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CHILLICOTHE – Nancy Wilson did celebrity her way – elegantly without losing sight of her roots which included the town where she was born.
In the days after the Grammy winning Wilson’s death at age 81, Chillicothe relatives and residents universally remember her as elegant and down to earth – proof she was successful as not just a song stylist, as she called herself, but as a person.
In January 1996, The Hollywood Reporter quoted Wilson as saying at 15 she knew she wanted a career in entertainment, but she “never wanted that to come first.”
“I wanted to be Nancy Wilson, the human being, who could go back home and sit on the porch with old friends,” she said.
Wilson once told a Gazette reporter her longevity and success was because she sang “songs people can identify with.”
“I’m not distant. I still do what I want to do. I’m not concerned with the Top 10,” Wilson said. “I’m always myself, that has never changed and that’s the beauty of it.”
While Wilson moved to Columbus at a young age, Chillicothe was just as much her home and where she often spent summers while growing up. Her grandmother Iva Ryan Austin lived on Whiskey Run while her mother Lillian Mantis lived on Mechanic Street for many years before she left to live with her daughter in California.
Blythe Austin-Snead, of Chillicothe, said she is devastated by the loss of her “twin cousin,” referring to others noting the pairs resemblance to one another.
“She was a wonderful talented lady with the voice like no else. Nancy was classy and sophisticated. It did not matter if she was in a fancy dress or jeans, the way she carried herself, everyone knew she was down to earth and good hearted,” Austin-Snead shared. “She loved her family and made trips back home quite often. It was always so good to see her.”
Wilson’s visits back to Chillicothe were low-key as she arrived home in a “regular vehicle,” but neighbors would gather when they saw who it was, Austin-Snead said.
“Nancy was kind to everyone, that’s why so many love her … To me I mean she was family, I knew her status in life, she knew her status but she never put on airs, never acted like she was better,” Austin-Snead said.
Wilson, who was inducted into the Ohio Women’s Hall of Fame in 1981, would attempt to fade into the background including at a wedding local historian Beverly Gray attended.
“I remember she sat in the back because ‘I don’t want to cause a stir.’ She didn’t want anything special … she was home to be home,” Gray recalled, noting Wilson was very friendly and easy to talk to.
Wilson’s trips home weren’t always so quiet, though, such as Feb. 22, 1978, when then Chillicothe Mayor Clark S. Alexander proclaimed the day “Nancy Wilson Day.” Wilson returned to Chillicothe that day for a Jaycees fundraising concert at J.A. Smith Junior High School.
She told the crowd it was the first time she’d performed in Chillicothe where she’d been born on Mill Street and briefly attended Southeastern schools. At the end, she teared up when she was given a bouquet of roses and she ended by singing a song for her family – “I’m So Lucky To Be Loved By You.”
Wilson’s 1996 trip back to Chillicothe was the biggest celebration as not only was she the grand marshal of the bicentennial parade, but a street was named for her – Nancy Wilson Way off North Bridge Street.
“It’s one of the nicest things that has ever happened to me. It’s even better than getting my name on the Hollywood Walk of fame,” she told the Gazette in 1996.
When the dedication came, the Gazette noted Wilson was moved to tears.
“I always felt I was immortal because I have children,” she said in a hushed voice, choked with emotion. “Now my children can bring their children to see this.”
Former Chillicothe Mayor Joe Sulzer recalls the bicentennial committee choosing to honor Wilson because they felt she was a great representative of the city to help celebrate the bicentennial.
“She was somebody who was down to earth; no airs about her and just thrilled to be grand marshal,” Sulzer said this week.
Gray also recalled the dedication of Nancy Wilson Way when Wilson’s “gospel jumped out of her” and she began singing “God is a Good God” along with the Central State University Choir. Wilson had attended Central State briefly with plans to become an educator, but she left in 1956 to join the Rusty Bryant Band. Central State later awarded Wilson an honorary degree.
“She was so talented,” Gray said.
Chillicothe-Ross Chamber of Commerce CEO Mike Throne said his heart sank when he heard the news of Wilson’s passing. The former Gazette editor recalled the last time he’d interviewed her when they got off track talking about music in general and she kept listing off different artists she thought he’d enjoy.
For all the success she had, she was “incredibly down to earth,” Throne said.
“I don’t know that I’ve met anyone as gracious as her,” Throne said.
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