Bay Area folks remember star who stole their hearts

Movie star Debbie Reynolds at about 18.

By Mary Alys Cherry

It’s been 30 years since Debbie Reynolds stole our hearts on a visit here, so it was no surprise that most who met her back then joined the rest of the country in mourning the loss of one of Hollywood’s biggest and most vivacious stars.

She came here in 1986 to head the entertainment at the Fourth Annual Jack Swigert Memorial Ball benefitting the American Cancer Society and chaired by Mary Williams at the Hobby Hilton. And when she left, more than one would have admitted she took our hearts with her.

Mary, who worked with the star on arrangements for the gala, was quite taken with her persona. “I will say of all the entertainers we contracted for that event through the years, she was one of the sweetest and least demanding. The persona you see in interviews and her movies was how she was.”

Swigert Ball Chairman Mary Williams and her husband, Dr. Terry Williams, welcome Astronaut Gordon Fullerton and his wife, Marie.

The night before the gala he founded, Dr. Jim Hebert and his wife, Dr. Christy Hebert, hosted a big dinner party for the ball patrons at Lakewood Yacht Club, where we first met Debbie Reynolds. I had long been an admirer and as a young girl many years before had written to her asking for an autographed photo. Luckily, I still had it, carried it with me and showed it to her as I was taking pictures on her arrival at Lakewood.

“Oh, my gosh!” she exclaimed. “This is unbelievable. Do you realize I was only about 18 when this was taken?” she asked, no doubt realizing she was then in her mid-50s (while looking like 30).

From there I followed her around during the reception, taking photos of her with the Heberts, Congressman Mike Andrews, Ralph and Sue Hall and the late Sissy and Dr. Jim Twining, amazed at her charming personality.

The ball, which honored the memory of astronaut Jack Swigert, who lost his life to cancer in 1982, was the Bay Area’s biggest social event of the year and had a guest list that read like a Who’s Who in the area.

Debbie Reynolds marvels at photo she autographed for Mary Alys Cherry years beforehand.

Mary and her, husband, Dr. Terry Williams, welcomed Congressmen Mike Andrews and Don Fuqua and their wives; Houston Chamber President Gerald Griffin and his wife, Sandy; Johnson Space Center biggies George Abbey, Robert Goetz, Gene Krantz and Carolyn Huntoon and their spouses; and practically all the doctors in town and their wives.
Astronauts in the black-tie crowd included Drs. Bill and Anna Fisher, Marie and Col. Gordon Fullerton, Dianne and Col. Karol Bobko, Dana and Cmdr. Sonny Carter, Dr. and Mrs. Karl Henize, Kathy and Col. Richard Covey, Dr. and Mrs. Joe Kerwin, Donna and Col. Mike Mullane, Dr. and Mrs. Bill Gibson and Capt. (Ret.) Eugene Cernan, who came with Sharon Diamant.

Plus, Omega Watch Chairman and former astronaut, Lt. Gen. (Ret.) Thomas Stafford and dozens of local CEOs and their spouses who walked in to find themselves in the fantasy world of King Arthur’s Camelot and a movie star they would always remember.

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