Danny Gokey is so busy these days that even his grandmother can’t get in touch with him. But she finally did see the American Idol finalist — along with tens of thousands of other wildly screaming, shouting, sign-waving, cheering fans — during his hometown visit to Milwaukee on Friday.
“Your grandma’s here!” a crowd shouted as Gokey emerged from an AT&T store, where a text message from judge Paula Abdul popped up on a tricked-out cell phone he was handed, designed just for the Idol Top 3, telling him his song selection for next week. “I don’t know that,” he said. “I’m going to have to learn it.”
When he saw his grandmother, Dottie Stelter, 73, all they had time to do was exchange hugs and “I love you’s.” “They keep him so busy I have no chance to see him,” she said. “The public deserves to see him too, but at least I got my hug.”
After early morning stops at TV and radio shows, Gokey, 29, appeared at Faith Builders International Ministries, the church where he served as a musical director and where, just 10 months before, the funeral service was held for his wife Sophia, who died four weeks before his Idol audition of a congenital heart defect. Gokey sang two Christian-themed songs, joined at one point by his friend Jamar Rogers, who had been eliminated from Idol competition in an earlier round. It was all part of the Idol’s tradition of sending the finalists home again, with Adam Lambert going to San Diego and Kris Allen returning to Little Rock, Ark.
“Pray for my voice,” a hoarse-sounding Gokey told the crowd of more than 800 packed inside. “You want me to be honest with you? I’m not that good.” The crowd clearly disagreed, responding with thunderous applause and shouts of encouragement.
His jam-packed day also included a parade through downtown Milwaukee streets and visits to such city landmarks as the Harley-Davidson Museum, a bronze statue of Fonzie of Happy Days fame and the Milwaukee Art Museum, designed by renowned architect Santiago Calatrava. Thousands of fans lined the streets and crowded around him at each stop. Gokey also performed a mini concert at the Summerfest fairgrounds, belting out a handful of songs including “PYT (Pretty Young Thing)” and “September.”
More than 25,000 fans, holding an array of signs including eyeglasses-shaped ones in honor of Gokey’s trademark look and others declaring, “Go! Go! Gokey!” and “I love your scream!”, went wild when it was declared Danny Gokey Day in the state. “It’s amazing. It’s unreal,” said Austin Grandinetti, 10, as he rocked out with his mother and brother. “He just seems like a really cool guy.” Another enthusiastic crowd greeted the singer as he threw out the first pitch and sang the National Anthem before a Milwaukee Brewers-Chicago Cubs game.
“My success came from this city,” Gokey told PEOPLE. “It gives me more incentive to show up when I sing,” he said. “I want to win the gold for my city.” — Hilary Shenfeld