Born with a banjo on his knee

Pat Haley - Contributing Columnist

As I was walking to Sugar Grove Cemetery on Memorial Day, I passed a residence and heard George M. Cohan’s patriotic You’re a Grand Old Flag playing over a large speaker on their front porch.

The song reminded me of a gentleman I had met many years ago unexpectedly. I had been visiting my son at his home on Hale Street, when walking to my car, I heard a man call out, “Sheriff Haley, do you have a minute?”

My tenure as Sheriff had ended several years earlier, but it was evident the man was using the salutation as a measure of respect and courtesy.

“Sure, come on over,” I replied.

“You probably don’t know me, but my name is Vic Tooker. I live just around the corner on Main Street,” the man said, as a huge smile crossed his pleasant face. “I’ve always wanted to meet you.”

Somewhat taken aback and a bit tongue-tied, I responded, “Mr. Tooker, the pleasure is all mine. I am truly honored to meet you.”

We shook hands. There was a friendly gleam in his eyes, and although I was expecting more of a bombastic personality, the melodious cadence of an entertainer in his baritone voice was soothing and calming.

“Let’s sit down,” I said, as we both moved toward the yard chairs awaiting us under the shade tree.

My first thought was, Mr. Tooker might have had a question or perhaps was seeking semi-official advice to a problem. I found out quickly he just wanted to visit and talk. It didn’t take long for two subjects dear to him, entertainment and America, to be brought up.

“I am the fourth generation Tooker to have been in show business,” Vic said. “I just retired from my wonderful Riverboat career on the Delta Queen last year. Pete Eveland was my good buddy there.”

“I was named after my grandfather, Victor Belmont Tooker. He was an entertainer, but most people didn’t know Grandpa was also a railroad man,” he said. “He was the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad agent in Cuba, Ohio, and a few years later, he became manager of the Railway Express Agency in Wilmington. He worked for 48 years at the train station located on east Sugartree Street.”

If you have ever seen the movie Yankee Doodle Dandy, you will see James Cagney as George M. Cohan summoned to the White House to meet with President Franklin Roosevelt. Cohan begins to tell the President, in flashback, the captivating story of his musical life.

This is how I felt as Vic talked on. He told me at the age of 13, he was playing drums in the orchestra pit in Dayton, Ohio at the Mayfair Burlesque. “I learned a lot about anatomy and physiology, as well as, drumming,” Vic said with his broad smile.

“I often sat on my father’s knee, and he held me spellbound with his stories about his life on the Mississippi River,” Vic recalled. “I always used Wilmington as my base,” he said. “I was a boy scout here, graduated from Wilmington High School, and married Jean Beatty in 1952. Jean worked for many years at the Clinton County Bank, if you recall.”

Years later, Jennifer Bath Hollon published a detailed account of the Tooker Family in the Wilmington News Journal. “The Tookers were so special to our family,” Jennifer said recently.

Jennifer said her father, Dr. Richard Bath, was a close friend of Vic Tooker who told Dr. Bath that his dad, Guy Tooker, loved riverboats and the river; toured in Vaudeville and became good friends with W.C. Fields, Sophie Tucker, W.C. Handy, Spike Jones, and the Ink Spots. Vic said Guy even once had top billing over his old friend Stan Laurel before he teamed up with Oliver Hardy.

Vic loved talking about the entertainment heritage of the Tooker Family, but he also enjoyed talking about his military service and what it meant to him.

As we continued talking in the chairs under the trees, Vic said, “I served in the Air Force in Korea. I also retired a few years ago from the Air National Guard after many years of service. I love music and entertaining, but serving America was the highlight of my life.”

Vic’s words surprised me. He was a famous musician known all over the nation for his musical versatility, although his military service was unknown to many.

The final scene in Yankee Doodle Dandy shows Jimmy Cagney slowly walking down the stairs of the White House, and as he walks faster, the music accelerates until Cagney suddenly starts tap dancing all the way to the bottom.

I could easily visualize Vic Tooker doing the same thing. He, too, was a bit of a Yankee Doodle Dandy.

Vic Tooker died January 4, 2000, age 69, at the Dayton VA Medical Center following an illness, and was buried with his parents in Sugar Grove Cemetery.

Pat Haley is a Clinton County Commissioner.

Pat Haley

Contributing Columnist

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