By Karen G. Jackovich
December 07, 1981 12:00 PM

Johnny Carson is a textbook American hero. Small-town Nebraska lad, classroom cutup and amateur magician (“the Great Carsoni”), he rose to become perhaps the most powerful man in U.S. entertainment. His wealth—including a reported Tonight show income of $8 million a year—is legendary. Yet throughout his career the Great Carsoni’s best trick may have been less illusion than reality: At 56, he somehow remains both a quintessentially Midwestern boy and an urbane Hollywood sophisticate who hobnobs with the mighty. To film an upcoming NBC special about his visit home, Carson recently went back to Norfolk (pop. 19,450), set in the rolling cornfields of northeastern Nebraska. PEOPLE correspondent Karen G. Jackovich accompanied him on the trip that mixed showbiz and sentiment, glitter and grit—the two worlds of Johnny Carson.

For his fellow travelers, the trip was a simple, if novel, hop from Hollywood to heartland, but it was clear that host Johnny Carson was traveling farther than they. Suddenly he interrupted a card trick to peer out of the Learjet’s window. “After school, for 25 cents an hour, I hauled dirt in a dump truck to help build the runway we’re going to land on,” he mused as the chartered plane nosed downward. Nostalgia set in immediately. On the tarmac was the very same 1939 green Chrysler Royal—lovingly restored by Norfolk steelworker Bob Means—in which Carson reports he lost his virginity. “The car doesn’t have quite the zip it used to,” Johnny cracked, “but then, neither do I.”

That hardly seemed the case during Carson’s seven hectic days of brunches, lunches, pranks and memories. He visited some old haunts for the first time since he began his career as a radio announcer in 1948 while still a student at the University of Nebraska. “This is something I have wanted to do for a long time,” explained Johnny, who drove the old Chrysler to his digs at the Holiday Inn (bedroom, living room, a room for a bodyguard and another for a card table and a set of drums). “I was born in Iowa, but we moved to Norfolk in 1933 and this is really where I grew up. I’ve always wanted to come back, see the changes and some of the kids—and, to a certain extent, get back to childhood, I guess.”

His Norfolk High School class (’43) staged a reunion in his honor and Carson paid to fly in six “best buddies”—two doctors, a dentist, a forest products executive, an engineer and a stockbroker, Larry Sanford, who had scribbled presciently in Carson’s yearbook, “John, if you don’t get killed in the war [Carson served in the Navy], you’ll be a hell of an entertainer some day.” The old pals gathered in a classroom on their first day in town to reminisce for the cameras. “It’s funny,” said Sanford. “I was the one who was supposed to have the show business career. I got a summer theater scholarship to Northwestern, and in school productions I always played God to Johnny’s angel. Now it’s the other way around.”

At least once, though, Carson slipped to second fiddle. As the seven friends swapped tales, Carson’s former elementary school teacher, Fay Gordon, 85, who had been hesitant to appear on TV, walked in. “Well, hello, rascal,” she greeted him. “Are you going to lead me to slaughter?”

“No, you’re doing fine,” Carson assured her. “You sure look pretty.”

“You don’t have to butter me up, I’m going to do your show,” Gordon replied. As aides rigged her lapel mike, Carson joked to a friend, “She always wanted to get wired [i.e., tipsy].” Quipped Gordon: “What do you know, rascal? Maybe I have been.”

Later Carson made another stop to film at 306 South 13th Street, the white, wood-frame birthplace not of Carson himself but of his magical alter ego, the Great Carsoni. “Once John took up magic, all else came second,” his mother, Ruth, has recalled. (She and Johnny’s father, Homer Lloyd “Kit” Carson, 82, a retired utilities manager, moved 47 miles south to Columbus some 20 years ago.) “We took home movies six Christmases in a row and in every one of them, John has a deck of cards in his hand.” Johnny and brother Dick, now 52 and a Merv Griffin producer, were also given to Tom Sawyeresque exploring and fishing expeditions. “I could have paved a highway with all the peanut butter sandwiches I made for them,” Mom remembered. “They had a hangout called ‘Black Bridge,’ which I didn’t learn about until years later. They’d go down to the railroad trestle and swing on the timbers while trains passed overhead.”

Eager to repeat the feat for the cameras, Carson hired a 26-car Union Pacific train for $5,000—and then, alas, learned the cruel truth about time and the Elkhorn River flowing below. “Either we booked a train a little too long, or maybe I’m not as young as I used to be,” said Carson, who lost his grip as the 20th car rumbled overhead and dropped six feet into the shallow, freezing water. “It’s cold!” shuddered Carson. Shot back a seasoned crewman, amid gales of laughter, “How cold is it, Johnny?”

The focal point of the homecoming was the reunion dinner-dance at a local spot, King’s Ballroom, which drew 64 (of 147) former classmates. From the stories they told, it was clear that Carson, though he admitted he “never came close to becoming valedictorian,” had nonetheless made his mark. Once he and Sanford locked a cow in the third-floor chemistry lab overnight. Another time Carson and co-conspirator Robert Reckert, now an Iowa civil engineer, spiked the school ventilating system with foul-smelling hydrogen sulfide, causing classes to be canceled for the day. Then there was the time, recalled former principal Theodore Skillstad, that “Johnny called a school assembly and typed my name to the order. The superintendent thought I had written it, and I thought a teacher had done it—and we all sat there for a few minutes. Then ‘the Great Carsoni’ appeared onstage and cut off my tie. At least, it looked like he did.”

Midway through the evening Carson spoke briefly—and, at first, seriously. “I think there’s a great advantage to grow up in a community where you feel comfortable,” he said. “Hell, I remember never having to lock the doors when I was living back here. [By contrast, his three-acre Bel Air estate, worth an estimated $5 million, has camera surveillance and a neighborhood patrol.] Kids would come in day or night. There was a closeness, a security that we all miss, I am sure.” But soon Carson was spiritually back in that Chrysler and cruising down memory lane. “As in all small towns,” he continued before the cameras at the gathering, “there are certain ‘nice’ girls, girls that you marry—and girls that you do not. Well, there was this girl, I’ll call her Francine, and Francine, well, ‘put out’—at least that’s what was going around. I finally got up enough nerve to ask her out, she said yes, and you can imagine my excitement…Mount Vesuvius! But then I had to overcome a problem—protection. I went up to the drugstore counter and the druggist yells, ‘Well, John, what can I do for you?’ Luckily then he saw that I had Francine waiting in the car,” Johnny continued, “and he knowingly handed over the goods. I remember I had, as we used to put it, a ‘swell’ time.”

He concluded his remarks with a letter from one disgruntled classmate who boycotted the reunion. “Dear Johnny,” she wrote, “you are the one person I would never come back to Norfolk to see. When we were in second grade and picking teams, you said about me, ‘Don’t pick her, she runs like a duck.’ That hurt and I have never forgiven you, so there.” Those present, however, were on their feet cheering, and Carson teetered on the verge of tears. That did not surprise pal Robert Reckert. “A lot of people accuse Johnny of being shy or aloof, but I think that’s just because he’s uncomfortable with strangers,” Reckert said. “It makes me mad to read that he’s snobby. Maybe it’s a protective device, because people just won’t let him alone.” Said Carson himself: “Self-analysis is difficult, but basically, I am the same person you see on the show as I am in real life. But it’s tough to win either way. If you go out a lot, people say that you need people around all the time. If you stay home, you are a recluse. I’d like to be more private.” Added the already very private Carson, “I like time away from the cameras. I like astronomy, and I still fly small planes. I can have a good time by myself.”

Some of the best moments on the trip were spontaneous. On a visit to A.B. Nelson’s bike shop, Carson hopped on a balloon-tire Schwinn and, trailing cameramen, led an impromptu tour of Norfolk: the Granada Theater, where he worked as an usher (“my first paying job in the theater”), the former snack shop (now a Laundromat) where he was a soda jerk; and the plumbing business of W.G. Volkman, 87, who used to have a pet bear. “Sorry for the delay,” apologized Carson for his 38-year absence. “Don’t worry about it,” replied Volkman. “You can still visit Bear. I had him stuffed.”

The Great Carsoni also made a surprise appearance before a junior high audience, and after bewildering them with the Amazing Dancing Cane and the Linking Rings tricks, he opened the floor to questions. Is he a hot lover? “Yes, but only with my wife, Joanna.” How much does he make? “When Mike Wallace asked me that, I said that where I was raised it was impolite to ask.” Was he ever suspended? “Yes,” he blushed, “but never for more than a day.” Talks from old alums like himself used to bore him silly, he admitted, so he kept his advice brief: “Don’t do a job if you don’t like it. Move on to something that you’ll enjoy, and remember, you have a foundation here. It’s helped me to remember who I am and where I came from.”

To climax the trip, Carson, who never made the cheerleading squad despite three attempts, finally donned a Norfolk High maroon-and-white letter sweater and sparked a crowd of 3,875 at Friday night’s football game. Alas, his Panthers lost, 9-3, to the Columbus Discoverers. It was more than consolation when townsfolk, forewarned that it was Carson’s 56th birthday, presented him with a four-by-six-foot Nebraska-shaped cake and a spirited chorus of Happy Birthday. “Hell of a glee club, aren’t they?” said Carson, visibly moved. “This is going to ruin my image—everyone’s going to know what an old softie I am.” The nostalgic mood thickened later at a private party when the TV crew and NBC gave Johnny the beloved old Chrysler as their birthday gift. He thanked them with a heartfelt toast: “Here’s to good friends, good health and going home.”