A perfect summer day was becoming evening this Monday, August 14th in Memphis as I waited behind Graceland Plaza for the shuttle that would take me downtown to the Peabody Hotel. There, for the very first time, I would be among "insiders" of the Elvis world. These were folks I considered "the source" -- those who knew Elvis Presley personally and whom I was excited to see on account of their sheer association with the man. Among them would be one that was famous in and of his own right: Mr. Sam Phillips, founder of Sun Studio, where legends had launched their careers. I had recently seen AE's "Biography" documentary honoring his achievements, and now I would see him face to face. The event would be the annual "Elvis Presley Memorial Dinner Charity Event," now in it's 12th year. It would be hosted by Marian Cocke, the nurse who had been both nurse and friend to Elvis Presley in the last two and a half years of his life. I had seen her on television, too, and had read about her special friendship with the man we know as "king," but whom she called "Babe."
She was one of the "good guys," like the others who would be present, and she had, I would soon find out, worked tirelessly for the last 23 years to keep her friend's memory alive and well and to honor the humanitarian contributions he had made over the course of his lifetime. Her focus was friendship and humanity. It would be an evening of being reminded of Elvis Presley's gracious heart, whose capacity for giving, even to strangers, was as legendary now, as his extraordinary talent.
The Peabody Hotel is downtown on Union Street, not far from Sun Studio. It is no ordinary hotel, but a sort of southern palace of sorts, complete with the world famous "Peabody Ducks," that I, unfortunately, would not have the opportunity to see this time around. As I walked into the lobby of the grand hotel, I half expected the ducks to be walking around among the visitors, but I was late, I would find out. They parade through the lobby only twice daily at designated times. So, once again, next year... But, I did wonder for a moment just exactly where they were hanging out in the hotel that evening.
Some kind of fancy laser lighting projected the greeting "Welcome Elvis Fans" on the marble floor of the lobby. I had no idea what to expect for I had never attended this event, and I wasn't expecting the place to be quite so fancy. Walking out of the fancy elevators, I walked into a hallway filled with people dressed to the nines, as if they were going to the opera. There, in the hallway at the entryway to the banquet room where the event would be held, I got my first glimpse of people who before this had only been part of the Elvis folklore that had become so familiar: George Klein, a lifelong friend. Jerry Shilling, another lifelong friend whom I instantly recognized, even with his back to me. He had the same head of hair that he seems to have had for the last 30 years, and he was looking great. And there, just feet away as I stopped to pick up my ticket, was D.J. Fontana, one of the very original band members. I recognized him instantly from the 1968 Special, amazed that I was able to recognize a man I'd never met or seen in person from a TV image from 32 years ago. There were other "insiders" there, but these were the ones I clearly recognized. They looked like they hadn't changed or aged at all in all these years since Elvis' passing. And there, down in front, across the room, I caught the unmistakable profile of Mr. Sam Phillips. There it was, the full head of shoulder length, dark wavy hair, the trademark beard, and the sharp double-breasted suit that has been his signature ever since I can remember. My goal of this evening was to meet all of them in person, to shake their hand, and to thank them for remaining true, loyal friends and being "good guys." I usually meet my goals when so determined, but I would fail this evening. There would be too many people surrounding them, and there was never quite the right moment to get through the crowd. I think now -- no, I know -- that had it been Elvis himself down there, I would have gone through hell and high water to get to him.
As luck would have it, I would get the chance after the event to briefly interrupt D.J. out in the hallway and get my picture taken with him. I was too wiped out by that time to fawn and fuss, but I am very grateful for cameras that capture such historic meetings in one's life.
The room was packed. 450 people, all here for a serious reason. Two large screens stood to either side of the front podium, and the round tables were decorated beautifully with centerpieces that I wished I had taken home as a souvenir. As the evening began, those of us who had never seen Marian would have the pleasure of hearing about a different side of Elvis Presley from a woman that loved him as a friend. Jack Soden, CEO of "Elvis Presley Enterprises" would give the opening greeting, reminding us of how passionately Marian has worked all these years on behalf of humanitarian causes, raising tens of thousands of dollars, in the name of Elvis Presley's memory.
I was astounded to learn that she, at 74, continues to work at Baptist Memorial Hospital as a nurse. Even after having survived heart surgery earlier this summer, she continues to do the charity work without hesitation and continues to travel around the country, all on behalf of keeping the humanitarian legacy of Elvis Presley alive and well. Mr. Soden graciously gave Marian a donation from EPE and gave her the spotlight. This was Marian, the woman who had been both nurse and friend from that day on in January 1975 when she had first met Elvis in the hospital. It was the same hospital where he would be brought that fateful day in August of 1977, two and a half years later, where she would say her final goodbye after it was clear that there would be no bringing him back.
Before I ever saw her that evening, I knew this about her. She had met Elvis Presley by walking into his room at the hospital one January day. They met, they clicked, and though she was only nine years older than he, I am sure in my heart that this woman became more than a friend to Elvis. Over time, she would become like "Mom" to him. She would keep watch and take care of him as his nurse and keep him company as a friend. She would spend many hours at Graceland, just doing simple things like knitting an afghan, darning socks, going on motorcycle rides with him at ungodly hours of the night, up and down the highway, and watching the "Mary Tyler Moore" and "Carol Burnett" shows together. And most of all, talking about things that mattered...
I knew, before she even began to speak, that this kindly older woman who looked so strong even for what she had been through, that her words this evening would move me. She greeted us with, "I never knew I would last long enough...I want you to know that we certainly did not come here to mourn the death of Elvis Presley. We simply came to celebrate his life. He was really great, wasn't he --"Here she stopped as her voice cracked. We applauded, of course, and the tone was set for the evening. It was in her invocation that we were reminded of why we were here:
"Though he walked among us for such a short few years,
by his example, he taught us much about caring and sharing...
loving and giving...and in doing good things for those less
fortunate. Yet he never failed to give the honor and the
glory of all of this to you, our blessed Lord and Redeemer."
As the evening unfolded, a still image of a smiling, healthy Elvis Presley and images of Elvis Presley in concert would be shown on the screens, his gospel music would fill the room, and charitable donations would be made to several different humanitarian causes, all of them benefiting from the generous hearts of those who were here to pay homage to a man who had been generous to a fault and who was a "giver."