LEADWOOD – Dressed in a tuxedo with shiny black cowboy boots and an off-white cowboy hat, Ferlin Husky rolled into West County High School gymnasium Saturday night to greet hundreds of fans and old friends.
Husky, 85, uses a wheel chair and is on oxygen, but stood with some help to sing his hit, “Wings of a Dove,” to the crowd as thanks for the celebration in his honor.
“I’m in awe,” Husky said of the turnout. “This means a whole lot to me. I have been a little under the weather for the past couple of years, but I have been blessed. I hope and pray I don’t let any of you down – whatever you expect of me.”
The crowd began arriving at 3:30 p.m., an hour-and-a-half before doors were scheduled to open. Scott Wilson brought his 9-year-old daughter, Alexa, to see the man whose music Wilson has loved for years.
“He’s a legend!” Wilson said.
Husky’s bus arrived under escort of four police vehicles, one hour later than expected. Barb Sutton waited in the cold, hoping to get a photo of Husky’s arrival for her father, Harold Skaggs, who was unable to attend.
“Ferlin Husky was good friends with my dad’s brother, T, and they all played together when they were kids,” Sutton said.
Regardless of their ages, it seemed as though everyone had a connection to Husky – either as a distant relative, through bonds of friendship or just because they consider Husky their “home boy.”
Some residents insist Husky grew up in Hickory Grove. In an interview before he entered the gym, Husky said he grew up in Cantwell, went to school in Hickory Grove, attended the First Baptist Church in Leadwood and lived in Flat River for six months.
When he began his road to fame, St. Louis residents often made fun of people by saying they were from Flat River, Husky said.
“I was a smart aleck. So, whenever they asked where I was from, I said, ‘Flat River,’” he said with a grin. “When I returned to St. Louis from California, I sang, ‘Flat River MO.’”
During his career, Husky sold more than 20 million records and made more than 18 movies. His popular hits include “On the Wings of a Dove,” “Flat River MO,” “Gone” and “Dear John.” He is a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame.
Elvis Presley opened for Husky several times before his own career took off.
Husky told reporters that his favorite accomplishment was being chosen by CBS to replace Arthur Godfrey on TV and radio.
Husky, who was an extra on several movies, said he preferred making music to making movies.
“I’m like a quarterback – I like to call my own shots,” he said. “If I had stayed in movies, I’d have to be saying this like “GD this’ and words like that. I wasn’t raised that way.”
Saturday’s celebration was organized by the city’s parks board, who named a road in the park Ferlin Husky Drive in September. Husky has donated most of his awards and other memorabilia to Leadwood, including a guitar he received from old pal Gene Autry. Some of the items were on display Saturday night. The parks board is accepting donations to help them build a permanent display that will house all of the donated material.
Rick Poston, president of Bank Star of the LeadBelt, presented Parks Board President Larry Hackworth, with a check toward construction of that display case. Profits from sales of Husky’s albums and CDs at the event went to the parks board. Husky also plans to start a music scholarship for West County students.
During the celebration Saturday night, the West County High School Choir performed one of Husky’s hits, “Gone.” As they sang, Husky mouthed the words from his wheelchair.
Event co-organizer Johnny Hartley and his family performed country songs with Nashville star Leona Williams, including “Wings of a Dove.” Husky harmonized during the song, then stood with the help of those sitting near him and sang the song himself to a standing ovation.
State Sen. Kevin Engler, R-Farmington, and State Rep. Linda Black, D-Bonne Terre, presented Husky with resolutions and the news that Black will ask the legislature to rename part of Missouri 8 after Husky.
Veterans, their auxiliaries, and American War Mothers honored Husky for his service in World War II and St. Francois County Commissioner Patrick Mullins told Husky he was an inspiration to everyone.
“You have shown us that if you have a dream and work hard enough, you can make those dreams come true,” Mullins said.
As the event wound down, people crowded around Husky to share old stories, shake his hand, or thank him for remembering his roots.
Hartley said preparing for Husky’s return home has ignited a spark in the Leadwood community.
“I think this is awesome for the city of Leadwood,” he said. “There is a different attitude here in this town because of Ferlin. I want to see that continue.”
Paula Barr is a reporter for the Daily Journal and can be reached at 573-431-2010, ext. 172 or at email@example.com.