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Fans Remember Buddy Holly

February 6, 1999

CLEAR LAKE, Iowa (AP) _ Even after 40 years, the music keeps them coming back.

``We’re celebrating rock ‘n’ roll,″ said Barbara Rau, a legal secretary from Hawthorne, N.J., who has made a tradition of spending early February at a northern Iowa dance hall made famous by fate. ``It’s all the music, but mainly, of course, we come for Buddy Holly.″

Rau was among more than 2,000 fans who packed into the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake on Saturday to dance to ’50 tunes and remember three rising rock ‘n’ roll stars who played their last concert there.

Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. ``The Big Bopper″ Richardson died Feb. 3, 1959, just after performing at the Surf. They took off from the Mason City airport in the middle of a snowstorm and their four-seater plane crashed in a cornfield about five miles north of Clear Lake.

In 1979, the Surf held a weekend tribute near the time of the crash. It has grown into an annual party capped by a concert that sells out months in advance.

Rau, 50, said she has made friends at the tribute from as far away as Australia and they meet in Clear Lake every year.

``This way, it’s one big meeting point and we all get together and we all go out,″ she said. ``It’s kind of like a family reunion.″

Women who were teen-agers when the singers died may be grandmothers now, but they still wore poodle skirts and bobby socks Saturday. And scarves were all the rage for a group that makes an annual trip from England.

The crowd danced and reminisced to the tunes of the Crickets, Holly’s back-up band; Bobby Vee; and other ’50s stars.

A line stretched out the door Saturday afternoon as people waited to get autographs from the performers. Cameras were everywhere, with Surf visitors preserving their memories of the day.

Clear Lake Police Lt. Mike Cookman was a big draw out front of the ballroom with a restored 1958 police car. He good-naturedly pretended to frisk people as they posed for pictures beside the old car.

``It’s just been non-stop since I brought it down here,″ he said.

Cookman, who has been a policeman for 27 years, lived in Clear Lake when the singers died, but did not get to go to the concert.

``I was in the seventh grade and I was grounded because I didn’t get home on time the night before,″ Cookman said with a laugh.

Clive Harvey of North Hamptonshire, England, made it his 11th tribute concert.

Harvey, 52, said he can still remember the whispers that spread through his school back in 1959, with word that Holly was dead.

``I’ve always been a Buddy Holly fan,″ he said. ``Like a lot of people, I thought I was the only one. But now I’m coming across more and more.″

Harvey said that the Surf, with its kitschy, ’50s-style interior and Holly memorabilia, makes people ``imagine what it was like back then.″

``We’ll be doing this in another 10 years, we’ll be coming here in our wheelchairs,″ he said. ``It keeps you young in the middle of winter. It gives you that buzz.″

Ted and Pat Pool, a retired couple from Abilene, Texas, were attending their second Holly reunion. They said the music is the big draw, but they also like the friendliness of a small, Midwestern town.

``There are realistic people here,″ Ted said.