SHERIDAN — “Yodel-Ay-Ee-Oooo” echoes through the bar as customers do a double take toward the elderly figure seated at the corner.
Perhaps they are wondering if Frackelton’s Restaurant is really a “Sound of Music” sound set — starring Gene Autry as Capt. Von Trapp — where at any second the wait staff will break into song to accompany Leonard Hurst’s rich tenor. The happy hour habitué often treats Frackelton’s customers to Golden Oldies that span from yodeling to Doris Day to “Danny Boy” to hymns, sung in between bites of his legacy burger washed down by a glass of riesling.
One never knows when Hurst will break into song, be it a restaurant, at church, or the Hub on Smith where he sings with the SheridanAires. Hurst counts himself blessed among his peers whom age has not gagged. Hell would be for this senior to lose his voice, having sung in Presbyterian church choirs most of his life.
“Singing keeps me young,” Hurst said. “My voice has stayed younger than me. I don’t know why, probably because I use it all the time. At 88, the challenge I face is hoping that every morning when I wake up, the voice is there.”
Tonight, Hurst’s voice is here smack dab amid clinks of martini glasses and televised images of basketball. The background noise fades when Hurst’s melancholy brogue sings one back to the mists of Erin.
“Oh Danny Boy, the pipes, the pipes are calling, from glen to glen and down the mountainside,” he sings.
People sometimes stare when Hurst sings, surprised by someone’s unexpected singing in public at certain places where it’s just not done. Hurst wishes more senior citizens would not be silent, surrendering their voice to old age.
“I was self-conscious for a while, then I grew old enough to not give a damn,” Hurst said.
For many years, Hurst’s life has revolved around the senior center, where he formerly served as a board member and continues singing. He credits the Hub for helping save his life after the deaths of his mother and wife.
“Music for Leonard is therapy and an outlet,” said Jane Perkins, Fun Director at the Hub. “Everyone in the place enjoys his singing. Anyone who wants to sing should sing in some form of fashion.”
Sitting at the bar, Leonard enjoys chatting with and serenading nearby customers. Often, he will resurrect a favorite Doris Day song from the musical “Calamity Jane.”
“Once I had a secret love, that lived within the heart of me,” he sings.
“I think I was singing when I was born,” Hurst said about his birthday on Dec. 8, 1930.
He spent his childhood in Rawlins loving music, which he learned through memory and ear. He really never learned to read music.
“My mother liked to sing but she couldn’t carry a tune in a bushel basket,” Hurst said. “She would start a song and I would finish it.”
When he was a boy, he first joined the junior and then later senior choir singing soprano at the Rawlins’ Presbyterian Church. Since then, he has sung in Presbyterian church choirs for 80 years as bass, baritone and tenor. Of those years, he has spent more than 60 of those singing in Sheridan’s First Presbyterian Church choir. As a long-time member, he loves choral singing but misses the choir robes retired a few years ago due to some complaints about them being hot and worn.
“Leonard is always ready to burst out in song ,” said Louise Semino, First Presbyterian Church choir director. “Leonard is always there. He is such a generous and genuine person. He is just always involved.”
In Rawlins, Hurst met his wife, Catherine Ann, whom he married in 1952.
A Korean War veteran, Hurst served as a radar man on the USS MacKenzie, a Navy destroyer, from 1951-1954. Historians often refer to the conflict as the “forgotten war.”
“We thought it was the coldest place on the planet,” Hurst said.
After the war, Hurst came to Sheridan in the late 1950s, working as a meat cutter and other positions at the Sheridan and Buffalo Safeways. He then joined the local fire department in 1961, working through the ranks from firefighter to fire marshal until he retired in 1991. The couple raised a family of four children and were married for more than a half century when Hurst’s wife and mother died within 40 days of each other in 2006.
“I sang at both of their funerals,” he said, eyes tearing. “That was kind of tough. I don’t know how I kept my voice.”
“Be Thou my vision, oh Lord of my heart. Naught be all else to me, save that Thou art,” he sang.
Happy hour is almost over at Frackelton’s. It’s time for Hurst to bid adieu to another evening of memories and song.
“Singing has kept me alive,” Hurst said. “I don’t regret a minute of it.”
His one regret was not singing opera. And for one last moment, Hurst’s tremolo tenor triumphs over age as he launches into Bizet’s “Toreador Song.”
“Toréador, en garde! Toréador! Toréador!”