Oldest Living Alumni
Joe Hopkins
The Story of Smiley Burnette's Mandolin

When Elaine Lance Kunz, a Hindsboro native and 1961 Arcola High School graduate, read the June 14th Arcola Record-Herald in her Lambertville, Michigan home, she believed she had now found a living connection to Smiley Burnette. She read the front page article about Joe Hopkins, who at nearly 95, was recognized by Arcola Alumni Association as one of Arcola’s oldest living graduates. She learned Hopkins, at age 10, sang in a talent show contest at Tuscola’s WDZ radio station and was accompanied first by Gene Autry, and then by Smiley Burnette in the second round of competition. Kunz had inherited a National steel mandolin that was previously owned by Burnette, and now through the Record-Herald, she learned of the musical connection Joe Hopkins made with Burnette some 85 years earlier.

Kunz called Sue Stout on June 19, 2018. Stout had interviewed Hopkins and written the article for the Arcola Alumni Association. Kunz related the somewhat confusing story about how she came to own Smiley Burnette’s mandolin. Burnette came to WDZ radio in 1929 at the age of 17. WDZ owners, James and Edith Bush, were fond of Burnette and invited him to stay in their home while he was working at the radio station. When Burnette left WDZ in 1933 to join Gene Autry at WLS radio in Chicago, he left his mandolin with James and Edith Bush.

Gene Carpenter, owner of Carpenter’s Clothing Store in Tuscola, knew the Bushes and eventually bought and lived in the Bush home in Tuscola. When they moved from their home, the Bushes left the mandolin with Gene Carpenter, possibly because Gene knew Burnette, as the radio station was located near Carpenter’s Clothing Store.

After Gene’s passing in 1994, the mandolin was left with his wife, Tracy Cox Carpenter. She eventually gave the musical instrument to her niece, Elaine Lance Kunz, knowing that Autry and Burnette had been favorites in the Lance family when Elaine was growing up. At Carpenter’s request, the mandolin was then given to Elaine’ son Jamie. Her son has since passed away.

In Kunz’s June 19th conversation with Stout, she related she would now like for Joe Hopkins to have the musical instrument that once belonged to Smiley Burnette. Her generous gift was carefully packaged and shipped to Stout, who presented the mandolin to Hopkins on July 11th. Burnette passed away in 1967, at the age of just 55, after an extensive musical and western career in radio, movies and television. He has been gone more than 50 years, and it has been nearly 85 years since Burnette left WDZ radio in Tuscola, but his mandolin is now with an admirer who once sang for Smiley.

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Last Revision July 20, 2018