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Tuesday, March 5, 1996 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Minnie Pearl, Beloved Country Comedian, Dies

AP

NASHVILLE, Tenn. - Minnie Pearl could melt even the sternest Secret Service agent.

In 1984, she was backstage at the Grand Ole Opry during a visit by President Reagan. A dutiful Secret Service agent, glaring like a cornered Clint Eastwood, refused to let her down a hallway to a bathroom.

"Those Secret Service agents don't smile," she recalled jovially.

But she won him over. In less than a minute, he determined that this effervescent woman in a calico dress and a wide-brimmed hat with a $1.98 price tag posed no threat to the president.

Everyone from presidents to children gravitated to her. In 1986, a hesitating youngster approached her at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum and told her shyly as he looked at the floor: "My mother loves you."

Miss Pearl, sensing his uneasiness, thanked him and said: "Don't ever be afraid to tell someone you love them."

Miss Pearl died last night at age 83, after a week of unconsciousness following a stroke. A previous stroke in 1991 had ended her performing career and left her partially paralyzed.

Her loud, cheerful "Howdyyyyy! I'm just so proud to be here!" and her toothy grin were her trademarks for more than a half-century on the Grand Ole Opry country-music show and 20 years on the syndicated TV show "Hee Haw."

Miss Pearl sang and played piano but was best known for her humor, which focused on a longstanding search for a "feller." A typical quip: "Kissing a feller with a beard is like a picnic. You don't mind going through a little brush to get there."

Her jokes were self-deprecating and a bit risque for family entertainment. One of her favorites was about being accosted by a robber:

"I said, `But I haven't got any money,' so he frisked me and said, `Are you sure you ain't got any money?' I said, `No sir, but if you'll do that again I'll write you a check.' "

In contrast to her stage role, Miss Pearl, whose real name was Sarah Ophelia Cannon, was gracious, cultured and sensitive. She married Henry Cannon, her manager, in 1947, and the couple lived next door to the Tennessee governor's mansion in Nashville. They had no children.

"For decades, Minnie was an example to millions with her positive, self-deprecating clean humor that made us laugh and stood the test of time," Gov. Don Sundquist said. "The entertainment industry has lost a great talent. The world has lost a great friend."

Miss Pearl was an elegant community leader and tireless worker for charity in Nashville.

She was the only female member of the Grand Ole Opry when she joined in 1940. At the time, the weekly live radio show was the main showcase for country music.

She was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1975.

Miss Pearl was diagnosed with cancer in 1985 and underwent a double mastectomy. She recovered and continued to perform and do volunteer work with the American Cancer Society. In 1987, she received the Cancer Society's Courage Award. In 1992, she was among 13 recipients of a National Medal of Art.

Copyright (c) 1996 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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