DANVILLE – When Dick Van Dyke said goodbye on Sunday, he left behind a new generation of fans and a lifetime of memories.
"This is definitely something I'll never forget," said Danville High School senior Phil Myer, who got to sing and dance with the legendary performer Friday and Saturday. "We grew up watching his shows and his musicals. But I never thought I'd be standing on stage next to him."
"It was quite unbelievable," added Abbie Myer, Phil's twin, who also shared the stage with Van Dyke. "Right now I feel like it didn't even happen."
Van Dyke, 78, returned to Danville for what's likely to be his last homecoming, to be honored as a DHS distinguished alumnus and to attend a student performance of "Bye Bye Birdie." Despite a long and distinguished career, Van Dyke spoke on stage of his cherished memories of Danville – boyhood antics, high school days, the teachers who influenced him and the friends he made and is still close to today.
"I don't know whether other high schools had the kind of spirit we had," said Van Dyke, a member of the Class of 1944. "I just remember that we celebrated when our team won, and we cried when they lost. I can tell you this: No matter what happens to you in your life, the years at Danville High School will always be bright and shining in your heart, so enjoy them."
Van Dyke also complimented the school's music and drama programs and called the performance one of the best he's ever seen. "I don't know why, but the performances are so much better than when I was in high school," said Van Dyke, who tapped his feet and sang along with the musical numbers and led the ovation at the conclusion of both performances. "The girls are prettier, the boys are better looking, and there's so much talent."
He joked that it was sad the performance lasted only two nights. "I was here last night. And in just one night, it got more polished, it got smoother, it got better. You should be able to run for a year anyway," he said.
Van Dyke, who was a member of the Dramatic Club and a cappella choir, also spoke about the importance of school music and drama programs. "All over the country, school budgets are being shaved to the bone, and the first thing to suffer has been music programs," he said, urging the community to continue its support. "Kids have got to have music in their lives. These kids will walk around with more confidence and more grace just having done this kind of a show. Believe me, it will change their lives."
Van Dyke's friendliness, down-to-earth personality and natural charm endeared him to students as soon as he pulled up to the school's circle drive, got out of his car and broke out into a grin, which seemed to stay on his face throughout the weekend.
"He's seriously not what you'd think of as a typical celebrity," Phil said. "He's just normal and funny. And he's the nicest person I've ever met."
Abbie agreed, and recounted a story in which Van Dyke came into Steak 'n Shake after Saturday's performance, where many of the cast and crew were already eating.
"He offered to sign autographs for everyone, and that was his personal time," she said.
Both teens said they also were surprised about how energetic and limber the septuagenarian still is. Abbie said that when drama teacher Marty Lindvahl told students he was 78, she worried. "I thought, 'Oh no! He won't be able to dance with us,'" she recalled with a laugh. "But he was dancing around. He didn't seem like his age at all."
Throughout the weekend, Van Dyke was gracious and showed a genuine interest in the students.
"He's signed kids' sneakers. He's signed their shirts. He's just done everything you could ask of him. Not many people would do what you've done. We really appreciate it," Principal Mark Denman said.
The Myers said they will always appreciate special compliments he paid each of them. He told Phil, who played the musical's title role, that he was one of the best Conrad Birdie's he'd ever seen. And he told Abbie, who played the female lead, Rosie Alvarez, that back in his day, they never made Rosies like her.
"Coming from Dick Van Dyke, that was a very nice compliment. I will remember that for the rest of my life," she said.
And though he didn't get to dance or sing with them, Van Dyke also made quite an impression on younger kids, with whom he took pictures and signed autographs. "My little sister asked him to autograph a movie cover of 'Mary Poppins,'" Abbie said, adding her sister, Jill, is 10. "He laughed and said, 'I'm impressed you even know who I am.'"
Never a dull moment during return
Here are some other highlights of Dick Van Dyke's visit to Danville, as well as some behind-the-scene stories:
Watch that curb, 'Chitty Chitty Bang Bang'
After a long day traveling and rehearsing with students Thursday, Van Dyke returned to his Days Inn hotel room. Once there, he realized he was hungry because he hadn't eaten.
So, he drove his rental car to Steak 'n Shake on South Gilbert for a quick bite. As he was leaving, he backed over a curb.
"He got a flat tire and tore off the muffler," said Jerry Seawright, one of his high school pals – who call themselves the "Burfords." - "They had to send him another (car)."
Back to Broadway
His hometown may have been the last place Van Dyke would have expected to see a familiar face from Broadway. But at Friday night's reception, Elsa Walden of Urbana stood in line to visit with the actor she hadn't seen in person since they both worked on "Bye Bye Birdie" in 1959.
For 16 years, Walden, who moved to Urbana six years ago, was a stage manager for more than nine Broadway shows, including "Birdie," when she first met Van Dyke.
"How can you possibly not like that face?" said Walden of the first time she met Van Dyke. "The whole cast loved him dearly."
Walden enjoyed the few minutes she had to reminisce with Van Dyke, who was pleasantly surprised, even shocked, to see the face of the lady who gave more than 200 cues for "Birdie," including his own cues to go on stage.
Walden almost missed the chance to see him. Two friends had to back out of their tickets to the show and reception, so Walden planned not to attend until she told another friend, Lee Fillman, a retired University of Illinois professor.
"I told her, 'Elsa, we're going,'" Fillman said.
Diploma for alumnus
During the Friday press conference that kicked off Van Dyke's weekend in Danville, school officials presented Van Dyke with a lifetime membership to the Danville High School Alumni Association. After giving thanks, Van Dyke joked, "I would have appreciated getting my diploma."
He then explained that in March 1944 of his senior year at Danville High, he left for the Army Air Forces, and never received his diploma. Little did Van Dyke know that, exactly 60 years after his senior year, school officials had already planned to present him with his diploma after the musical.
He was tickled when Principal Mark Denman, along with Superintendent Gary Tucker and board President David Groves, presented it to him. "My great-great-grandkids will be so impressed," Van Dyke said.
Too skinny for the service
After Van Dyke received his diploma, Burford pal Bob Hackman explained that Van Dyke enlisted in the service in 1944, but only after some persistence. Always tall and skinny throughout school, the military originally didn't accept Van Dyke because he didn't weigh enough.
Hackman said he drove Van Dyke to the base in Rantoul three times, so Van Dyke could enlist, but the military insisted he put on more pounds, advising him to eat bananas. On the third trip, Hackman said, they filled him full of bananas and milkshakes, and Uncle Sam finally said yes.
When the Burfords took to the DHS stage, Mayor Scott Eisenhauer asked them to share a few thoughts on what it's like to be back in Danville. Brown said the men, who now live in California and Florida, noticed a sign at the city limits listed the town's population at 34,000.
"You've got to do something about that," Brown said. "We had it up to 43,000 when we were there."
Fun with "some" of the Danville 5
One of the Burfords, Bob Hackman, is the uncle of actor and fellow Danville native Gene Hackman, whose name came up during Friday morning's press conference.
Van Dyke said when they were kids, Gene Hackman was quite a bit younger, and Van Dyke and the Burfords would tell him to get lost. Van Dyke then told a story about running into Hackman at a West Coast event and telling him that if he had known Hackman was going to be such a big actor, he "would have been nicer to him."
Also younger, by five years, than the Burford gang, little brother Jerry Van Dyke is a star in his own right, having played for several seasons in the comedy television show "Coach."
Van Dyke talked about Jerry when a Danville High student asked about him. Van Dyke said Jerry can really make him laugh. He then told a story about Jerry recently sending him an e-mail with nothing in it. When Dick asked him what was with that e-mail with nothing in it, Jerry replied, "Oh, I have laryngitis."
Van Dyke made reference to his little brother again when he was touring Danville High and spotted a picture of Mr. Schoolcraft, dean of boys when they were in school in the 1940s.
Van Dyke, who was called to the dean's office only once in his high school career, said he didn't "know" the dean as well as the other Burfords, and then added, "Jerry knew him quite well."
Four times the fun
On Friday, Van Dyke helped award two new scholarships – the Dick Van Dyke Scholarship for the Performing Arts – given in his name to seniors Rhoda Lewis and Graham Peck. On Saturday, Denman surprised everyone by announcing the school would award two more – to seniors Emily Hoffman and Scott Turner. Each student received a scholarship for $500 and a plaque with Van Dyke's picture on it.
You can reach Noelle McGee at (217) 443-8487 or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org