WITH SIGNS READING "WE LOVE YA, JERRY!" AND "ATTA BOY, Luther!" strung along Vermilion Street, the citizens of Danville, Ill., turned out on Saturday, June 4, to honor one of their favorite sons: Jerry Van Dyke, 62, better known to TV fans as Luther Van Dam, the fumbling assistant of ABC's hit sitcom Coach. One of their many favorite sons, as it happens, since this farm-and-factory town of 34,000 has produced such stars as actor Gene Hackman, actor-hoofer Donald O'Connor, cabaret singer Bobby Short—and, of course, Jerry's older brother, Dick.

In fact, the spectral presence of Jerry's older brother prompted the only glitch in Jerry Van Dyke Day: When Mayor Robert E. Jones presented Van Dyke with a commemorative plaque, he slipped and called Jerry "Dick." Jerry quickly exacted his revenge. "How many of you voted for this man?" he cried to the crowd. "And did you listen to him before you voted?"

Still, the day belonged to Jerry, not Dick. The tribute was concocted by his old friends from Danville High School, where Jerry was plainly less than a model student. Says his pal Wendell "Windy" Childs, who went on to teach in the Danville school system for 29 years: "Jerry reflects the failure of a school system to meet the needs of someone like him. He always thought the teachers were speaking a different language." In what language do you address a student who releases pigeons in class or steals failure slips from the dean's office and sends them to parents of honor students? "He was the typical clown who wanted to get caught," says classmate Jim Wheeler, a retired General Motors executive. "And he hasn't changed in 40 years."

Not that his cronies haven't seen him in all that time; Van Dyke has returned home regularly over the years to visit friends and family (his father, "Cookie," died 15 years ago and his mother, Hazel, last year), and he still helps raise money for town projects. Even so, this visit was special. On Friday night before the parade, he and his wife, Shirley, 41, enjoyed a simple polluck dinner with longtime friends at their motel. The gang reminisced and even raised a cheer to Danville High. As one classmate, Les Martin, explained: "He's one of us. When we were kids here, it was the middle of the century, in the middle of the country. We were centered here, and somehow you felt this loyalty."

That loyalty swelled the next day when Jerry and Shirley rode through town in a bronze 1953 Lincoln convertible. At one point, Van Dyke stood up and shouted to the crowd lining the sidewalk, "Tell me right now—is this a funeral? Am I alive?" He got his answer from a police officer with a bullhorn: "Jerry Van Dyke, you're holding up traffic!"

The celebration concluded that night at the Club Lamplighter, where Jerry first performed stand-up comedy. He sang with his pals, then turned serious as the night waned. "I can't explain the feeling," he said, "coming down Vermilion Street and seeing everybody, going past the old haunts. This is the high point of my life. You can become successful and known, but nothing is like coming back to your hometown."

JONI H. BLACKMAN in Danville

  • Contributors:
  • Joni H. Blackman.