This year’s Hootin an Hollarin festival will be the first without the familiar broad smile and steady laugh of John Harlin, a man who served Hootin an Hollarin every year since the very first festival in 1961 until his death on March 15 of this year.
In the festival’s earliest days, John served as the voice on the microphone, emceeing the whole event. “He did that for probably 25 or 30 years,” John’s wife Linda told the Times.
Then in 1964 when Linda was asked to develop and stage a queen pageant for Hootin an Hollarin, John came along as the pageant emcee as well. Linda continued for several years as pageant director, and John emceed the event for 40 years.
But that wasn’t his only role during the festival. He also announced the impressive entries in the festival’s big parade each year, the adorable hillbilly-clad participants in the annual costume contest and encouraged the loudest and most unique hollers in the Hootin an Hollarin calling contest. Always willing to help, John also filled in emceeing other events as he was needed.
On stage, John was more than just an announcer. He shared the talent he had displayed to win a worldwide talent contest in comedy while serving in the Air Force, tickling audiences everywhere with his wisecracks and comedic mimicry of celebrities including Louis Armstrong, Dean Martin, Jimmy Stewart, John Wayne, Walter Brennan, as well as Jonathan Winters and Andy Griffith’s characters.
Hootin an Hollarin organizer Ed Pettersen once said that when John was asked to announce an event, “You never knew who was going to show up. Sometimes it was Granny Frickert; other times it was Walter Brennan as Grandpa.”
His on-stage presence was funny, but behind the scenes John held the serious (and demanding) role of chairman of the Hootin an Hollarin committee for 20-plus years until handing it over to Nancy Walker in 1991. (Then Nancy handed off the job to Paula Rose in 2022.)
John and Linda continued serving on the Hootin an Hollarin Committee, and in 2010, Linda came back to serve as pageant director. She stepped down from that job in 2016, but she and John continued to help on the committee — Linda handling publicity and John advising as a past-chairman. Linda continues to serve on the committee today.
The Harlins were honored as Citizens of the Year in 1997 and as Parade Marshals in 2016. While we know John appreciated those titles, he found the most pride in something much simpler — to have had a hand in helping the festival of his treasured home and its heritage become the success it is today. That impact will no doubt continue for generations to come.
So this year when you’re making your way around the square, stop for just a moment and look toward the sky — because we surely know that John will be looking down on all of us, twinkle in his eye, smiling at what continues now, even after he is gone.