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Big Chuck

April 26, 2010

I Was Just Thinking: Memories of my old friend Kate Smith

Saturday will be a very big day for a very big lady with a very big voice.

Kate Smith, she of the great girth and the legendary voice, will finally receive the most singular honor any American can achieve. "The Great Kate" is getting her own postage stamp.

Kate Smith was born May 1, 1907, and was 60 years old by the time I wandered into her spotlight. I first met Kathryn (as her friends called her) by chance in Lake Placid in the summer of 1967. I was 17 years old and had pretty much no clue who she was. In a "Forrest Gump" kind of a way, Kate and I became friends. We met many times and exchanged dozens of letters over the years.

I have great memories of Kate. Once, when visiting her in a hospital in New York City, she asked me to go down on the street and get her a newspaper and a fresh cup of coffee. I think I had only been in New York City just once before, but I ventured out and proceeded to get lost. By the time I got back to her hospital room, I found myself presenting a very amused singing star with a cold cup of coffee and an almost out-of date newspaper.

I took my family to see her perform in Allentown, Pa., at an outdoor concert. A thunderstorm forced an interminable delay. Finally Kate strode out onto the stage, and miraculously, the rain stopped and "her moon" came out to illuminate a particularly memorable performance.

Another time, I got all spiffed up in my first tuxedo and took some friends with me to see Kate receive a high honor in Manhattan. Kate was not scheduled to sing that night, but the crowd would have none of that and calls for "God Bless America" rang out from every corner. I could tell she was nervous, but she snapped her fingers a couple of times and sent her notes soaring throughout the ballroom.

On July 4, 1970, she gave a performance on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial with Bob Hope and others. I was there that day and even rode in the limousine with her.

Kate Smith and "God Bless America" are forever intertwined. It was given to her personally by Irving Berlin in 1938. It became our nation's second (and most singable) national anthem.

Kate never took a penny from 50 years of singing that tune. All her royalties went to the Girl Scouts of America. Over the years, the royalty income waned as patriotism seemed to go out of fashion. Of course, after 9/11, the song would be resuscitated to great appeal, and Kate's recording of it (especially at New York Yankees and Philadelphia Flyers sporting events) would keep the "little girls in green" flush for years to come.

That Kate was a historic American icon is no secret. She was the first female to have a successful solo show on radio and was the first female to have a successful solo show on television. She recorded more than 600 songs and sold millions of records.

In a day and age when wars were paid for in real time (what a concept), the World War II War Bond Rally became a necessary tool in our military's arsenal. Many were held. Nobody did more than Kate Smith. When the coffers were low and the "dark clouds gathered far across the sea," Kate stood fast in service to her country. Her historic one-woman radio appeals are credited with raising more than $600 million. That's $1 billion in today's money _ from her alone. An incredible feat.

For decades, people from all corners of the country have been lobbying the U.S. Post Office to honor this woman, who died in 1986, with her own postage stamp. Nothing seemed like a surer bet.

Still, we suffered through years of bureaucratic indifference. We bided our time as millions fretted over the "fat Elvis" or the "thin Elvis." We watched with dismay as an odd assortment of Americans was honored with that special place in the upper right hand corner of an envelope. Desi Arnaz (1999) got one without Lucy. Boris Karloff spooked us with his 1997 stamp. Johnny Appleseed even got one in 1966. And Geronimo in 1994. The last straw seemed to break over us when Homer Simpson was picked over Kate last year.

But this is her year. On May 1, 2010, Kate will get her own stamp. It features a vivid image of her in full 1960s performance mode standing in front of (what else?) an American flag. It is about time.

Four generations of Americans knew Kate Smith as a star of supernova brilliance. I just knew her as Kathryn. Friend.

I'll catch you in two ...

'Big Chuck' D'Imperio can be heard on weekdays beginning at 6 a.m. on WDOS-AM 730 in Oneonta, and also on Thursday nights from 7-9 p.m. on WSRK-FM 103.9 for his "Oldies Jukebox Show." He invites you to contact him at wdosbigchuck@aol.com.

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