Carson's hometown turns out for memorial

Monday, January 31st 2005, 10:53 am
By: News On 6

NORFOLK, Neb. (AP) _ The hometown of former ``Tonight Show'' host Johnny Carson turned out Sunday for the only public memorial to be held for the man who accompanied millions to bed every night for 30 years.

More than 1,100 people _ most residents of Norfolk, a town of 25,000 in northeast Nebraska _ attended the memorial for Carson, held in the high school theater that bears his name.

Far from a somber tribute, the event was mostly high-spirited and included a monologue, jazz ensemble playing the theme of the ``Tonight Show'' and stage props like a desk and guest chairs where those who had known Carson were asked about him.

Some of those in attendance, like Lois Voecks of Norfolk, had known the late-night comic from high school.

Voecks recalled that Carson, who died Jan. 23 in his Malibu, Calif., home, sat behind her in homeroom and had performed magic for students during Friday convocations.

``We used to see him later in the hallway, and we would look back at him and say, 'That's the same guy? He seems just like us,' `` she said.

Norfolk residents are more than happy to claim Carson as a native son.

What might surprise those outside the town is that Carson seemed just as eager to be claimed.

Jeff Burkink, who was principal of Norfolk High School when Carson gave $600,000 to the school to build a new performing arts center, remembered meeting Carson in 1976 when the comic came back to town to give the high school's commencement address.

``He was nervous,'' Burkink said. ``He said he didn't want to be a flop in his hometown. But the minute he stood up there, he was humorous and relaxed. He was right at home with a microphone.''

Former Norfolk Mayor Jim Miller recalled being with Carson as a crowd of townspeople cheered for him during a 1976 parade in Carson's honor.

``He turned to his wife and said, `Honey, I really think they like me.' And he meant it. It was heartfelt,'' Miller said.

At Carson's request, there was no public memorial in Los Angeles. the king of late-night television was a fiercely private man who made few public appearances following his retirement from the ``Tonight Show'' in 1992.

While that might have been fine with Hollywood, such orthodoxy is not so easily bypassed in rural Nebraska.

Many in Norfolk felt a parting tribute was necessary to remember the man who never forgot his roots.

Born in Corning, Iowa, Carson was raised in Norfolk from the age of 8 until he left after high school to join the Navy and serve in World War II.

It was in Norfolk that Carson first showed a flare for show business, performing magic as the ``Great Carsoni'' in local Elk's and Moose lodges starting at age 14.

Later fame did not diminish Carson's fondness for his hometown. His known donations to causes in the town amounted to more than $5 million and included $2.27 million for a regional cancer radiation center.

Carson, too, seemed to understand the desire of his hometown to pay tribute to his generosity and fame.

The entertainer gave $100,000 to the Elkhorn Valley Museum in Norfolk and later donated 11 boxes of his personal items _ including any awards and his Presidential Medal of Freedom _ to the museum for a permanent display dedicated to Carson.

Local attorney Dave Ptak, who served as master of ceremonies Sunday, said the community wanted to hold a celebration of Carson's work and his life rather than a tearful goodbye.

``I think all told, Johnny _ even the very private side of him _ would have been pleased,'' Ptak said.

No celebrities attended the memorial, although organizers said they had contacted several representatives.