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THE IDLE AMERICAN
Wednesday, December 22, 2010 • Posted December 22, 2010

Teeth for Christmas…

For the world’s half-empty drink glass holders—and they are legion—Philip Pruitt is 50 years deep into a "dad blame it," tough luck, short straw kind of life. He could understandably whimper, "Why me, Lord?" Wailing through all verses of life’s saddest song could well be his refrain.

Instead, this non-descript guy with the demeanor of Goober on Mayberry RFD, determination of Winston Churchill and faith of Helen Keller, takes the high roads. He tosses all the "woe stuff" into ditches alongside.

Life’s ups and downs cut high school short. Downers included a serious leg break in a fall from a playground slide, wounds sustained when a TV tower toppled, cancer and a serious liver condition. Still, he got a GED, and he’s been in and out of college over the past 30 years, whistling all the way…..

* * * * *

He contends he has much, including his job as a "courtesy clerk" at Brookshire’s Grocery in Tyler’s Bergfeld Center. His "world" nestles in a seven-block area where he lives, works, worships and sees doctors. With a firm grip on faith and an "I am blessed" attitude, he’s always whistling, or "puckering up" to start.

Customers ask about the "whistling man" who happily pushes their buggies of goods to the parking lot. Some linger to hear final notes, wishing they’d parked further away.

Their spirits are uplifted, and youngsters, some not yet up to puckering, beg to learn bird calls….

* * * * *

Philip, entrenched in contentment, loves to tell how he learned from the world’s best.

As a youngster, he referred to his "teacher" as "an old blind man." The year was 1972; the scene, a Little League ball field in Jacksonville, TX. That’s where the then 12-year-old practiced bird calls learned from his grandmother. Admitting he "wasn’t much good" as a player, he preferred whistling bird calls, anyway. Not until adulthood did Philip realize his "teacher" had been Fred Lowery, "king of whistlers" for a quarter-century.

That Lowery didn’t play the "do you know who I am card" speaks much to his modesty. The whistling virtuoso lived down the street from the ball field, and no doubt heard an outfielder who’d rather warble bird calls than catch baseballs….

* * * * *

Long-of-tooth folks remember Lowery. He of 10,000 whistling concerts (in all the 50 states and world-wide) performed with leading big bands and premiere entertainers. Luminaries included Steve Allen, Betty Hutton, Edgar Bergen, Jackie Gleason, Art Carney, Dale Evans, Bing Crosby, Bob Hope and Ed Sullivan, and on WFAA radio’s "The Early Birds." In 1954, Warner Brothers paid him a "princely" sum of $500 to whistle the haunting theme in John Wayne’s film, The High and the Mighty.

Born in Palestine in 1910, Lowery was a scarlet fever victim at age two. Legally blind as a result of the illness, he became a student at the Texas School for the Blind at age 7, spending the next decade there.

His fellow students persuaded him to whistle "My Wild Irish Rose" when renowned whistler Ernest Nichols performed there. Nichols, "wowed" by the talented 10-year-old, offered whistling tips and predicted the youngster would one day be the world’s best….

* * * * *

Nichols was indeed prophetic. Lowery became the very best.

With wife Gracie at the wheel, Fred spent a half-century bouncing across the nation’s highways to keep concert dates. They wore out six motor homes clocking more than two million miles of accident-free travel.

Come summers they were at home in Jacksonville. Home and away, he was a constant encourager for would-be whistlers, particularly youngsters….

* * * * *

Like his mentor, Pruitt takes whistling seriously—his work, too.

Whistling is also his Christian witness, played out daily at Brookshire’s, where he has won several awards, including "courtesy clerk of the year" when he began work in 2007.

A while back, a fellow member at Trinity Baptist Church told Philip of an anonymous friend who wanted to buy him a car….

* * * * *

Philip declined. "Carless" for years, he prefers walking, and he has a bike in his little apartment for longer trips. But the anonymous benefactor still wanted to help.

Chemotherapy had done a number on his teeth, and Philip admitted that dentures would be "mighty nice."

Done deal. He has new teeth, and his whistling—carols at Christmas and hymns in other months—is even sweeter….

* * * * *

His Christmas tunes last year were noted by my friend, Caleb Pirtle, who was ringing a Salvation Army bell.

Philip told Caleb about learning from Fred Lowery.

Aware of my friendship with the Lowerys during their later years, (Fred died at age 74 in 1984, Gracie, at 95 in 2007) my friend introduced me to Philip. We had a great visit….

* * * * *

Each Christmas, I look forward to re-reading the late Dallas Morning News columnist Paul Crume’s heartwarming column, "Angels Among Us," published annually since 1967. (Repeated readings are as thrilling as Internet Google searches for "Fred Lowery.". Some of his best renditions are easily accessed.)

Angels protected the Lowerys as they spread cheer throughout the land. I’m satisfied they likewise hover around a Tyler grocery sacker who loves his job, people, whistling and his church. I heard him whistle as he readied for his church’s live nativity scene. "I’ll fill in wherever needed," he said. "One night I get to be a wise man."

He’s a man at peace with himself; his life says "Merry Christmas" all year long….

* * * * *

Dr. Newbury is a speaker in the Metroplex. Send inquiries/comments to: newbury@speakerdoc.com. Phone: 817-447-3872. Web site: www.speakerdoc.com

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