Even though “The King” died 37 years ago, to some die-hard fans and the woman who nursed him the last two and a half years of his life, he still lives if only in their memories.
A group of Elvis Presley fans and his nurse, Marian Cocke, met Saturday at Anna’s Diner in Highland City to remember the Rock and Roll icon and reminisce with Cocke about the time she had with the famous singer in the years before his Aug. 16, 1977, death at his Graceland home in Memphis, Tenn.
Cocke was in Polk County to assist a group of Elvis fans with fundraising efforts they earmark for a disabled children’s home in Orlando.
Anna’s Diner has monthly Elvis tributes, but Saturday’s event was all about Cocke, who not only shared some of her remembrances of the King of pop music of the 1950s, 60s and 70s, but signed copies of her book “I Called Him Babe: Elvis Presley’s Nurse Remembers” and a companion CD “An Evening with Marian,” an audio of “fond memories as told by his personal nurse.”
The sprightly 88-year-old retired RN and nursing administrator at Memphis hospitals talked freely about her personal time with the legendary performer and maintained that, despite his legendary status at the time of his death at age of 42, Elvis was “a generous and truly kind man.”
Cocke said she met Elvis during one of his hospitalizations for treatment of heart and blood pressure problems, and “we just hit it off.” Even though she was almost 10 years his senior, married and the mother of a daughter, “we got to be really good friends,” she said. She explained she was involved in Elvis’ treatment while he was hospitalized, and when it was suggested he may need additional in-home nursing assistance, “he insisted that it be me.”
She says Elvis told her to come to his Graceland mansion “with her Social Security card so I can pay you,” but she never received a salary for the countless hours she tended to his medical needs.
“I just couldn’t take money from him,” she explains. “There were enough people hanging around him who just were after his money.”
“I talked with my husband and daughter about his request and they agreed it would be OK for me to become his ‘private nurse,’” she recalled. She said she would work a full shift at the hospital, see her family for a few hours and then report to Graceland.
“He was always glad to see me and I was glad to see him too,” she said. “He was such a nice guy. He was funny, and even though I was serious about his health care, we could still joke about it and have a good time.”
Cocke would stay in one of the guest rooms in the expansive Graceland mansion when she nursed the star between his engagements.
“I wasn’t there every single night for two and a half years,” she said. “Only when he was in Memphis and he was still going on the road a lot then.
“He really wasn’t in bad shape,” she said. “He had a grueling schedule. He was doing two shows a night and it was just too much. His blood pressure was a real problem back then. It was hard to control, but he was really just tired and worn out.”
While there was wide-spread speculation and eventually proof that “The King,” not unlike more recent pop icon Michael Jackson, died from an overabundance of medications, Cocke says she never saw Elvis take drugs or use narcotics.
“The only drugs I ever saw him take were the prescriptions I gave him,” she says. “I never saw any other drugs or medications in the house when I was there either.”
Cocke, like Elvis’ millions of fans, “was crushed when he died,” she said. Elvis was found unconscious in his home and rushed to the Memphis hospital where Cocke was working her regular shift when she learned of his demise.
“It was staggering,” she said. “I had talked with him just that morning and was planning to go to Graceland that night when I got off shift. I got a call from the ER and they told me he was there. It was awful, just awful.”
Cocke’s Presley connections didn’t die with Elvis, she adds. She said she had maintained a long friendship with both his ex-wife, Priscilla, and daughter, Lisa.
“I’ve been very close to them since before Elvis died and maintained that ever since,” she says. “They are very, very dear to me.”
“And, I still go to Graceland often,” she adds.
Cocke, when asked about Elvis “impersonators,” said “initially I found it hard to look at them. But, eventually I remembered what he (Elvis) told me about them before he died. He said he looked at it as flattery. That people saw him as somebody worth emulating, and that was good.”
Cocke’s book was first published in 1979 at the behest of Presley’s father, Vernon, she said.
“I had kept sort of a diary; mostly just notes,” she said. “And after he died, Vernon came to me and asked me to publish them, so people would learn more about the kind of man Elvis was, not just the star.”
“That’s what I’ve tried to do — show people what kind of man he was, not what kind of movie star or music icon he was. He was a wonderful man. I wish there were more people in the world like Elvis Presley.”
Cocke’s appearance in Lakeland heralded the Second Rockin’ The Russell Home Benefit, where the Remembering Elvis Fan Club hoped to raise funds to assist the facility in Orlando. The benefit was Sunday, July 27.
On Aug. 16, to commemorate Elvis’ death, there will be an “Elvis Tribute Dinner Show” memorial with John McDade and Carl Bryant at Anna’s Diner. The performances are scheduled for 5 and 7 p.m. For additional information, contact Anna’s Diner at 863-647-9111.