Story and photo by Josh Peterson, editor
For nearly 30 years, Manchester resident Althea Cimino and country music superstar Naomi Judd had a relationship that lived on through Christmas cards and letters.
Monday, in front of a crowd well into the hundreds gathered next to the Coffee County Courthouse, the two were reunited, highlighting a stellar Veterans Day ceremony in Manchester.
“I was a nurse before I started singing. People get that confused,” explained Judd in a one-on-one interview with the Manchester Times Monday morning before she had seen Cimino. “I was kind of a renegade nurse. I used to sneak patients’ charts into their rooms and that was forbidden back then. [Althea] was my supervisor and we developed a special kind of relationship.”
Judd explained that after she left nursing to pursue her career in country music, which led to six Grammy awards, that
Althea reached out to her with a letter.
“I got a note from her,” said Judd, batting back tears. “It just meant the world. My own mom never acknowledged that she was proud of me and Althea would say things like you sang so pretty and I’m real proud of you and that kind of stuff.
“It was weird because we were too far away to visit and I was living life on the road on a tour bus with [my daughter] Wynonna [Judd]. And I would think of [Althea]. If we did a Barbara Walters special or something I would imagine that she was sitting there on her couch watching.”
The connection to Veterans Day goes back to Cimino’s days as a nurse. She served as a nurse in the Korean War – something Judd was unaware of.
“I had no idea. But I wasn’t surprised,” explained Judd. “Women nurses see so much pain and suffering but I cannot fathom what she witnessed. One of things I remember about her was that she smiled all the time. And sometimes that’s hard to do in ICU. So anyway, when I got that letter [from Army Master Sgt. Tim Brown to present an award to her] I thought heck yeah. I don’t care what’s on my calendar, I’m going to go do that.”
Brown, who organized the Manchester Veterans Day ceremony, said he was surprised that everything worked out.
“I am surprised,” he said. “I figured she might be busy.”
Judd said she wondered why no one had ever asked her to be a part of such a ceremony. She added that Veterans Day is one of her favorite holidays.
“I’ve done Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade, I’ve sang at Super Bowl halftime, I’ve been grand marshal at a lot of parades and it’s like, why hasn’t someone asked me to do this before? This is my thing.
“Veterans Day is one of my favorite holidays … It always has been. I wish it got more fanfare.”
Judd added that Manchester and cities like it are the heartbeat of America.
“Manchester is the heartbeat of America,” she explained as she glanced out a window towards the crowd awaiting the ceremony. “It’s sort of the perfect symbol for what makes America work. We know what doesn’t work in America. America has got a lot of problems. But people like Althea and Tim and all the Veterans here today are what make America great.”
Judd joined Manchester Mayor Lonnie Norman, Coffee County Mayor David Pennington and U.S. Representative Diane Black, among others, who all said a few words in observance of the Veterans in attendance.
Cimino wasn’t the only veteran honored during the Monday ceremony. Judd and Brown also personally presented military swords of recognition to local veterans Hugh Killingsworth, John Frank Bruce, Edgar Levan Johnson, Jerry B. Johnson, Max Northcutt, James Wilhelm and Charles E. Brown.
The memorial sword, which was created to honor fallen soldiers with the intent to have it guarded by a different veteran every six months, was passed from Bill Swoape to Ken Huddleston.
“I guarded it as if it were the lives of those it represents,” said Swoape.