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Minnie’s Pearls of Wisdom

by Julie Pursell

For over two decades, celebrities have entrusted Coping® to tell the world about their personal experience with cancer. We are proud to present this exclusive interview from our archives and hope that it will inspire and encourage all who read it. This article was originally published in Coping with Cancer magazine, September/October 1988.

Celebrity Cancer Survivor

Mrs. Sarah Cannon (Minnie Pearl)
(Photos by Hank Widick)

The “thwack” of tennis balls popping off her racket echoes throughout the courts, followed by an unmistakable gale of laughter. This woman is enjoying herself and thriving on every nuance of life. She savors every morsel of living, even the tough bits.

“A friend gave me this racket and I figured the name Wimbledon on it should help my game.” Minnie Pearl’s infectious laugh booms. Her inquisitive blue eyes gleam mischievously, and a crinkly grin creeps over a happy face familiar to thousands.

It is 10:45am and Minnie Pearl has to be dragged off a suburban Nashville racquet and athletic club tennis court for an interview. America’s first lady of Grinder’s Switch has just finished one of her three weekly tennis sessions. Now sitting and relaxed in tennis pink and whites, she shares some of her good times and bad.

Fifty-four years in show business have brought Minnie Pearl international fame, a thousand fan letters a week, and scores of appreciation and awards acknowledging her contributions to her field (witnessed by her inclusion in the Country Music Hall of Fame).

Minnie Pearl’s fame and genuine manner have brought Sara Cannon (her real name) a worldwide assortment of friends, relations and fans. And a larger world of causes – civic, cultural and professional – but the most important cause around which she rallies these days, is that of breast cancer prevention and detection.

She has no lines to study for this role – it is one she knows first-hand. In 1985, during two separate surgeries, she underwent complete mastectomies and immediate breast reconstruction.

I was fortunate to have a doctor who believed in mammograms 20 years ago. I had regular mammograms and I was aware of cancer.” Still, when the mammogram in the spring of 1985 revealed the presence of a tumor, she was shocked. “I never thought it would happen to me.”

Surgery and reconstruction were immediate. Determined to remain undaunted, she underwent physical therapy and exercise. Within weeks she was back on the courts.

A follow-up test in October detected suspicious tissue in the remaining breast. The doctor’s recommendation of a second mastectomy hit like a tidal wave. “I thought I would die. I had just gotten over the first operation.”

“That is my way of coping – to go back to work. If you’re on stage doing a good job, you don’t have time to think about anything else."

She underwent a second mastectomy and again, within 10 days she was back at work. Within eight weeks she was back on the tennis courts. “I did assiduous exercise. It worked for me. It might not be that way for everybody.”

Two of her four sisters died of cancer, another has recovered from it. “Cancer is in our genes.” She found her life-long love affair with the stage the best therapy.

Celebrity Cancer Survivor

Minnie Pearl and her famous straw hat

Coping Minnie’s Way
“That is my way of coping – to go back to work. If you’re on stage doing a good job, you don’t have time to think about anything else. If you put your mind on work, it’s a great escape.”

She considered going public with the information, in an educational effort to help other women, when actress Ann Jillian, who also underwent mastectomies, discussed her experiences on the Donahue talk show and others.

Her devoted husband/business manager, Henry Cannon, cautioned against it. Shortly after, as soon as she could get to her regular hair salon, she encountered an old friend who knew she had been ill but was unaware of the nature of the problem.

“I looked at her straight and said ‘When did you last have a mammogram?’ Her face froze. It had been years. Ten days later she called the house. I wasn’t there but she told Henry not to bother me but to tell me she had just come out of the hospital. She had a mastectomy and breast reconstruction and was starting chemotherapy. The mammogram had shown it. When I got home, Henry said “Tell it – go public.”

In true Minnie Pearl fashion she did just that. Interviews and stories in the press followed immediately. Any podium is a vehicle, be it a national Country Music Awards Show or televised special. Next stop – schools at the secondary level. As chairman of the Smoke Out campaign for the American Cancer Society (ACS), Sarah has scheduled a series of visits to area high schools, accompanied by an old friend, a long term smoker who lost her voice due to a laryngectomy.

“So many days when I go to pick up a copy of the (New York) Times, the high school kids at the doughnut shop next door are smoking before school. An article in the Times estimates that 38 percent of kids in elementary school have tried or are smokers. I want them to realize how dreadful it is. I’m going to talk a little and turn to this friend, who’s president of a Lost Chord society, and let her ‘speak’ with that method of breath control she uses. That should get their attention.”

Attention Getter
Getting attention is something else she comes by naturally, although her attention has come mostly through years of hard work and perseverance. Besides her crusade to prevent and detect cancer, Minnie makes four weekly appearances on the Grand Ole Opry (working matinees with Roy Acuff), a weekly appearance on the Nashville Network’s Nashville Now! show, and assorted guest shots on national television shows. She’s an established favorite on the syndicated Hee Haw comedy show. And then there are conventions – 10 of them in October, alone.

“People think show business if full of glory and excitement and marvelous, wonderful times,” she says. “And it is all of those things. But the [show] people who last put in a lot of work and hours. And it is a lot of work!”

A lot of work indeed. More than 27 years of one-night stands (1940-67) and personal appearances with celebrities like Sammy Davis Jr., Carol Burnett, Robin Williams, Randy Travis and Roy Acuff, keep Minnie a perennial favorite season after season.

Although her many entertainment awards mean a great deal to her, she is just as proud, or more so, of her contributions to help educate Americans about cancer. Her dedication has earned her awards from several American Cancer Society chapters, including the Courage Award from the ACS presented to her by President Ronald Reagan in a White House ceremony.

In 1988, she also served as chairman of the Nashville-Davidson County Cancer Crusade, and with religious-pop star Amy Grant (also from Nashville), hosted an April Evening benefit at the Opry House, joined by headliners Robin Williams and James Taylor. The comedy-song spectacular packed the 4,000-plus house and garnered $200,000 for the cause of cancer.

Pearls of Wisdom
Minnie’s pearls of wisdom, on or off-stage, about cancer, come from a blend of common sense and education. “Today the era, the pace, the tempo of life is such that people put off everything. In the old days, people would sit around the fire after eating a cholesterol-rich dinner, sitting in a split-bottom chair and feel they had plenty of time. We had [cases of] breast cancer then but nobody thought about preventing it. The saddest message I hear is ‘He (or she) waited too long.’ Or the belief that keeps a woman from going to the doctor or having a mammogram – ‘It can’t happen to me.’”

"The saddest message I hear is 'He (or she) waited too long.'"

Minnie feels that a mammogram was a lifesaver for her. Now she has her health to go with a well publicized autobiography and her own museum, a version of rural Victoriana smack dab in the middle of Nashville’s frenetic Music Row. Designed to Minnie’s scrutiny, its yellow clapboards and white trim recall the simplicity and front porch ease of another era. And they sum up some of the timelessness of Minnie’s appeal.

“Minnie Pearl is uncomplicated. She’s apple pie and clothes dried in the sun and fresh bread baking. I don’t think people think of her so much as a show business act as just a friend. The tendency of human nature is to want people to be nice. You’d be surprised how many times people mention a famous personality and say ‘He is a nice guy, isn’t he?’”

And, now, reflecting on a time in her life when she could be enjoying grandchildren, plump little girls in tucked, batiste dresses, or little boys in collared Eton suits, she says, “I’ve missed that.”

“But when I think of the exciting nights walking on stage and being there with incredibly exciting people – where else could I have found this high? And it is a high. When you walk on stage and have incredible applause and get a standing ovation when you leave, as I have a few times, I guess the high is worth the work.”

A Maverick Nature
She attributes her love of people and laughter to a maverick nature encouraged by her father, an “extremely colorful man” who wore rolled Stetsons and taught her to read the Saturday Evening Post and play poker while her mother attended Sunday evening church services.

“When her car lights hit the oak tree, we’d scurry around and by the time she came in, he’d be reading the Post and I’d be studying away. Daddy was a great influence on my life. I loved my father. He was 60 when I was born. He taught me to speed read a paragraph at a time from the Post. He called it concentration.”

Speed reading enabled her to read cue cards a paragraph at a glance, a skill that has unnerved many a card turner during televised shows. “They have to be quick enough to turn the card when I’m halfway through the words, since I see the whole card as a paragraph.”

Minnie, in everyday life Mrs. Henry Cannon, was born Sarah Ophelia Colley, the youngest of five daughters in a family prominent in Centerville, Tennessee, an unhurried rural town an hour’s drive west of Nashville.

“There was a lapse of seven years between me and my next sister. Mama always blamed my maverick nature on that lapse. I was the black sheep. The rest married and settled down. I went into show business.” She enjoyed an extremely close knit family. Meals were eaten together at the same round dining table where study hours were spent beneath the prismatic glow of a Tiffany lamp. Her higher education took place in a prestigious Nashville girl’s school and junior college, Ward Belmont.

Following college and during the Depression era, Minnie traveled throughout the South putting on musical comedies for church and civic groups. The Atlanta-based touring company arranged for lodging with families in towns and hamlets where the shows played. The character of Minnie Pearl evolved from observing and sharing stories with many of these simple people rooted to their land.

The appearance of Minnie Pearl at a local bankers convention in 1940 led to an audition with the Grand Ole Opry which was looking for a comic. Some 250 fan letters followed Minnie’s first appearance. The rest is history.

Friends and Family
Minnie feels blessed with her faith, her friends and a firm belief in getting the job done – whatever it is. Easily, her richest blessing is her 41-year marriage to Henry Cannon, a former charter pilot who has flown Minnie to countless engagements throughout the country. For years, they attended bluegrass festivals after spotting them in Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Ltd. gazette. “Those were some of the best times in my life.”

Another was the 1949 European tour with six of the most famous acts in country music, where Minnie shared the stage with Roy Acuff and musical legends Red Foley and Hank Williams Sr.

An avid reader, Minnie canvasses editions of the Times, working the crossword puzzles and devouring Sunday sections on travel, arts and leisure and book reviews. Favorite authors are William Faulkner and Eudora Welty, insightful chroniclers of the essence of Southern families, their conflicts, aspirations and struggles, as well as Howard Foster (Immigrants) and Barbara Taylor Bradford (Woman of Substance).

Minnie studies people and their stories like guitar pickers study other pickers. “If everybody in the country walked as many miles to school as they say or picked as much cotton, nobody would have had the time to learn how to sing or play a guitar.”

She dearly loves the people who follow her shenanigans. “There is something about the way an audience laughs – sort of a spontaneous crack that comes up. You can feel it.”

Four times a week during Opry matinees, she and fellow Country Music Hall of Famer Roy Acuff perch on tall stools swapping anecdotes. Out front sits a 4,000-member audience. “The Opry audience is hard to work. People have a crystallized idea of whom they like. Entertainers must appeal to the realism of their experience. Roy is never impressed by anybody. Around him you never get really big.”

While country music fans are not impressed by $400,000 buses with Jacuzzis, she adds, “Once they take an entertainer to heart, they glory in his success, sharing enormously in his fame.”

During a typical matinee appearance, Roy perches on one stool, Minnie on the other. She wears the trademark beflowered straw hat, dangling its $1.98 price tag. The bright cotton dress is just this side of frumpy. Stockings are white and baby doll shoes more than slightly battered.

Minnie Pearl is the personification of simplicity and honesty. Sarah Cannon is the essence of sincerity and compassion. She is now a field general in the war on cancer and as surely as she’ll blast a hearty “Howdee!” at the next stranger, she’ll win her battle.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Sarah Cannon graciously gave her name to the The Sarah Cannon Cancer Center in Nashville, Tennessee.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, September/October 1988.