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Sports, music memorabilia brings back memories for Whitson

Jeff Birchfield • Jul 7, 2020 at 10:00 AM

There are the memories of standing-room only sporting events and sold-out concerts with the biggest stars of the day.

When Lorraine Whitson looks through the memorabilia she’s saved from those events, it brings back the times she spent with her late husband, J.D., the former vice president of Power Tool Company.

Over 65 years of marriage, the Unicoi couple traveled to ball games, car races and got up close to musical stars like Elvis Presley, Dolly Parton and Conway Twitty.

J.D. Whitson, who died in 2018, was an avid sports fan, especially a baseball fan. A loyal follower of the Kansas City Royals, he got to live out a dream by attending games 6 and 7 of the 1985 World Series.

Down 3-1 in the series, the Royals rallied to win game 5 in St. Louis. The Whitsons got a surprise of a lifetime when the series moved back to Kansas City, where Lorraine’s sister Linda lived.

“Where Linda worked, they gave her free box-seat tickets,” Lorraine recalled. “She called me at 5 o’clock the afternoon before the game and said to ask Jay if he wanted to go to the World Series. I asked when and she said, ‘Tomorrow.’ I was like, ‘We can’t get there.’

“But we called the airport, got tickets and got on the plane 7:30 the next morning to go to Kansas City. The next day, we were there to see the game.”

What a game it was!

The Royals won a 2-1 thriller over the Cardinals, scoring two runs in the bottom of the ninth inning. With one out, pinch-hitter Dane Iorg blooped a single to right field to plate Onix Concepcion and Jim Sundberg, who barely beat the tag of Cardinals catcher Darrell Porter for the game-winning run.

Lorraine had been to plenty of baseball games with J.D., including Major League games in Cincinnati and Atlanta, but this one had a whole different feel.

“The atmosphere there, the stadium was full and it was such an exciting crowd,” she remembered. “We got to go through the whole museum in Kansas City and see all their Hall of Fame stuff. To see that game, it was unreal.”

The Royals went on to win the series with an 11-0 thrashing of the Cardinals in Game 7. J.D. remained a huge Royals fan the rest of his life, never missing a game when they were on TV. He was watching from the recliner of his home in Unicoi when Kansas City won a second World Series title in 2015.

“If the ball game was going until 1 o’clock, he stayed up and watched it,” Lorraine said. “He was a dedicated fan of everybody, but he loved the Royals. He wouldn’t miss a ball game, definitely not a Royals game.”

THE INTIMIDATOR AND FOOTBALL

Outside of baseball, Whitson was a big Dale Earnhardt fan.

J.D. and Lorraine first started attending races at the old Sportsman Speedway dirt track in Johnson City. Over the years, they went to numerous Bristol races and other NASCAR tracks. After striking up a conversation with Earnhardt, J.D. became a big supporter of the seven-time champion, collecting several pieces of Earnhardt memorabilia.

Whitson also enjoyed football and gathered an impressive collection of trading cards from the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s. Some of the 1960s cards include Bart Starr and Joe Namath, who led their teams to wins in the first three Super Bowls, and other Hall of Fame players like Dick Butkus and Gale Sayers.

ELVIS AND THE SCARF

As much as they enjoyed sporting events, the Whitsons also loved going to concerts. They saw multiple Elvis Presley performances including his final two in Johnson City.

During one concert, Lorraine got a scarf from ‘The King of Rock and Roll,’ but ended up with just a small piece of it.

“Elvis was the greatest to me,” she said. “I had a Polaroid camera and was taking a picture of him when these girls hit me from behind and pushed me right at the back of the stage. He took his scarf off and handed it to me. I dropped my camera. Those girls got that scarf wrapped around my face and neck and started to pull it away.

“I bit down on the scarf. The rest of it, they tore it from around my mouth. All I ended up with was the little piece of the scarf in my mouth. The next day when I went to work, everybody was asking what happened where my mouth was bruised and I had a big ring around my neck. Those girls about killed me, but it was exciting.”

HELLO DOLLY AND HELLO DARLIN’

The Whitsons first met Dolly Parton when she was touring with Porter Wagoner. Lorraine, who was blond at the time and wore her hair in the same style as Parton, was mistaken for Dolly’s sister by fans at one show.

They became acquaintances of Parton, and Lorraine remembers J.D. was the one who informed the star that her former neighbor had died.

They met other big stars of the day as Lorraine recalls seeing Johnny and June Carter Cash at the Carter Fold in Hiltons, Va. There were other memorable concerts with acts like Loretta Lynn, Merle Haggard, Mel Tillis and Waylon Jennings.

Lorraine’s favorite country artist was Conway Twitty. She can’t help but smile when telling about how Twitty worked the crowd up with his iconic line.

“They turned every single light off and all you could see was the exit lights,” she said. “He comes out on stage and he says, ‘Hello, Darlin.’ The sound was deafening, just unreal.”

PERSONAL MEMORIES

While the experiences of seeing so many sports and music stars at their peak bring back great memories, it’s the times with J.D. that she cherishes the most.

“I couldn’t tell you all the stars we’ve seen,” she said. “Jay could talk to them like he could talk to anybody. He was the type who never met a stranger. He just had this way about him. That’s why I miss him so much.”