Remembering a signer and a singer

Published 11:22 pm Wednesday, June 11, 2014

By Frank Roberts

I was thinking about the recent Memorial Day holiday, when thousands of people celebrated by spending hours and hours looking for bargains while mere handfuls spent an hour honoring country, flag and servicemen and women.

I decided to check into some of the history of Virginia and the Declaration of Independence. Do you know how many Virginians signed that historical document? Count ’em — seven: Richard Henry Lee, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Harrison, Thomas Nelson Jr., Francis Lightfoot Lee, Carter Braxton and George Wythe, who was born in what is now Hampton.

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The first to sign the Declaration of Independence, he was an accomplished gentleman who was instrumental in designing the seal of Virginia. A foe of slavery, he freed several slaves, one of whom chose to stay with him and, in his will he gave them generous bequests.

George Wythe Sweeney, his grand-nephew was also the recipient of his bequest. The slaves, of course, appreciated the remembrance. As for the grand-nephew, he poisoned one of the slaves, as well as his grand-uncle.

The murderer enjoyed a couple weeks of watching Wythe suffer agonizing pain. A grand jury indicted him, but he went free.

The Declaration of Independence signer was the first professor of law in America, and he was speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates. But that is state history, and you learned that in school, right? Right?

I got into all that during the Memorial Day holiday and, also during that time, PBS was raising money by presenting shows featuring music of every type.

One of the shows featured Yvonne Marie Antoinette JaMais of Savannah. If you go back to the swing era you will know her. She shortened her name to Connie Haines. She began performing when she was 4.

Later, she performed with Harry James, Tommy Dorsey and was part of the Abbott and Costello radio show. She was also seen in several films. She sang with Sinatra, and did a TV show with Frankie Laine.

She did a radio show with me on a New York station, WOV. The DJ on the 1940s program invited listeners to bring some records from their collections and, since I had some ‘raries’ from the English Victor and Parlophone labels, I was a welcome guest.

With the visitor there was also a celebrity, and during my stint Connie Haines was “it”. Both of us were 15 and, I might add, she was a little bitty thing, less than five feet tall.

Sometime in the ’80s, we got together again. I was reviewing a concert at Willett Hall in Portsmouth, and she was a featured singer. She died in 2008. She was 87, and she was a sweet kid and a sweet lady.

In my recent Smiley Burnette column, I left out my favorite quote, the performer explaining the difference between Gene Autry and Roy Rogers: “Gene was the class cowboy. When he came into a room, everyone would stand up. When Roy came in, people would say, “C’mon over, and sit down.”

Recently, the newspaper paid a tribute to tea and it reminded me of something a Brit friend told me. Derek Wills of Plymouth, England was a radio operator on the Queen Mary, staying with me while it was docked in New York. He said this about “American” iced tea: “You boil it to make it hot, put ice in it to make it cold, put sugar in it to make it sweet, and lemon to make it sour.”

During a 60-year career spanning newspapers, radio and television, Frank Roberts has been there and done that. Today, he’s doing it in retirement from North Carolina, but he continues to keep an eye set on Suffolk and an ear cocked on country music. Email him at froberts73@embarqmail.com.