Last week I introduced you to Jody's grandmother, Mrs. Jessie Rhonemus. Jessie retired as an English teacher. She taught at Lima (Ohio) High School for many years. One of her students was the famous comedian Phyllis Diller. Living in a nursing home in Mansfield, Ohio, Jessie was excited about Phyllis' visit. It was April 13, 1973. A local newspaper reporter, Joan Brown, documented the event...
Phyllis Diller Pays Visit to High School Teacher
You can take the girl out of Lima Central High School but you can't take Lima Central High School out of the girl. Underneath the fright hairdo, the hokey cigarette holder and the Salvation Army castoffs, Phyllis Diller is "just plain folks."
Except that yesterday afternoon when she came to visit her 89 year old high school English teacher, Mrs. Jessie Rhonemus, now a resident of Winchester Nursing Home, it was a STAR who emerged from the chauffeured Cadillac, not little Phyllis Driver, class of '35.
Who else but a star would be wearing a quilted orange floor-length gown, a black sable cape and inch-long eyelashes at 2:30 in the afternoon in Mansfield?
Miss Diller, primarily in the city for a two-night engagement at the Blue Dolphin, said "yes" to a visit when she was notified that her former teacher was staying at the rest home. Mrs. Rhonemus, the grandmother of Dr. Gary Haley [Jody's brother], eagerly waited with her grandson, his wife and two children for the arrival of Miss Diller.
"You don't look like Phyllis," said the perceptive little grandmother, who, dressed in her Sunday-best, had been positioned in a chair in her room.
"I had my face lifted and my teeth fixed," replied her student of almost 40 years ago, bending close so the aged woman might hear. "I can't believe you are 89!"
Miss Diller quickly flipped back the pages of time and recalled an essay she had written for her teacher, selecting her own subject material - the "hereafter."
"I can see it like yesterday. You read it to the class which thrilled me. I realized I was going to get an 'A'."
The happy Woody Woodpecker laugh which is Miss Diller's trademark, bounced from the walls. Somehow, even as the idolized focal point in the room, she had shed the bright lights and fame and become part of the small-town people in a small-town rest home. Gracious and at ease, she was almost "family" - "Cousin Phyl," in a cotton housedress instead of a silk gown.
"I was involved in drama," she continued turning again to high school days, "always the character. I was in charge of promotion, making posters." She attended 12 grades in the same building in Lima, a skinny little girl with brown hair the color of Mrs. Haley's, she said.
"It is what the world lacks now. That kind of wonderful security. When I think of my children alone. . . some of them have been in 14 different schools in 14 towns. Sometimes we came in so fast we would enroll them in the wrong class."
For a moment there is a touch of apology that her life was not that of a typical mother. But then her spirits soar and she cracks, "They would say 'mother, what's long division?"
Now her five children are grown and her youngest child, a college sophomore, is the son of her second husband Warde Donovan, who travels with her.
"They all live in the area (Los Angeles). I am running a very high class laundromat. They come to use the equipment. I don't have the guilt any more. But I was always able to plan it that they had three months with us so they have had some wonderful summers.
"They have been so many places and seen so much and met so many interesting people it makes up for not sitting in a classroom."
Miss Diller admits she loves performing in shows across the country. "I will open in Cincinnati Saturday," she points out indicating there will be no break between engagements. She had brought 40 suitcases on this tour for herself, her husband and two secretaries.
"I don't mess around. This time I didn't bring hardly anything. I feel I don't have anything to wear."
She explains that inside the luggage is a miniature kitchen - a two-burner hotplate, pots, pans and spices.
"I have to have two things in the hotel room - a refrigerator and a piano. I am tired of commercial food. I am a terrific cook and therefore bad food annoys me." It's a treat to eat out when you're home every day, she adds, but not when you're away from home 11 months of the year.
What about the piano, Miss Diller?
"I have played 14 piano concert dates with major symphonies I am going to do two concerts with the Lima Symphony for the benefit of Bluffton College and the symphony May 19-20, I have to practice every day."
She laughs again and her body joins in. "He's getting on in years. He's nearly 80."
Then Miss Diller remembers her designer, Gloria Johnson, now called Omar, is a former Mansfielder. "She's working on a new concert gown to be unveiled in Lima."
How about the future, Miss Diller? Any plans?
"I am always up for Broadway shows. I always refuse. It ties you down and the money is not as good. Besides, New York is a miserable place to live even if you can afford it. The easiest thing would be a daytime television show."
Like Dinah Shore's?
"We are so different. She only has one thing I am interested in - Burt Reynolds.
"She stays in shape by playing tennis every day. I don't think she has ever been done over. She is just well preserved."
Now, without hesitation, the television and nightclub personality refers to her recent face lift. "Whatever they did with a knife is what they used to do on my pictures. It is never painful. For a long time you are numb - you have the funniest twitching. The only thing they did not do is my forehead. The eyes, face, under here (she touches her chin). Nobody's perfect."
Then she turns to Mrs. Rhonemus. "It is incredible how you have stayed so young looking. I had chins that were coming down here. They were like a turkey."
To demonstrate the skill of cosmetic surgeons, she grasps her short, straight hair and points to the fine lines near the ears and at the nape of the neck. She does not apologize for "removing" 10 years.
Does it bother you, Miss Diller, to come to a small town like Mansfield?
"I am happy doing what I'm doing. I was born in Ohio. I understand people all over the world.
"It is your life wherever you are and you have to be happy wherever you are."
Have a great week ahead.
Through captivating, powerful, and emotional anecdotes, we celebrate the life of Dr. Abbott P. Smith. His biography takes the reader from smiles to laughter to empathy and tears. Dr. Smith gave us compelling lessons learned from animals; the role animals play in the human condition, the joy of loving an animal, and the awe of their spirituality. A tender and profound look into the life of a skilled veterinarian.