John H. Sheally II
The former English teacher, who has overcome episodes of MS, says one of the lessons of Mt. Airy is that “we need to live our lives in the spirit of cooperation with others.”
Mt. Airy, N.C.’s “other star,” country singer and author Donna Fargo, has overcome lots of adversity since her 1972 chart-topping hit, and still approaches every day with a smile.
The happiest town in the whole USA? Look in the North Carolina mountains for Mt. Airy, hometown of singer/songwriter Donna Fargo.
Her “Happiest Girl in the Whole USA” topped the pop and country charts in 1972 and helped pave the way for other women in the music business.
And over the nearly 40 years since, Fargo has lived the song’s sentiment. She has battled multiple sclerosis since 1978 when the doctors gave her five years to live. She recovered in four months.
“We tend to put doctors on pedestals – you have to take them with a grain of salt,” she says. “I learned a long time ago that if someone tells me no, I’ll just find a way to do it.”
Another MS episode in 1990 required an18-month recuperation. Today, she and her husband/manager Stan Silver watch vigilantly for the onset of perhaps another episode.
“Now I find joy in being alive,” she says. “I’m grateful to wake up every morning.”
That positive outlook reaches back to when she was a high school girl named Yvonne Vaughn. She left Mt. Airy for California the day after she graduated from high school, but the town and people she credits with forming her life and personality never left her.
PHOTOGRAPHER JOHN SHEALLY AND I are sitting with Fargo, Silver and a few hometown friends in Pandowdy’s, a café in Mt. Airy, the prototype town for the iconic Mayberry from the classic 1960s “The Andy Griffith Show.”
Griffith is Mt. Airy’s other celebrity native.
Fargo and Silver are visiting between appearances and have already met with officials finalizing plans for the ceremony renaming a 5.8-mile section of N.C. 103 “Donna Fargo Highway.”
“Every time Donna’s back in town a crowd gathers,” says Yvonne Vaughn, a long-time friend and director of the Gilmer-Smith Foundation. And sure enough, friends and acquaintances stream in, stopping to chat, pitch a song or just reminisce a bit.
“Happens every time,” says Fargo’s aunt, Jean Rehberg, who’s watching the scene with a knowing smile from the chair next to me.
Fargo has her own smile for everyone and often a hug. Hard to believe she’s the loner she claims to be.
“You can’t be that way on stage,” she says. “But I have to have quiet time, I’m into self analysis, have always searched myself.”
Fargo’s brunette curls are tucked into a ball cap, she wears plenty of pink and white jewelry and her favorite white shirt over light chambray jeans and high-heeled Lucite sandals – country, Nashville style.
But the artifice fades into downhome charm when she hitches up her waistband and confides, “I’m missing my string – usually run a long shoe string through the belt loops to hold my jeans up.”
As we check the lunch specials, a soda straw wrapper sails over the menu and onto my lap. I glance up to see Fargo grinning across from us with all the mischief of the third grader Miss Beasley stood in the corner years ago for talking too much.
Fargo’s life in Mt. Airy was good. She reminisces about her daily stop after school for a Coke and coconut pie at her father’s store, her after-school jobs in the tobacco fields and a dress shop, and the hot dogs at O’Dell’s Sandwich Shop drive-in, still her favorite eatery in Mt. Airy.
“I was one of those girls who sang to the mirror with a hair brush mic,” she says, but Miss Beasley and other teachers inspired her to an education degree, with which she taught English in Covina, Cal., by day and sang in local clubs at night.
Then she met Silver and her career kicked into high gear. By 1972, the year “Happiest Girl” was released, she was happily married to Silver, performing with singer Roy Clark in Las Vegas – and named head of the English department.
“That made Mama and Daddy proud,” she says. “They didn’t think singing was much of a career.”
“When I first went on stage with Roy Clark – he’s such a wonderful storyteller – I didn’t know any stories so I came up with a few school teacher anecdotes,” she says. “I learned a lot from him.”
As we chat Silver quietly reminds her to be careful what she eats. They’ve been married, she says, for “oh, maybe a hundred years, but not long enough.”
After her 1972 music breakthrough Fargo had her own TV show and toured extensively. She’s written more songs than she can remember and four short, inspirational books with a fifth to be released.
Her most recent recording, the 2008 “We Can Do Better in America,” is a call for the country to pull together.
“We need to live our lives in the spirit of cooperation with others,” Fargo says. “I learned that here in Mt. Airy – that’s the joy and charm of small towns.”
Last fall, the Mt. Airy Museum of Regional History opened an expansive Donna Fargo exhibit that includes many of her awards, photographs and glitzy stage outfits she donated to the museum.
“Here I have a place to keep so many of the things that are very special to me,” she says.