By DAMIAN MULINIX
For the Observer
SOUTH BEND — When Virginia Leech took office as the newly elected county clerk in 1999 — her first and only elected office — it wasn’t long before she began to be drafted to sing at local events. In the years since, she has become a fixture at annual gatherings like Loyalty Days and Memorial Day services in Ilwaco.
“Weddings, funerals. I do the Labor Day parade in South Bend,” she said. “Just any time somebody asks. I never say no. I love to sing. People ask me how I can sing at funerals, but it’s the last gift I can give to the family.”
Leech sang at the funerals of both former state Sen. Sid Snider, as well as his wife Bette some years later.
“They’d had me booked for a long time,” she said.
Leech said she also regularly finds herself making guest appearances with bar bands.
“I’ll get up and do, ‘Summertime’ in A minor,” she said. “We were down in Mazatlan, Mexico, and having a great time with a couple of our friends and my husband goes, ‘Get up and sing with the band.”
She initially declined, but he persisted.
“I’d had a few tequila’s and I got up and sang and this guy comes up to me afterward and goes, ‘I’ve only heard that song sung that well down in Fillmore with Janis Joplin.’”
What or who inspired you to be a singer?
“In the sixth grade we got a choir teacher, Norm Michelson, and he was the most inspiring person in the world.”
“He brought out the art in so many kids. He’d come from Missoula, Mt., and they had a singing group there called “The Collegians.” The guys wore tuxes and the girls wore formals, and they’d travel around and do shows. And he started this choir (in her hometown of Cheney) and held tryouts. I stayed with it through high school and he started a new group called “The Ambassadors,” and we were like The Collegians, and we wore gowns and had our hair done up. The guys wore tuxes and we did choreography. It was a wonderful experience.” It really gave a lot of us a purpose.”
What is your earliest memory that involves music?
“Boy, that just flashed something into my brain! My earliest was listening to the choir at Our Lady of Lourdes cathedral in Spokane when I was just a tiny little girl. That cathedral was just made for sound. I hadn’t thought of that in forever. But that was probably the first thought I had about how beautiful music was.”
Do you have a favorite song to sing and why?
“I like to sing ‘My Heart Will Go On,’ (popularized by Celine Dion) and ‘Summertime’ (from “Porgy and Bess”) — that’s my bluesy end. I sang ‘My Heart Will Go On’ to my current husband at our wedding (in 2008). I surprised him. We did our wedding outside and he was standing with the guests and I was hidden in the house. They’d given me a microphone, and the music started and my voice starts coming out. And he goes, ‘That’s Virginia!’ It’s just a beautiful love song.”
Do you have a go-to karaoke song?
“Independence Day’ by Martina McBride. It’s kind of a help for abused women song. And ‘God Bless the USA,’ that’s my entertaining song. My husband and I are really involved in the Elks (the fraternal organization), and I’ve sang at Grand Lodge, which is held in different cities around the United States every year and about 8,000 people attend. Last year we were in Houston. And I’ve opened the session several times (with her singing) with ‘God Bless the USA’ and get the whole crowd into it. That’s the big song that get’s people moving.”
Was music something your family thought of as important when you were a kid?
“Not at all. I was not encouraged to sing. I grew up on a farm outside of Cheney and my dad was a contractor. I was told that was a phase and I’d get over it. I had a chance to go to Europe. I was selected to go with 20 other kids from Washington and Oregon. It was $1,000, probably in 1970. I could’ve earned the money, but my parents wouldn’t let me go. They said, ‘No, your husband can take you some day. This is just a phase. You’ll get over it.’ They encouraged me in a lot of things, but entertaining wasn’t one of them.”
Do you think that was a generational thing?
“I think so. They were a lot older. You know, young girls grew up and got married, that kind of thing. They never dreamed of performing on Broadway. I won an award as a senior in high school that was given for the best musician and they weren’t there the night I got it. So every time I see any little person singing or anything, I tell their parents to encourage them and tell them how wonderful they are.”
What song do you think you’ve performed the most over the years?
“(A sung version of the biblical scripture) ‘The Lord’s Prayer.’ That’s something I can do a cappella.”
Is that a go-to for funerals?
“Absolutely. Or if I’m at a cemetery and somebody wants a song, I’ll do that, or ‘God Bless America,’ that’s another one I do a lot. ‘Star Spangled Banner’ may be the one I’ve done the most.”
When did you begin performing in public, and do you have a fondest memory of doing so?
Probably when I was a high school freshman. After I graduated I toured the state of Washington with a traveling singing group, as part of the bicentennial in 1976. We performed in every county in the state, it was wonderful. You got to meet so many people, from like May to August.”
Is there any funny stories that came out of that?
“Oh, not that I can probably tell in mixed company. I do have a sad story about it that was funny. We were performing at the Ellensburg rodeo, where we got to meet people like Hank Williams Jr., Leroy Van Dyke and Mini Pearl.”
Was Mini Pearl wearing the hat?
“She was! And she wasn’t very nice either. But we’d sang, and one of the guys from the rodeo said, ‘Would you sing the National Anthem at the opening of the rodeo?’ So here I am, standing on this platform and there were people all around. And after I got done singing they announced the dignitaries, including the head of the rodeo and his wife and daughter and her boyfriend — which was my husband. He was cheating on me while I was touring and he was with her at the rodeo.”
And he didn’t know you were going to be there?
“Uh uh, hell no. Can you imagine? I kept my cool. I mean, what’re you going to do? I was very young.”
That’s a Twilight Zone episode.
“Oh, I know.”
What is it about performing that thrills you?
“It makes me happy. It makes me feel good. You can’t sing while you’re crying. It’s a gift that I was given. God gave me a gift and I should share it or else it’s going to go away.”