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W&L's Other Famous Resident: Patsy Cline

Country music icon Patsy Cline died 50 years ago this past March, and so a flurry of feature stories about her have cropped up in the past few months. One that caught our eye appeared in The Morning News, an online magazine of “essays, art, humor, and culture.” What does Patsy Cline have to do with Washington and Lee? More than you might know.

As writer John Lingan recounts in “A Closer Walk with Thee,” Patsy’s father, Sam Hensley, was the head boilerman at W&L from 1937 to 1942, and the family, including Patsy (her real name is Virginia; she was called “Ginny” at the time), lived in a house across Woods Creek from Doremus Gymnasium.

Patsy was five when the family moved to Lexington. The first professional music she ever heard, writes Lingan, wafted from the big bands that visited W&L. “For five years,” he writes, “Ginny sat by her bedroom window and heard weekly dance concerts by the world-class jazz orchestras that came on campus to soundtrack fraternity parties.”

You can find the more detailed story about Patsy Cline’s Lexington and W&L days in the book “Patsy Cline: The Making of an Icon,” by Douglas Gomery. He conducted research in Leyburn Library several years ago. He devotes a dozen pages to the family’s Lexington period, even listing many of the bands and, especially, female singers who performed during those years at Fancy Dress, Cotillion Club Opening Dance, Sophomore Prom and other functions, many held in Doremus.

One particular Fancy Dress that Gomery mentions was the 1940 event, when the CBS radio network broadcast Kay Kyser’s band nationally from W&L. Writes Gomery: “That W&L was even considered for a remote broadcast meant that the Hensleys (including Ginny/Patsy) would listen live or tune in on the CBS radio network and hear the same music.”

Patsy Cline’s Lexington period is part of the story that guides tell visitors to the Patsy Cline Historic House and Museum, which is now open for its second full season in Winchester, Va.