FAMOUS WEST PLAINSIANS
Interesting facts about famous people from West Plains
Porter Wagoner achieved fame as a country music singer, songwriter, and musician. Born on Aug. 12, 1927, and raised on a farm south of West Plains, Porter started his public music career while he worked as a meat cutter after his family moved to town in the early 1940s. As a popular local entertainer, he did live performances on radio station KWPM-AM from the butcher shop where he worked. In 1951 he was hired to perform on KWTO in Springfield, Mo., which led to a contract with RCA Victor. In 1953, his song “Trademark” became a hit for Carl Smith. Beginning in 1955 he was featured on Ozark Jubilee, a Springfield-based television show with a national audience. He joined the Grand Ole Opry in 1958. He would go on to have 81 charted records and his own syndicated television program, The Porter Wagoner Show, which aired from 1960 to 1981. The show introduced Dolly Parton who was part of the show, and Porter’s vocal partner, from 1967 to 1976. With his flashy, custom-made suits and blond pompadour, Porter was a popular performer in Nashville for many years where he was known informally as “Mr. Grand Ole Opry.” The longest street in West Plains is “Porter Wagoner Boulevard,” named for our beloved native son who died on Oct. 28, 2007.
Jan Howard made her mark on the country music industry as a recording artist and songwriter. She was born in West Plains on March 13, 1929, with the given name Lula Grace Johnson. It was her second husband songwriter Harlan Howard who encouraged her career, which took off in 1960 with her first major hit “The One You Slip Around With.” She signed with Decca Records and continued to have hit singles beginning in the mid-60s, eventually placing 30 songs on the Billboard Country Charts. She teamed up with Bill Anderson, and the duo also charted with several songs and toured together until the mid-1970s. Several tragic life circumstances nearly led her to give up her career, but she released more albums into the 1980s. She also took up writing, including publication of her autobiography Sunshine and Shadow. She became a member of the Grand Ole Opry in 1971 and continued to perform there until 2019. Jan died on March 28, 2020.
Dick Van Dyke, a well-known, award-winning actor, comedian, writer, singer, and dancer, is perhaps the most famous West Plains son, however, his tenure in our town was the briefest. He was born here on Dec. 13, 1925, but he and his parents stayed only until the next spring when they moved back to their hometown, Danville, Ill., where Dick would grow up and attend high school before joining the US military in 1944, serving stateside entertaining troops as a member of the Special Services. During the late 1940s, he launched an award-winning career which has spanned seven decades in film, television, and the theatre. Dick is the recipient of five Primetime Emmys, a Tony, and a Grammy Award, and was inducted into the Television Hall of Fame in 1995.
Gilbert Ray “Speck” Rhodes was a country music comedian and entertainer best known for his appearances on Porter Wagoner’s television show. He was born July 16, 1915, on a farm which is now the location of the Heart of the Ozarks Fairgrounds, and coincidentally, adjacent to the Welcome Center. Speck was from a musical family. He and his three siblings toured the RKO vaudeville circuit and barnstormed throughout north central Arkansas where the family had moved following the 1918 influenza epidemic. Speck played banjo and bass fiddle, and it was during the 1930s that he developed his comic character. Through no connection of mutual birthplace, in 1960 Speck auditioned in Nashville for Porter Wagoner’s TV show. He landed the gig which led to a lasting friendship between the two men. He and Porter were the only two original members when the show stopped airing in 1981. Speck died March 19, 2000.
Elwin “Preacher” Roe was a professional baseball player who started his career as a St. Louis Cardinal in 1938 and who would go on to play for the Pittsburgh Pirates from 1944-47 and finally, for the legendary Brooklyn Dodgers from 1948-54 where he had a stellar career, including in 1951 when he posted a 22-3 win-loss record. He was a five-time All-Star and, along with the rest of the Dodgers team, is immortalized in Roger Kahn’s book The Boys of Summer. Born on Feb. 26, 1916, in Ash Flat, Ark., Preacher grew up in Viola, Ark. However, after he retired from baseball, he moved to West Plains where for many years he operated a grocery store and was – and still is – claimed and revered as our town’s very own “boy of summer.” Preacher died on Nov. 9, 2008.
Bill Virdon is a former professional baseball outfielder, manager, and coach. He was born June 9, 1931, in Michigan to parents who were originally from Missouri but who had moved away to find work during the Great Depression. In 1944 the Virdons moved to Howell County where Bill would attend West Plains High School, excelling at sports and graduating with the class of 1949. He started his Minor League Baseball career in 1950 as part of the New York Yankees organization. His Major League career began in 1955 with the St. Louis Cardinals where he was named National League Rookie of the Year. The next year Bill was traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates where he remained through his playing years and was part of the team as it won the 1960 World Series. Retiring as a player after the 1965 season, he went on to coach and manage with several organizations and continued to be involved in baseball through the years. Bill passed away on November 23, 2021.
Tedd Gullic was an outfielder for the St. Louis Browns from 1930 through the 1933 season. He was born Jan. 2, 1907, in the neighboring community of Koshkonong, Mo., and died Jan. 28, 2000, in West Plains where he had made his home as a successful businessman after retiring from baseball.
Jim the Wonder Dog is the Official Wonder Dog of the State of Missouri. Born on March 10, 1925, Jim was a Llewellyn setter with astounding intelligence who performed unexplainable feats. Jim was born in the state of Louisiana but when he was just a pup, he found a home with Sam Van Arsdale in West Plains. Sam discovered that his dog was a phenomenal naturally gifted bird dog, but also a dog with supernatural skills. One hot afternoon Sam suggested that they stop hunting and go sit under a hickory tree to cool off. There were lots of trees around, but Jim walked directly to the hickory. Sensing it was more than a fluke, Sam named other trees, and Jim correctly identified them all. The baffling behavior grew from there and was put to the test many times, including by professors at the University of Missouri who asked Jim to perform tasks in multiple languages and in Morse code. He was asked in French to find a certain car license plate number and asked in German to find a girl in a blue dress. On and on. Jim responded correctly every time to multiple commands. None of the experts, or the thousands of people who witnessed the tests he was subjected to over the years, could ever determine the source of Jim’s amazing powers. Sam, who himself knew only English, once told a reporter, “I never asked Jim a question he could not answer. He understood every language, written or spoken…In fact, Jim knew everything.” Jim died March 18, 1937, and is buried in Marshall, Mo., where he had lived with Sam for most of his life.
Discover more by visiting the website https://www.jimthewonderdog.org/