Inspirational Legacies of Dick Clark, Pat Summitt and Levon Helm

Remembering three inspiring people, and the effect they’ve had on my life—and all our lives.

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Guideposts Editor-in-Chief Edward Grinnan

What would it be like if you could Google-search your life? Type keywords into your personal history then look at the results? What sort of inspirational stories might show up? Two search terms that were huge on Google this week would also figure strongly in my life-search: Dick Clark and Pat Summitt.

First Dick Clark. I spent my early childhood in Philadelphia, birthplace of American Bandstand (born the year before me—I can hear you all counting on your fingers—and originally called just plain Bandstand). It was more than a low-budget teen dance show. It was an absolute viral phenomenon and kids from all over Philly would flock to the Bandstand studio in west Philadelphia for a chance to dance on TV to the new music called rock ’n’ roll, still viewed with suspicion and even dread by some parents, and scream and swoon at the live acts.

My sister, Mary Lou, was one of those teens who would stand in line to go on Bandstand. Mom and I would watch the little black-and-white set in the den to see if she got on, and occasionally she did, still wearing her Archbishop Prendergast plaid skirt. The kids used to go straight down to the studio from school, and there were no professional dancers used at the time. It was user-generated dancing, if you will. Just kids who loved to rock.

Bandstand was a totally organic experience before it moved to Hollywood and went all slick and showbiz and called itself American Bandstand. Dick Clark had tapped into something unbelievably powerful and inspiring, and I think shows like American Idol and Dancing with the Stars owe him a huge debt of gratitude. And for a whole younger generation, like my colleague Colleen Hughes’ kids, Lulu and Evie, New Year’s Eve won’t be the same. Dick Clark knew how to recreate himself and tap into youthful wholesomeness, when the world wasn’t so complicated and messy. He made people happy.

My dad knew Dick Clark slightly through business. Dad sold bowling alleys, which were a hot thing in the ’50s and ’60s, and a lot of entertainment types invested in them, including Clark and a couple of swoon-inducing singers named Frankie Avalon and Fabian. After closing a deal, Dad got Dick, Fabian and Frankie Avalon to stop by the house so Mary Lou could meet them and get a picture taken. This caused much hysteria, which struck me at the time as ridiculous and a bit contemptible. But of course I couldn’t wait to run around the neighborhood and tell everyone about it. I was probably all of six.

So when Dick Clark died this week I thought back to those days in Philly and how he bought a bowling alley from my dad and made my sister very happy. It is so funny how people touch our lives, how when I entered Dick Clark into my own personal search engine it came back with this particularly sweet memory.

College women’s basketball coaching legend Pat Summitt did not have such a direct effect on my life, but the cruel disease she is fighting did. My mother, her two sisters and their dad all died of Alzheimer’s, though thankfully not the early-onset variant. Still, can there be anything crueler than a disease the steals our memories, that searchable repository that holds our lives?

Alzheimer’s destroys our capacity for searching our memories, then destroys the memories themselves and eventually our personalities with them. So much of who we are in the present is formed of our memories. And it is almost incomprehensibly tragic and evil that a disease can take all that from us; so please pray for Pat, her family and all the people who love her.      

There was one other sad passing this week—the incomparable Levon Helm, drummer and singer for the Band and simply an American original. I never met Levon but when my wife, Julee, was singing with the B-52s I almost did. The Bees were neighbors of Levon’s in Woodstock, New York, and whenever they played in the New York area they put Levon’s name on the comp list, in case he felt like showing up. He seemed to be the only permanent member of the comp list, a fact I always noticed when I picked up my own ticket. And every time I’d wait and wait to see if he showed and if I’d get a chance to meet him backstage after the concert. Alas, I was never there when Levon was. But his music was always there for me, throughout my life, from Big Pink on.

The passing of Dick and Levon, and the early and unnatural retirement of Pat Summitt, make this week melancholy for me. Yet I am grateful for how much richer these inspiring individuals made my life by the way they lived theirs.

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