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Thirty years ago, the life of Grady Nutt of Hee Haw fame was cut short at the age of 48 in a plane crash, at the peak of his career as a preacher and comedian, an unlikely combination that Nutt credited to the people of Graefenburg, said his son, Toby Nutt.
“When dad started preaching at Graefenburg, the people there saw that here was a young guy with a lot of talent, and they coached him along, making him realize how special he really was and how much he enjoyed entertaining people as much as he enjoyed preaching,” Nutt said.
The Nutt family recently established a Web site,www.gradynutt.com, with photos and memories of him, in recognition of the 30th anniversary of his death on Nov. 23, 1982. The site features photos, radio clips and stories and even offers a commemorative CD collection of his stories.
Grady Nutt was born in Amarillo, Texas, in 1934, to Grady and Doris Nutt. From an early age, he began singing Gospel music on the radio with his mother, even becoming a minister at the age of 12, and was said to be proud of his ability to perform legal weddings of his schoolmates.
Texas to Graefenburg
He graduated from Baylor University in 1957 and married his college sweetheart, Eleanor Wilson of Memphis. He became youth pastor at First Baptist Church in Waco, Texas, and in 1960, he moved to Louisville to attend the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. It was then that he became pastor at Graefenburg Baptist Church.
The people he met there, with whom he formed lifelong friendships, encouraged and supported him as he began to realize that he could combine his pastoral beliefs with comedy, his son said.
“He intertwined preaching and comedy so much it was hard to tell just when one stopped and the other started,” he said.
The people of Graefenburg became the centerpiece of many of his tales on Hee Haw, a very popular comedy variety show on which he became a regular, and often spotlighted one very good friend in particular, the late Odell Smith.
“I remember him telling a story onHee Haw of when he first came to the church,” Toby Nutt said.
He added that his father would tell of Odell telling him, “Well, Brother Nutt, I know you’re from Texas, and I know a lot of you fire-and-brimstone preachers all talk about the evils of smoking and drinking. But before you do, I think you should know that half of us here in Graefenburg are tobacco farmers, and the other half works at the distillery.”
‘This is Your Life’
Nutt stayed on as pastor at Graefenburg Baptist until he graduated from the seminary, and then in 1964, he began to travel around the country, combining his love of preaching and humorous storytelling, speaking at college campuses and other events.
Word of his talents soon reached the ear of Ralph Edwards, producer of the TV shows, Truth or Consequences and This is Your Life. His first appearance with Edwards led to more television appearances on shows such as The Mike Douglas Show, which ran from 1963 to 1982.
He was so popular on that show that he often hosted it as well. In 1979, Nutt, with the help of his agent and good friend, Mike McKinney, landed a regular part on Hee Haw and was dubbed the “Prime Minister of Humor.”
The Smith family
Nutt would speak often about Odell Smith and his family on Hee Haw, Toby Nutt said.
Odell’s sons, Larry and Kevin, both said one of their favorites of Nutts’ spoofs about the Smith family was a story that referred to them being dairy farmers.
“Dad was always down at the dairy barn, and so when Grady would come down to visit with him, that’s where they would talk,” Larry Smith said. “And we were all into Gospel music, and so was Grady, so he always wanted us to sing with him when he visited. And he would tell on Hee Haw about how the Smiths would sing in four-four-time, keeping time with the movements of our fingers, singing as we milked the cows,” he said with a chuckle.
“He taught me to ride my very first bike,” said Kevin Smith, who also lives in Graefenburg. “He and his sons and Eleanor were like family to us, and over the years, they would always come back to Graefenburg for our family reunion on the Fourth of July. It broke my heart the day he was killed. I’ll never forget it. I was getting ready to go out to the barn to milk, and I heard it on the radio.”
‘A wonderful man’
Kevin Smith said he remembers that day vividly as well.
“When I heard the news, it was like a nightmare. I just couldn’t believe it,” he said.
The crash, on Nov. 23, 1982, came just a year after Nutt had landed a show of his own on NBC, a sitcom called The Grady Nutt Show, in which he starred as a minister who was constantly becoming entangled in one hilarious incident after another with his church members.
Nutt was also an author several times over and released several hit comedy albums and even recorded Gospel music. He received the Christian Service Award in Texas, and Alice Lloyd College in Kentucky even named a facility for him in 1983, the Grady Nutt Athletic Center, in honor of his fundraising efforts.
Toby Nutt said one of the things people often noticed about his father was his ability to make people feel good about themselves through the gift of laughter.
“He thought we should be able to find humor in our humanity and not dwell on our imperfections, because we all have them,” he said.
Kevin Smith agreed: “He had a warm handshake, a contagious laugh, and a big heart. He was a wonderful man, and we will always remember him.”