Valley Pike: So Patsy lived in Lexington?

Posted: September 11, 2013

Quick question: What do the Civil War in the Northern Valley and Patsy Cline have in common?

Nothing, you say? Well, you’re right. So it may behoove me to more accurately pose the query: What do Civil War buffs and Patsy Cline fans have in common?

The answer: Just when you think you know all there is to know about the war and Winchester’s country-music luminary, you learn something new and revealing — and are humbled by the realization that your knowledge is limited.

Such a realization struck me, as if by a two-by-four, two Sundays ago when Toni and I took in the new — and spectacular — Patsy Cline exhibit at the Museum of the Shenandoah Valley. For example, I did not know that Virginia, or Ginny, became Patsy at the suggestion of local DJ and bandleader Bill Peer, who hired her to sing with his band in 1952.

But what really caught my eye was the illustration showing the many Virginia — mostly Valley — locales in which Ginny’s family resided during her formative years. One stood out — Lexington. Gore, Winchester, Elkton, I knew about . . . but Lexington?

The beautiful little Valley city is especially dear to me, for it’s there where my parents decided to retire, and are now buried. It seems the place may have held special memories for Ginny, too.

She and her parents moved there in 1937 when Washington & Lee University hired her father, Sam Hensley, to oversee its new boiler room. Ginny was 5.

For the Hensleys, the move — one of 10 or so made during Ginny’s early years — represented a step up during the otherwise bleak Depression days. Their university-owned home, which sat across Woods Creek from the W&L campus, was their first with indoor plumbing.

Life in Lexington was, by all indications, happy for the Hensleys. Ginny attended West Lexington School for three years and, on her eighth birthday, received a small piano as a present.

By then, her interest in music had already blossomed, seeded perhaps by the many Big Bands — Paul Whiteman, Kay Kyser, Harry James, and Ozzie Nelson, to name a few — that found their way to Lexington to play for signature W&L events, most notably Fancy Dress Ball.

As John Lingan, who penned a piece (“A Closer Walk With Thee”) on local efforts to establish a permanent commemorative presence to Ginny in Winchester, wrote of those Lexington days: “For five years, Ginny sat by her bedroom window and heard weekly dance concerts by the world-class jazz orchestras that came on campus to soundtrack fraternity parties.”

Well, Lingan may be gilding the lily somewhat, though it must be said Ginny lived just a short hop from Doremus Gymnasium, where many of bigger events featuring the Big Bands were held.

So young Ginny more than likely did hear the music, and was captivated by it. She would have also heard the song stylings of the female singers — Helen O’Connell, for example — who were the bands’ featured performers. It is said she was particularly enthralled by the voice of a chanteuse named Dolly Dawn.

In any event, the Lexington days ended, perhaps, all too soon when Ginny’s dad decided to pursue employment at the shipyards in Tidewater at the dawn of World War II. By 1945, the Hensleys had returned to the Valley, where Ginny would become Patsy and launch her iconic career.

The exhibit takes visitors along this path to stardom, and in great visual detail. As Julie Armel and Cory Garman — the MSV’s director of marketing and its exhibitions manager, respectively — will tell you, if one theme predominates throughout, it’s that Patsy’s (or Ginny’s) story is a Valley story.

As the name Shenandoah suggests, she is, truly, a “daughter of the stars.” And of Lexington, too.