“The Great Pignie”

His friends sent Clarence “The Great Pignie” Stephenson to his heavenly reward today with fond remembrances, many laughs, and a plethora of “Pignie stories.”

One of the most unusual Madisonians of our lifetime, who lived his life in his own way, never mind all the conventions, passed from our midst last Sunday, near his 87th birthday. As Pignie (pronounced PIG-NYE) loved conviviality and good times, I think he would have liked our informal little wake held at the Lytle Funeral Chapel.

Buddy Quinn, Pignie’s friend of more than half a century, and his wife Dorothy, returned from California for the services — if you could call them that. The memorial service/wake was without a featured speaker, except for Buddy himself, briefly. It was  informal and unorganized — kind of like Pignie’s life, come to think of it.

Buddy recalled his first experience with Pignie — which permanently cemented their friendship.

“My dad owned a pool room in town, and I helped out in there,” he recalled. “I was about 13 years old — about five feet tall and maybe 80 pounds. Some guy was in there, drunk, and trying to shoot pool one day. I told him, ‘You can’t play pool here because you’re too drunk — you’re going to tear the felt on the table.’ He got mad, said, ‘I’ll play pool whenever I want to. You’re not gonna tell me I can’t.’  Pignie was in the poolroom, and he came over and said to the guy, ‘You leave that kid alone or I’ll throw your ass right out of here!’ ”

The Pignie of those days could have done it, too. A short man with big shoulders and narrow hips, he was enormously strong, working all his life at manual labor jobs. Garbage collector, shoveling coal on the old Madison riverfront, working for the county highway department, Pignie gave every job all he had.

Not that “the Pig,” as many called him for short, spent all his time working. Many of the funny stories told at his wake involved his liking for the pleasures of the tavern, and for “the ladies.” He was also something of a natural athlete, an expert pool shooter and skilled dancer, those at the gathering recalled. He could even do the Russian “Kalinka,” the dance in which one kicks out one leg, then the other, from a squatting position. He would yell, “Betcha nobody else here can do that!” according to one who witnessed his dances. A simple man of multiple talents, one might say.

Dorothy Quinn, who does a perfect imitation of Pignie’s distinctive way of pronouncing things, told of one of his many visits to their home in California, near San Francisco.

“Buddy and I were both working, and Pignie would stay at the house during the day; he’d be pacing the driveway when I got home, waiting for me,” she said. “The third day he was there, I got home, and no Pignie! I couldn’t find him anywhere!” Dorothy said after she and Buddy had searched the neighborhood repeatedly (Pignie knew no one out there but them), they finally called the police to report him missing. She said the next day, as they were talking with the police in the front yard, who should come strolling through the gate but Pignie.

“When the policeman realized that was the guy who was ‘missing,’ they asked him where he had been and told him we’d been worried sick. Pignie said, ‘I went to San Francisco.’ When they asked him, ‘Well, why did you go to San Francisco?’ he said, ‘Why, to get a woman!’ ”

That was Pignie — the desires of the moment were satisfied then and there, if at all possible.

In his earlier years, Pig took great pride in dressing “sharply” whenever possible, complete with suit, derby hat, eye-catching rings and watch, Buddy said. It was only in his later years that the Pig began to neglect his appearance and personal hygiene.

Some of the other Pignie stories, told by his friends who attended the little gathering:

— The time he bought an outboard motor boat in Louisville, drove it up the Ohio River, only to have it run out of gas near Hanover Beach. The current carried boat and Pig back to Louisville, where he managed to dock it where he had bought it, and asked the owner, “Can you put me up for the night?”

— The job he took as a laborer at a Madison tobacco warehouse, for 75 cents an hour.  The first day on the job, Pignie reported for duty, walked in, and noticed that near the pot-bellied stove in the office lay a sleeping old dog. He asked the owner of the warehouse, “What’s that dog doing in here?” The man said, pulling Pig’s leg just a tad, “Why, he works here for a dollar an hour!” Pignie flared up in anger, gave the owner and his hound a cussing, and quit on the spot.

— Pig’s returning from one of his nocturnal prowls, well oiled, at 3 a.m., going to his second-floor apartment at a former rooming house in Madison’s downtown, and banging loudly on the door while bellowing in an angry voice. The landlord, who lived on the premises, came upstairs in pajamas and robe, aghast at being awakened, and said, “Pig, you can’t be making all this noise in the middle of the night!” Pig replied, “Somebody stole my jacket and my keys down in the bar!” The landlord assumed a sarcastic tone and said, “Talk louder — I’m hard of hearing.” So Pig reared back and yelled in a voice you could hear in Jericho, “SOMEBODY STOLE MY JACKET AND MY KEYS DOWN AT THE BAR!!”

— Another early morning, about 4 a.m., when Pig having returned home late again and deciding to have a late snack, he peeled some potatoes, put them in a saucepan on his hotplate to cook, then sat down and promptly fell asleep. Before the excitement was over, Pig’s potatoes were burning, the smoke went under his door, a fellow tenant smelled it and called the fire department, and all four downtown fire companies plus the whole night shift of Madison police were on the scene. When Pig awoke and found the burning mess, he unplugged the hotplate, threw the whole shebang into his refrigerator, and slammed the door. Of course, the fire went out almost immediately. Come to think of it, maybe he handled that situation correctly.

There were other, more tender memories, of course. Pig and his beloved Jack Russell terrier, which he named — oddly enough — “Jack.” A local bartender who had befriended Pig in his last years told of how he came to her house late one night, told her, “My dog’s dead — what am I gonna do?” then cried for hours like a baby.

Pig could be seen often, out with the terrier, who would be dragging him along on its leash, eager to explore while it was out of the apartment. Madison might have been the only place where you could see a dog walking a Pig. When the Quinns once sent Pignie a pair of suspenders because of his eternally slipping pants, Pig refused to wear them. “That’s for old guys!” Pig told Dorothy. But locals noticed him using the suspenders as a leash for Jack.

The same bartender displayed photos she had taken of Pig, seated happily at the bar, one with a Santa hat on his head, his white beard as bushy as Santa’s if not as long.

Buddy Quinn said Pignie visited him and Dorothy many times over the years — once for three months running. But in the end, he would always say, “I’m homesick. I’ve gotta go back to Madison.” Then the Quinns would offer to buy him airline tickets. “You’ll be home in five hours,” Dorothy once told Pignie. “I’ll be home in three days,” he corrected her. Pig would not fly; he always went by rail or Greyhound bus.

Pignie, who was always out on the streets in all kinds of weather, was noticeably dwindling the last few months. After a stay in the hospital, friends arranged for him to enter a local nursing home. But he wouldn’t eat, they said; just would drink milk and milkshakes. Maybe Pignie sensed his time was near, and decided just to let nature take its course.

Pignie was cremated, and his ashes will be placed in his mother’s grave at Springdale Cemetery, Buddy said.

“He loved Madison; he always had to come back here,” he told the group of friends. “Probably it’s only in a town like Madison that Pignie could have lived the way he did, for all those years.

“For 55 years, he was a good friend,” Buddy said.

If you didn’t know Pignie, you missed something. If you like to take an occasional drink, then why not raise a glass in his memory?

Pig would approve.

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