By John Skipper
The shrill sound of the train whistle did not frighten anyone in the quaint little Iowa community of Wall Lake in the early 1930s. It was Depression time in the United States and the sound of a train was the sound of movement, of goods and grain being shipped, and of people on the train being gainfully employed to help keep it moving.
In Wall Lake, a town with a population of about 800 people located 55 miles northwest of Des Moines, Florence Williams listened for the sound of the train whistle. She could hear it from her kitchen window and when she heard it she stopped her baking, wiped her hands on her apron, and went out the door and down the hill to the train station below, making sure she got there before the train arrived.
As it pulled into the station, one of the railroad men aboard would pick up a large canvas mailbag and hook it onto to a metal bar not far from where Florence was standing. He would then blow her a kiss and the train moved on. Florence would take the mailbag and carefully put it on the ground. Soon there would be a rustling and wiggling from inside the bag and then a little boy would stick his head out of the top of it and yell, “Surprise!”
Florence always acted surprised although the stunt with the mailbag had been done many times in the Williams household, a prank dreamed up by Florence’s husband, Jay Emerson Williams, who worked on the train and sold insurance at night, and their young son, Andy. It was family fun for this middle-class family that lived in the white clapboard house at the top of the hill with a wood-burning stove in the kitchen.
The young boy in the mailbag grew up to be Andy Williams, the famous crooner who had a voice as smooth as satin (he was known as “The King of Hearts” and “The Emperor of Easy”), a smile that lit up every room he entered and a music legacy that still has many people humming along any time they hear his signature song, “Moon River.”
The world-renowned singer, who died in 2012 at the age of 84, and who never forgot his Iowa roots, had a magnificent career but it was not without some bumps along the way. He once sang at a funeral to earn money to help pay for it and, at another point in his life, ate dog food because he was poor.
This is the same man who later had a top-rated television program, a long-standing Las Vegas nightclub show, records that sold millions of copies, Emmy awards, Grammy awards and who built a $12 million entertainment complex in Branson, Mo.
In 2005, he returned to Wall Lake and donated $25,000 in honor of his parents to help build a community theater.
“I really feel good. This is where I feel is my home. Even though I’ve lived in other places, I feel Iowa is my home,” he said at the time.
Longtime friend Gus Schroeder of Wall Lake said Williams never forgot his hometown and “called home” about once a month up until shortly before he died.
Though Williams had fond memories of his hometown, he didn’t mind poking a little fun at it. He said it was so small, with so little for people to do, that crowds would gather to watch someone get a haircut.
Howard Andrew Williams was born Dec. 3, 1927, in Wall Lake. There were three older brothers in the family — Bob, Dick and Don — and a sister, Jane. They lived in a house at 102 E. First Street, at the corner of First and Center. The proud townspeople of Wall Lake have maintained it since 1998 and made it available for tours. (One of the items on display is a quilt made by William’s mother the year he was born with her name on it.)
Williams’ father was a man who believed the key to success was hard work, a lesson preached to his children. He also had a passion for music, played six different instruments and got his family involved in the choir at the Wall Lake Presbyterian Church. For a while, Jay and Florence Williams and their two oldest boys were the choir.
In his 2010 autobiography, “Andy Williams: Moon River and Me,” Williams wrote, “When I was little, I would stretch out on the worn, warm floorboards with my head under the piano stool and watch my father’s feet on the pedals. For some reason, that fascinated me.”
Their father noticed how well the three older boys’ voices harmonized. Before long, the youngest Williams boy, after continually prodding his father to let him be part of it, got his wish and the Williams Brothers Quartet was formed and recognized for its talent.
Bob was nine years older than Andy. Don was five years older, and Dick, two years older. Bob and Don had personalities that were opposite of one another; Bob being the worrier, always anticipating something going wrong while Don was the eternal optimist, seeing the bright side of everything. Dick was the most shy of the brothers while Andy was more peppy and outgoing.
The boys sang at the wedding of a neighbor and were paid $10 for their efforts. Andy’s share was $1. He later joked about how he spent the money from his first paying gig at the candy store.
In 1935, the family moved to Des Moines and settled into a home at 3015 Kingman Blvd. and the Williams Brothers Quartet became a featured attraction on WHO Radio. Fulfilling the work ethic preached by their father, the quartet had a show every morning at 8 a.m. and performed on a Saturday night program called “Sunset Corners Barn Dance Frolic.”
During their time in Des Moines, the family experienced tragedy with the death of a sixth child, Buddy, at the age of 2. Andy was 8 at the time. The brothers worked for a time at the funeral home to help pay off the cost of the funeral. The experience left a lasting impression on Andy who vowed he would never sing at another funeral — and he didn’t until 1968 when the family of Robert F. Kennedy, the slain U.S. senator and presidential candidate, asked him to sing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” at the senator’s services.
By 1940, at about the time WHO Radio had a young sportscaster named Ronald Reagan, the Williams family moved to Chicago where the quartet was signed to a one-year contract with WLS Radio and had the chance to sing as a quartet but also could break off into trios, duets and solos. They weren’t making much money, but they were making a name for themselves. Their father, who seemed to have show business in his blood, did not mind moving the family to help promote his sons. The next stop was WLW in Cincinnati where they did more of the same.