She was my first crush, my first hero.
The Webster's Dictionary definition of a hero is “any person who has heroic qualities and is regarded as a model or an ideal.”
Some heroes, unfortunately, are not particularly heroic.
Yes, they look fearless up on the screen, 20 feet tall with their nostrils flaring or their fists flying. And yes, we idolize them as they cycle through the Tour de France or hit one homer after another.
But the true measure of a hero comes when the game is over, or when the cameras are gone and it’s just fan and idol. Are they brusque or are they kind? Do they seem to really care, or do they just want to get it over with, sign your baseball card and jump into their limo?
My first hero was a gun-totin’ cowgirl who rode her Palomino into my boxy Westmont bungalow every weekday afternoon with one goal: to entertain me while my mother fussed over dinner.
Television back then was still black and white, but Sally Starr was all warmth and color, all glamour and goodness. And the love she had for all us young’uns, sitting cross-legged on the floor, much too close to our TV sets, was so real it covered us like sweet honey and soothed us until dinner was ready.
For most of us, our morning regimens are pretty predictable. We tend to follow the same trail of breadcrumbs as we stumble each morning from the bathroom to the kitchen to the coffee.
The oldest of my two old dogs is set to go off every morning around 6. Once he has awakened me, I stumble downstairs to get the coffee started. I let the dogs out, I kibble their bowls, and while they are outside taking care of business, I make the long walk to the curb to retrieve the newspaper.
This walk seems endless, like a trek to Siberia, so as I walk back to the house, I glean what I can from the tri-folded paper. Last Monday morning, as I trudged back to the house, newspaper in hand, a '60s-era publicity shot of Sally Starr smiled warmly at me. I automatically smiled back.
It wasn’t until I got inside, fed the dogs and grabbed my first cup of coffee that I realized my beloved cowgirl had died. I didn’t cry, but my heart ached for another hero gone.
I hadn’t thought of Sally in years, but as I read about her life and her death, I was overcome with images, both black & white and color, of the role she played in my life.
There’s an early memory of her, my afternoon companion, on the small TV screen saying, “I hope you feel as good as you look, ‘cause you sure look good to your gal Sal.” She told me that every single day and I believed her.
Sometimes, because it was live TV, Sally would make a mistake. I can still see her, clutching the brim of her white cowboy hat with both hands and pulling it down to her chin saying, “Oops! I made a boo-boo!”
Imagine, the novelty of a grown-up fessing up to a mistake!
I have a color snapshot in my mind, of an early '60s shopping trip to Strawbridge & Clothier at the Cherry Hill Mall.
I am standing at the cosmetic counter with my mother. She is taking her time, drawing little lipstick lines on her closed fist. My eyes wander to a beautiful woman with a white blond ponytail who is standing nearby, spritzing perfume. She winks at me and I duck my head shyly.
I know, instantly, that this is my Gal Sal, and that she knows me and loves me. My mother walks me over to her and she pulls me into her soft, fragrant warmth. I never want to leave her.
Fast forward to the '90s. I am a young mother with two young boys. My friend Doti and I take our four boys to the Flying W Airport for a swim, and also because we have read that Sally Starr will be making an appearance. Doti and I are like two schoolgirls, so excited to see our idol and hoping to share that excitement with our boys.
As we try to cajole and threaten the boys out of the airplane-shaped pool, Sally sits and greets her fans graciously. She laughs understandingly at the little boys who have no desire to meet the nice old lady with the cowboy hat. We are so happy to have seen her again, after all these years.
Who do kids idolize these days? Justin Bieber? Bart Simpson? President Obama’s popularity is surging. Is he anybody’s hero?
I was thrilled to meet Pete Rose back in the '80s when I was working for a cable television company. I was interviewing baseball players, asking them silly questions like, “What toppings do you like on your pizza?” or, “Do you remember your first kiss?”
Pete was my hero when he played for the Phillies. I always admired his hustle and his way of making plays happen on the field. Yet, when I tried to talk to him, he asked me how much I’d pay him. I explained the interview was for a children’s cable channel and we weren’t paying anything.
“Then you’re not interviewing me,” he snorted, and walked off to the clubhouse.
The only thing that took the sting out of my Pete Rose encounter was the fact that so many of the other players were truly kind: Gary Carter, Dave Winfield, Willie Stargel, Mookie Wilson. They all took the time to chat with me and answer my questions. True heroes.
I’m sure there are many worthy heroes out there—celebrities, athletes, teachers, coaches and presidents. But I will always miss my Gal Sal.