Earl Freudenberg and Minnie Pearl
photo by George Moody
Her real name was Sarah Ophelia Colley Cannon, but we all know her professionally as “Minnie Pearl”. Her signature was, “Howdee, I’m just so proud to be here.” Minnie Pearl was known as “the queen of country comedy.”
It was the spring of 1970 when WDOD General Manager Bill Nash received a telephone call from his friend Farol Faye Finkelstein Seretean. The business woman was good friends with Minnie Pearl and they wanted to raise money for the American Cancer Society.
Nash turned the telephone over to me and Ms.
Seretean got right to the point saying Minnie Pearl was willing to spend the day in Chattanooga if we could come up with a Cancer Society promotion.
The Red Food Stores agreed to serve as collection stations where shoppers could drop off their donations. Chattanooga News Free Press Editor Lee Anderson started everything with a $1,000 gift. WDEF TV’s Cecil Ruffin got involved and the television station brought in several thousand dollars from viewers.
We were off and running and ready for the big day. A large tent was erected in front of the WDOD studio on Baylor School Road. A hot July Saturday was set aside for a Cancer talk-a-thon with special guest Minnie Pearl.
The lady from Grinders Switch (a small community outside her Centerville, Tn. home) arrived in a limousine ready to raise money and that is exactly what she did. The Country Comedian was wearing her famous cotton dress and straw hat with the $1.98 price tag.
The first female solo member of the Grand Ole Opry sat down behind the mic and began urging listeners to get involved in the fight against cancer. WDOD listeners responded and before the day was over the event had raised over $10,000.
David Leatherwood with the Rivermont Red Food Store collected the most money from among the chain's area grocery stores. Leatherwood had been an employee at that location for short time.
The highlight of the day was WDEF TV’s Red Brown (playing the role of an old man) and Minnie Pearl talking about life in Grinder’s Switch, a small Middle Tennessee community made famous by the comedian. The two kept those gathered around the large tent laughing. Looking straight into Mr. Browns eyes she said, “I’ve been looking for a feller for years and I just may have found me one.”
Shoney’s restaurants in Chattanooga provided Minnie Pearl and her volunteers with Big Boy sandwiches, French fries and cold Coca Colas.
In 1947 Sarah Colley married Henry Cannon, an Army Air Corps fighter pilot. They purchased a home next to the Tennessee Governor’s mansion. The Cannons were members of the Brentwood, Tn. United Methodist Church, where they donated a large pipe organ.
The Hee Haw television star was always interested in cancer research. In 1987, Minnie Pearl was successfully treated for breast cancer and the Sarah Cannon Cancer Research Institute was opened.
The cancer center at Parkridge Medical Center in Chattanooga bears the name of Sarah Cannon in honor of Minnie Pearl, a cancer survivor for many years.
Ms. Cannon was a frequent guest on Ralph Emery’s television show “Nashville Now” until she suffered a stroke in June, 1991 that ended her professional career as Minnie Pearl. She resided in a Nashville nursing home until her death on March 4, 1993.
According to “Hello Chattanooga” by David Carroll, Minnie Pearl appeared in the Scenic City several times including a surprise 50th birthday party in 1974 for her friend Bud Seretean. That event aboard the Julie Belle Swain was attended by Tennessee Governor Winfield Dunn, Phyllis Diller, Kay Starr, Jim Nabors and other entertainers who were friends of the Seretean family.
WDOD employees General Manager Bill Nash, Announcer Dale Meador, Office Manager Shelia Neeley and I will always remember that hot Saturday that Millie Pearl spent with us on the banks of the beautiful Tennessee raising money in the cancer battle.
After a fun-filled day, the entertainer left the studio in a limo; she waved to all of us saying, “I was just so proud to have been here, Bye, Bye.”
As the event was ending, NFP photographer George Moody took this picture of Minnie Pearl and me.