*** Published Tuesday, Aug. 10, 2010 in the Bristol Herald Courier. ***
What a journey.
From a Kentucky coal mining town to Broadway and the silver screen, Hollywood actress Patricia Neal traveled a long, lustrous and challenging road. And a key stop along that route was in Abingdon, Va., where Neal served as an apprentice at the Barter Theatre in 1943.
She returned often, and in the mid- to late 1990s, when she arrived to celebrate the theater's Day of the Woman, a scholarship for acting interns was created in her name: the Patricia Neal Scholarship.
Neal's journey ended Sunday, at age 84. The Academy Award winning actress died of lung cancer at her home in Edgartown, Mass., on Martha's Vineyard.
"We're losing one of the greats," said Richard Rose, artistic director of Barter Theatre.
"She spoke of Barter with great affection," Rose said. "She never forgot from whence she came."
Born Patsy Louise Neal on Jan. 20, 1926, in Packard, Ky., Neal's family soon moved to Knoxville.
"When you called her and asked for Patsy Neal, that was our code word that the call was from Knoxville," said lifelong friend Edward "Bud" Albers. "She was remarkable in the way she wanted to keep up with the people she grew up with."
Neal's first acting came while attending Knoxville High School. Albers first met Neal in 1940 as 10th graders and then graduated with her in 1943.
"I went through high school with Patsy, graduation class of 1943, and have known her ever since," he said. "She was in the senior class play, "And Comes the Spring.' "
Though still in high school, upon the recommendation of a theatre critic from Knoxville, Neal served an apprenticeship at Barter in 1942.
"She was (at Barter) for a year," Rose said. "She did a lot of acting, four or five shows while she was here."
Neal's Barter Theatre credits include "Letters to Lucerne," "No Boys Allowed," "The Man Who Came to Dinner," "There's Always Juliet" and "French Without Tears."
"It really launched her career," Rose said of Neal's year at Barter.
From Barter and then college at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., Neal moved on to Broadway and then Hollywood. She debuted on the big screen opposite Ronald Reagan in 1949's "John Loves Mary."
Subsequent film highlights include 1951's "Operation Pacific" with John Wayne. Her role opposite Paul Newman in 1963's "Hud" won Neal the Academy Award for Best Actress.
"I think she ranks among the most recognized and famous actors and actresses in this country," Rose said. "Her legacy as a landmark actress is pretty phenomenal."
Indeed, 1957's "A Face in the Crowd" with Andy Griffith sparked a memory within Robert Weisfeld, owner of the Star Museum in Abingdon.
"It's heartbreaking," Weisfeld said. "There is a scene in which she sinks onto the bed and there's a whimper. She could do a lot with a little."
Distinction marked Neal's era of Hollywood, of which Neal's husky voice most certainly applied.
"It was her trademark," Rose said.
A series of strokes in 1965 crippled Neal. She returned to Knoxville.
"They rehabbed her and brought her back from speech problems and helped her walk again," Albers said. "She was a very strong person. She had the ability to overcome so many heartbreaks from losing a child to the strokes. She always kept fighting back."
Her acting career resumed. She appeared as Olivia Walton in television's "The Waltons - The Homecoming: A Christmas Story" in 1971. Various television and movie roles followed through the years, including last year's "Flying By."
Meanwhile, Neal did not forget her hometown. She established the Patricia Neal Rehabilitation Center in Knoxville in 1978.
"She spent a lot of time encouraging the patients over time," Albers said. "She came back, oh, two or three times a year."
Albers said Neal was actually planning a return visit this week.
"She was planning on driving down from Martha's Vineyard, down to the Barter, then over to Kentucky to see her mother's grave, and then on to Knoxville on Saturday for the golf tournament," Albers said.
The tournament, the Patricia Neal Golf Classic, serves as an annual fundraiser for the rehabilitation center.
"She had a warmth about her," Albers said.
He recalled meeting Neal at the Martha Washington Inn while in town to visit the Barter during the mid- to late 1990s.
"She had enormous dignity," Weisfeld said. "Enormous composure. I admired her."
She left a lasting impression.
"I'm gonna miss her," Rose said.