomas peers out from her front porch, watching an old station wagon cough by on the street.

A mid-afternoon breeze carries laughter from down the block, and somewhere in the distance, a chainsaw boldly challenges a tree.

"Yes, I think the Lord would like my porch just fine," she says with a smile. "I listen real close to his world out here."

Minnie Pearl, 83, enjoys spending time on her shaded perch these days. After a stroke stole some of her dexterity two years ago, she finds herself less mobile but still itching to be outside.

"That nasty stroke took the sprig right out of me," she says. "It was hard to get around at first, and the doctor told me I couldn't drive no more."

Parting with her car and license wasn't easy for the longtime Lawrence resident.

"If I was having a bad day, I used to get in and just go around the block," she says. "That made me feel better no matter what."

But Minnie Pearl, known to most simply by her two-pronged first name, is too cheerful to wallow in driver's envy.

"I don't mind so much anymore," she says, clutching her ever-present cordless phone. "A lot of real nice people stop by to help me with things or call me to visit.

"I like to just sit and wait for them out on my porch."

Mississippi Minnie

Minnie Pearl entered the world on May 3, 1921, in Panther Burn, Miss.

"Sleepy little place," she says, "but the people were real nice and friendly."

At age 7, Minnie Pearl moved a few miles north to Hollandale, where her father delivered groceries for a wholesale company.

"Me and my little brother, John, stayed at home with Mother," she says. "When we got older, we went to school in a big brick building where every grade was taught."

The young girl's somewhat unusual first name quickly captured the attention of her peers.

"Nobody made fun of me, but people liked to say my name," she says. "It does roll off the tongue real well."

Of course, all of this took place before Minnie Pearl's name became famous. In 1940, a young woman named Sarah Colley joined country music's Grand Ole Opry cast and won fans by playing her signature character, a loud-mouthed spinster known as -- you guessed it -- Minnie Pearl.

"I remember how she always said, 'How-dee!' and 'I'm so proud to be here' at the beginning of every show," Minnie Pearl says. "She always had that silly tag hanging from her hat, too."

The fictional Minnie Pearl became an icon of rural America, instantly recognizable for her straw hat and its still-attached $1.98 price tag. Her razor-sharp humor, which poked fun at small-town manners and stereotypes, defined most of her creator's comedic routines.

"How-dee!" exclaims Minnie Pearl Thomas, of Lawrence. The
83-year-old, known by most as simply Minnie Pearl, was well-liked
long before her name become famous on television's "Hee Haw." She
spends most of her time these days on her east Lawrence porch,
watching life unfold.

"How-dee!" exclaims Minnie Pearl Thomas, of Lawrence. The 83-year-old, known by most as simply Minnie Pearl, was well-liked long before her name become famous on television's "Hee Haw." She spends most of her time these days on her east Lawrence porch, watching life unfold.

"All I know is that she was a real funny gal from Tennessee," Minnie Pearl says, "and I was a real funny gal from Mississippi."

Bob Barker vs. Bill Clinton

In 1944, however, Minnie Pearl left the Magnolia State and moved north to Lawrence with her late husband, Albert.

"He got a nice job at the hydrator plant, and I started cookin' up at KU," she says.

Minnie Pearl spent many years making homemade meals for fraternity and sorority members on the hill; she remembers the boys as "easy to please" and the girls as "picky little rabbits."

"Them boys liked meat and mashed potatoes, but those skinny girls always wanted salads," she says. "Salads ain't cookin' if you ask me."

Citing fried chicken as her specialty, Minnie Pearl also likes to point out that she schooled herself in getting around the kitchen.

"My momma didn't teach me to cook; I taught myself," she says. "And I've never used a measuring spoon once in all my days. I just measured by feel."

However, now that she's left her pots and pans behind, Minnie Pearl has found other activities to fill her time.

"I just love watching that Bob Barker on 'The Price is Right,'" she says. "He seems like such a nice, nice man. I wouldn't mind being on his show one bit."

Minnie Pearl also enjoys attending Sunday services at the Church of God, 851 Elm, when she feels up to it. Mike Tubbs, a deacon at the church, often gives her a ride there.

"Mother Thomas is such a wonderful lady," Tubbs says. "I remember her from when I was little kid growing up in east Lawrence, and she's still a real joy to be around."

Minnie Pearl, a mother of three, holds Tubbs in high esteem as well.

"I love that boy like he's my own," she says, tears welling up in her eyes.

Another "boy" Minnie Pearl regards favorably is former president Bill Clinton, whom she admits -- albeit shyly -- to harboring a small crush on.

"He's just all charm, that boy," she says, nodding her head. "And real smart, too."

Minnie Pearl still has the sign she took last month to Clinton's Dole Lecture appearance at Kansas University. Written in simple black marker, it reads "Minnie Pearl Loves Bill Clinton!"

"I held that sign up real proud when everybody clapped," Minnie Pearl says. "I hope he saw it. He sure does like talkin' to people."

With that thought in mind, Minnie Pearl surveys her surroundings and breaks into a grin.

"I bet he would like talkin' on my porch, too," she says.

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