Mama Knowed Elvis

In sixth grade the future king of rock 'n' roll was skinny and unremarkable--except that he sang too much.

The new boy didn't cause a stir at all. UT Chattanooga management professor Marilyn Helms' mother was a classmate of Elvis Presley. Even 20 years after the King's death, she delights in having known him, despairs that she didn't pay him much mind. .He sang all the blessed time', Evelyn recalls.

Elvis (far right, third row, in overalls) and Evelyn (second from left, second row) in their sixth grade class picture. 'He sang all the blessed time', Evelyn recalls.
Elvis (far right, third row, in overalls) and Evelyn (second from left, second row) in their sixth grade class picture'

Some students who enroll in school midyear create a sensation. They're the topic of hasty hallway exchanges between locker neighbors. They're furtively eyed in the cafeteria. At night they're evaluated in detail over the telephone. But the shyish, skinny kid who entered Mrs. Camp's sixth grade class at Milam Junior High School in 1947 made no grand entrance. For one thing, he didn't enjoy the mystique of a distant former residence. He had transferred from a school just a few miles away in the east part of town.

He had no wealth to recommend him. In fact, he was so poor he wore overalls, even on the day he posed with the other pupils for their class picture. But the newcomer had talked his mother into buying him a cheap guitar on time from the Tupelo hardware store. And his classmates, who would keenly regret their failure to take more notice of the youth, clearly remember his passion for singing.

They would also live to berate themselves for lacking the foresight to tape record his vocalizing. Far from it, they grew downright weary of the weekly performances. But then how could a bunch of 11-year-olds be expected to divine in the youngster's wooden renditions of a schmaltzy ballad and a honky-tonk tune the future king of rock 'n' roll? 'Every Friday in activity period he sang Old Shep and Frankie and Johnny', says Evelyn Helms, a member of Mrs. Camp's class and the mother of UTC professor Marilyn Helms.

'He sang all the blessed time and drove us all crazy. We'd say, 'Oh, no, Elvis is gonna sing again'. If we'd only known'. Just 10 years later, Elvis Presley reserved the choice section at the foot of the Mississippi-Alabama Fairgrounds stage for his Milam classmates.

It would be his only show in the Mississippi mill town that found fame as his birthplace.

From the adoring faces and outstretched arms at his feet in a local newspaper photograph, it appears the poor boy turned idol was again driving his classmates crazy ... but nobody wanted him to stop singing any more.

A Ringgold, Georgia, resident who surveys Medicare recipients for a research company, Mrs. Helms went to school with Presley during the sixth and seventh grades.

The youngster, who answered questions in class, never got into mischief, and said ma'am to everybody, didn't make much of an impression on his classmates.

Certainly there was no sign of the seismic impact that lay ahead, according to Mrs. Helms.

Was Elvis missed after he moved to Memphis during Christmas break of the seventh grade?

'We didn't pay any attention', Mrs. Helms reports'. We got a new teacher. She looked like Grace Kelly. Her folks had money. And she was dating the principal. That's what interested us'.

By the time WELO in Tupelo started spinning Don't Be Cruel on the radio, Mrs. Helms was working as a secretary for the local power company. One day she got a long-distance call from Dorothy Joy Palmer, the pretty, dark-haired girl Elvis liked in the sixth grade.

'Is that Elvis?' a breathless Dorothy wanted to know. 'No doubt about it', Mrs. Helms replied.

No doubt Dorothy wished she'd stayed in touch with Presley after her family moved to Wisconsin during the postwar automobile manufacturing boom. But then everyone in his classroom had regrets about not making the most of attending school with the boy who would become the premiere pop culture icon of the 20th century. After school, Mrs. Helms walked with Elvis and two other youngsters to Reed's Manufacturing, the Tupelo shirt factory where their mothers worked.

'We made that walk I don't know how many times', she says, 'but I can't remember anything exceptional about Elvis. Certainly, he never said anything like, 'Someday, I will be famous'.

In the sixth grade Thanksgiving pageant Mrs. Helms was the narrator. She remembers that Elvis sang two songs during the annual program. What they were she can't recall.

'Surely to goodness', she sighs, 'it wasn't Frankie and Johnny and Old Shep.

What's more, Mrs. Helms and Elvis had birthdays in the same month. So one day in January Evelyn Carter and the world's first superstar stood while the rest of the class sang 'Happy Birthday' to them.

Another journal entry?

Another Kodak moment?

You bet your blue suede shoes. But how was she to know? As a matter of fact, Mrs. Helms got a camera the summer between the sixth and seventh grades and made candids of her classmates in the fall.

Once Elvis hit the Big Time, she searched high and low for the pictures, without success.

But one day, after her mother had rummaged through a trunk, she had a suggestion for Mrs. Helms: 'You ought to look through those snapshots. I think there's one in there of that Presley boy'.

Mrs. Helms had forgotten about the sixth grade class picture'.Oh, my God, it's Elvis!' she cried when she came across the old photograph. There he stands at the end of the third row.

Even in overalls, the lad with droopy-lidded blue eyes is clearly the crown prince of rock. And less than the width of a pink Cadillac away, in her best Eisenhower jacket, stands little Evelyn Carter.

So many of the class pictures exist that Mrs. Helms' isn't valuable in terms of cash. But in terms of pleasure, it is priceless. How many copies of the portrait has she given away?

'A million', she replies without hesitation.

One of her prints hangs in Graceland Mansion.

Mrs. Helms and her husband Tommy moved from Tupelo to Memphis in 1969.

'I figured Elvis didn't have the half dollar it took to buy the picture back at Milam', Mrs. Helms says'. So I sent a 5 x 7 to Graceland as a gift'. All she received in reply was a form thank-you note. But the next time she toured the mansion, she spotted her present hanging in the hall near the Trophy Room.

The Early Elvis Photos (EEP) often come in handy in her job. One day Mrs. Helms was up against a tight-lipped Medicare recipient, when she noticed the woman had a coffee table book about Elvis.

Mrs. Helms whipped out her class picture and the woman immediately turned to the same picture in her book. So the photo broke the ice? 'Broke the ice!' Mrs. Helms declares'. It moved a glacier'.

The settings for EEP conferrals vary widely. One day Mrs. Helms and her daughter, Dr. Helms, were browsing in Filene's Basement in Boston. A man accompanying his wife on a shopping spree and Mrs. Helms struck up a conversation that eventually led to her presenting him with the EEP.

'Elvis' appeal is global and it cuts across all ages', says Dr. Helms'. During a visit to England, mother and I discovered that a maid in our hotel worked five jobs so she and her daughter could make a trip to Memphis every year and to a location for one of Elvis' movies'.

A month or so after Elvis died in 1977, Mrs. Helms was standing at the gate to Graceland. Before long she and a tall, thin man at the entrance began to talk. 'I went to school with Elvis', the man said.

'I did too', Mrs. Helms replied. It turned out the man was Leon Anderson, one of her classmates'.He was a little fat boy in the sixth grade', she says'.I would have never recognized him.

'We talked about Elvis, and I asked him if he had one of the class photos. He didn't, so I gave him one'.

Mrs. Helms says her daughter thinks she should interview her classmates and write a book of recollections about Elvis. 'I haven't done any interviewing, but I have a title', Mrs. Helms says'. Mama Knowed Elvis'.

Even though Elvis graduated from Humes High School in Memphis, he is remembered at Tupelo High class of '53 reunions as if he were one of their own. A souvenir table always displays Elvis mementos. At the last get-together, Mrs. Helms says, one of the men recalled the many days he helped Elvis with math problems in the school basement. And, of course, the Milam classmates have a right to claim Elvis.

After all, they formed his earliest audiences, even if they didn't appreciate him at the time. Nowadays, they hold membership in an exclusive fan club. 'We think he's great', Mrs. Helms says'.

We still can't believe we went to school with Elvis. It almost is unreal'.

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