Opinion: Always, The King

Damn, 40 years already?

On Aug. 16, 1977, I was working as an intern at the Omaha World-Herald, and one of my jobs as a lowly intern was to answer telephone calls coming into the newsroom.

A phone rang and I punched the flashing light to answer.

“Is it true?!” a woman yelled in my ear. “IS IT TRUE?!”

“Uh, is what true, ma’am?”

“Is he dead? Somebody said he was dead!”

Suddenly, phone after phone began to ring, all across the newsroom, like a chorus working its way up to a crescendo. Reporters and editors looked at each other in puzzlement. They too began to pick up the phones, only to be greeted by people crying and yelling, verging on the hysterical. Finally, somebody came rushing out of the room where the AP teletype machine was located.

“Oh my god! Elvis has died!!!”

Oh. Is that all? I thought. “Yes ma’am,” I said to my caller. “I’m afraid it’s true. Elvis Presley has died.”

“OH MY GOD! NOOOOOOOOO!”

And for the next few hours, that’s what I did. I answered the phone, heard the hysteria, confirmed the bad news, offered my condolences and moved onto the next call. You youngsters out there have to understand that this was before the days of Twitter or Facebook or smartphones. News was disseminated much more slowly in those days, but this particular news flash had swept across the country faster than the twitch of the Presley hip.

I was a youngster myself back then, and until that day I had never come close to appreciating Presley’s cultural importance and significance. To me he was a faded, obese, shmaltzy and drug-addled caricature of a ’50s rock star, squeezed into a ridiculous jumpsuit, but to millions of older Americans he was and always would be The King — gloriously handsome, sexy and the epitome of cool.

They were right; I was wrong.