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Bill Kirby Jr.: Memories of a walk in the garden with Olivia Newton-John

Kathy Vogel recalls taking the singer on a tour of Fayetteville before her show to open the 68th season of Community Concerts.


Some days you never forget.

Or some people you meet along life’s way.

Kathy Vogel still remembers that autumn afternoon in 2003 and walking along the garden trails.

“We took her on a tour of the city,” Vogel says about Olivia Newton-John, the singing legend who was in town to open the 68th anniversary season of Community Concerts on Nov. 13, 2003, at the Crown Theatre. “We spent most of the day with her, and we took her to the Cape Fear Botanical Garden.”

She was unassuming, Vogel says, interested in this place called Fayetteville, and easy to talk with about almost anything, including Fort Bragg and the singer’s life growing up in Australia.

“She was in capris and sneakers, and a baseball cap,” Vogel says. “Her hair was in a ponytail, and she had no makeup on. Nobody knew who she was. She just looked like another person walking around. She was wearing sunglasses. She was adorable. When we left each other, she just said thank you and how much she appreciated it.”

A night later, the theater was packed in anticipation of Olivia Newton-John, the girl known as Sandy from the 1978 film “Grease’’ with John Travolta and as Kira in the 1980 film “Xanadu’’ featuring Gene Kelly in his final motion picture role.

‘Something very special’

“Olivia was the season opener for the 68th season of Community Concerts on Nov. 13, 2003,” Michael Fleishman, longtime attractions director for Community Concerts, says of the singer’s Heartstrings USA Tour. “She packed the house, and the audience loved her. There was something very special about Olivia as she wowed the crowd with her charm and literally hit after hit.”

She entered from stage left, wearing a gold, sequin pantsuit. She crossed the stage with gentleness, her blonde hair glistening and a smile brighter than the hot spotlights beaming down from the rafters.

“Hopelessly Devoted To You,” she would wow the audience. “Let Me Be There,” “Summer Nights,” “I Love You, I Honestly Love You,” “A Little More Love,” “You’re The One That I Want,” “Xanadu,” “Let’s Get Physical,” “Suddenly” and “Magic” that would touch your heart.

She was beautiful.

Her voice was pitch perfect.

She was Sandy from “Grease.’’

She was Olivia Newton-John.

“I thought it was great,” Vogel says about watching the singing legend from Vogel’s front row seat. “We had tents set up outside for a meet and greet afterwards.”

But Newton-John was on a tight time schedule with other concerts on her tour, including an engagement in Nashville a night later, and there was no time for mingling with fans this concert night.

Richard Guy was the Community Concerts president. He and other board members pleaded with her tour manager to see if she could come by for just a moment.

“She wouldn’t do autographs,” Vogel says. “And no pictures. But I remember she came to the tent.”

Newton-John thanked everyone for coming to her concert. She thanked us for being such an attentive audience and for her time visiting our hometown.

“What I can tell you is at the time, Olivia was the most expensive show we ever booked,” Fleishman says. “The success of her show became a steppingstone to shows like Frankie Valli, Kenny Rogers, The Doobie Brothers and more. She was a star.”

‘This one stung’

Olivia Newton-John died peacefully Monday at her southern California home after a 29-year battle with breast cancer.

She was 73.

A state funeral is being planned in Victoria, Australia.

“I was on my computer,” Vogel says, “and it popped up.”

We know that we’ll lose our music icons and legends in time, Vogel says, but this was the passing of Olivia Newton-John.

“This one stung,” she says. “When Olivia’s name went up, it took my breath away, because I remember how nice, pleasant and cordial she was. Even without the makeup, she was beautiful. She was a pretty lady. We will always remember her as Sandy.”

And for her melodic singing voice, “Grease,” her gentleness, her courageous resolve in her long journey with breast cancer and the Olivia Newton-John Cancer & Wellness Centre at Melbourne’s Austin Hospital that she founded in 2012.

“Many people recognize Olivia Newton-John for her contributions in music and film,” says Mary Kulig, nursing service line director for oncology at the Cape Fear Valley cancer centers. “I would like to recognize what I believe is her most inspiring gift — her contribution to breast cancer research.

“She is well known in the oncology community as an advocate for breast cancer patients and their families. Olivia Newton-John has a legacy that will live on through her foundation, which supports her Cancer Wellness and Research Centre. Her support for breast cancer patients has given others hope. She was truly a woman who cared for many and was committed to helping others. She will be missed.”


Kathy Vogel can see that autumn of 2003 and walking the Cape Fear Botanical Garden trails in all of the garden’s splendor.

“She was one of the great ones,” Vogel says. “She was beautiful, stunning and an extremely talented singer and actress. She did a lot with her Olivia Newton-John foundation. She was always the type to go out and help someone else. I heard where actress Jane Seymore was talking about a recent visit with her. She said she was looking at a hummingbird, the trees and the flowers. She was grabbing every second of life she could.”

Some days you never forget.

And some people you meet along life’s way.

Bill Kirby Jr. can be reached at billkirby49@gmail.com or 910-624-1961.

Column, Bill Kirby Jr., Olivia Newton-John, Fayetteville, Community Concerts