03/18/1996 at 01:00 AM EST
ALWAYS HARD UP FOR "FELLERS," Minnie Pearl liked to tell the story about the robber who accosted her. "I said, 'But I haven't got any money.' So he frisked me and said, 'Are you sure you ain't got any money?' I said, 'No sir, but if you'll do that again, I'll write you a check.' " Sarah Ophelia Colley Cannon, known to the world as Minnie Pearl, the embodiment of cornball country humor, died in Nashville on March 4, following a stroke (a previous one, in 1991, had ended her career). The native of Centerville, Tenn., was 83. She and Henry Cannon, her husband and manager of 49 years, had no children.
The youngest of five girls from an affluent family in the lumber business, Cannon was vastly different from the bumpkin she played, beginning in 1940, on Nashville's Grand Ole Opry and from 1970 to 1991 on TV's Hee-Haw. She studied drama in finishing school and dreamed of sharing the stage with such actresses as Katharine Hepburn. Articulate and well-read, she later became a community leader, working tirelessly for charity. The character Minnie Pearl—with her trademark $1.98 price tag hanging from her hat—was inspired by a storytelling mother of 16 who rented Cannon a room while she directed amateur musical comedies in Alabama in the '30s. Cannon spoke with pride about her creation: "She's apple pie and clothes dried in the sun and the smell of fresh bread baking. I don't think people think of her so much as a show-business act as a friend."
Learning of Cannon's death, Jerry Stroble, manager of the Grand Ole Opry House, fondly pictured Minnie delivering her signature stage opener one last time: "I can just imagine Miss Minnie at the pearly gates with Saint Peter, saying, 'How-deeee! I'm just so proud to be here!' "