LARRY PENKAVA COLUMN: When Larry met Lulu of ‘Hee Haw’

It started out as a normal day at work. It turned out to be special.

I was a reporter for The Randolph Guide sometime in the early 2000s. The big Christmas in July with Jim’s Kids was coming up and I learned that Lulu Roman was going to appear at Jim Bullins’ event.

For those of you who slept through Saturday night TV from 1969 to 1990, Lulu was a regular on “Hee Haw,” a fun-packed look at the hokie characters in mythical Kornfield County.
According to heehaw.com, Lulu’s “droll delivery and deadpan humor put the punch in the ‘Culhanes’ sketches and put the salt in the ‘Truck Stop’ banter.”

A big woman with dark hair, Lulu was a counterpoint to all the beauties on the show. At times, she showed off her natural voice when singing with a gospel group on the show.

I was reminded of Lulu’s visit to Asheboro recently when I interviewed Jim’s widow, Mary Bullins, who lost her home to fire in May. Actually, it was her son, Tim, who had told me about 20 years ago that Lulu was coming.

Tim, who came by during the recent interview, remembered that time. He had called me at The Guide to say that he was going to pick up Lulu in a limousine at PTI in Greensboro.

“Do you want to ride up there with me?” he asked.

In my mind I was saying, “Are you kidding? Try to keep me from going.”

Instead, I casually said, “Yeah sure, I’ll ride up there with you.”

When Tim said limousine, I didn’t realize he meant a vehicle so long he had trouble maneuvering around the parking garage at the airport. Finally, he found a spot where he could easily get out after we picked up our celeb.

We went inside and my first look at Lulu was when she was riding down an escalator. There was no doubt who she was, still with the extra weight and the black hair.

As we retrieved her luggage and walked to the limo, Lulu informed us that she was born with no sweat glands and had to be careful not to overheat. Tim accommodated her by turning on the AC full-blast.

Lulu and I sat in the very rear, about 15 feet from Tim. I had my reporter’s notebook handy and a pen ready.

I found Lulu to be very cordial to this small-time newshound, happy to tell her life story. Not having read her biography, I was taken by surprise by some of what she had to say.

She was born in a home for unwed mothers and given up to an orphanage. She was attending high school in Dallas when President John F. Kennedy was scheduled to visit in November 1963.

Lulu told me she was in a large crowd beside the street waiting for the presidential motorcade to pass by when she heard three shots pierce the air. Then all pandemonium broke out.

She graduated high school in 1964 and five years later she was appearing weekly on CBS. Not bad for an overweight orphan with no sweat glands.

I left the limo when Lulu asked Tim to stop at a place to eat. She entered a Mexican restaurant and I went back to the office with a story to write.

Now, after 20 years, I’ve researched Lulu’s life and found that she suffered through drug addiction while on “Hee Haw,” missing several years before getting help and becoming a Christian. Since then, she’s become known as much for her gospel singing as for her comedy.

In fact, she’s done well enough with her recordings to be inducted into the Country Gospel Music Hall of Fame, along with Andy Griffith, Barbara Mandrell and Loretta Lynn.

But that wasn’t enough for Lulu. She realized that to continue performing and witnessing, she had to lose weight. But she had failed at a number of diets.

So she opted for surgery, finally losing 200 pounds and 20 dress sizes. She told an interviewer, “Now not only can I walk, I can run.”

Her before and after photos are striking enough to make you wonder if it’s the same person.

I’m proud to say I once met Lulu Roman, who faced adversity all her life and has overcome them all.

Larry Penkava is a writer for Randolph Hub. Contact him at 336-302-2189 or larrypenkava@gmail.com.