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Music, baseball solidify their love affair

BASEBALL : DODGER STADIUM AT 50

April 15, 2012|BILL PLASCHKE
  • Nancy Bea Hefley and her husband Billy before a game against the Padres on Friday at Dodger Stadium.
Nancy Bea Hefley and her husband Billy before a game against the Padres on… (George Wilhelm / Los Angeles…)

The show tune unfurls grandly from the Roland Super Spinet organ out across antique Dodger Stadium, momentarily and splendidly turning a game of baseball into a ride on a calliope.

You hear the familiar melody and think of one person, the composer of Chavez Ravine, the keeper of the Dodgers soundtrack, the franchise's most enduring three names since Pee Wee Reese, the organist known as Nancy Bea Hefley.

Listen closer.

Listen close enough to hear past her sophisticated chords to the Southern twang of a man standing by her side and softly asking, "Everything OK, dear?"

Listen carefully enough to hear him drive her to the game, accompany her to the organ bench, disappear until the seventh inning, then show up again to escort her through the autograph seekers and drive her home.

Listen long enough to understand this man has been doing this for virtually every home game for 25 years, an assistant without a title, a spectator without a seat, a man without a name.

He is Billy Hefley, who for nearly 55 years has been the faithful husband and constant companion of Nancy Bea in a love story whose soul springs from the very foundation of Dodger Stadium.

Fifty years ago, as an iron worker, Billy helped build the place. For the last 25 years, his wife has filled it with music. These days, together, they decorate it with their simple charm, entertaining guests at a tiny pressroom dining table that seats only three, greeting fans during a nightly pregame walk down the concourse, living the power of a lifelong connection with glances and whispers that play a grander song than Nancy Bea could ever make on a machine.

"I need him here every night in case I need rescuing," Nancy Bea says with a giggle.

"I need to be here because, well, she's here," Billy says with a shrug.

And all this time, you thought her act was solo.

Billy, a Dodgers fan who actually laid one of the final slabs in the construction of Dodger Stadium, encouraged Nancy Bea to pursue the organist opening upon Helen Dell's retirement after the 1987 season. Nancy Bea then refused to take the job unless they could give Billy a pass to allow him to attend every game.

"We do everything together, that's just the way it is," Nancy Bea says.

Billy would initially head to the park directly from his construction site before every home game, changing clothes and washing up in a public restroom in the employee parking lot, showing up shortly just before the first pitch to be with his bride.

"You get married, you want to be with each other," Billy says. "Isn't that the way it works?"

Since his retirement in 1999, he simply drives her to the games, occasionally talking his way past unfamiliar security guards on opening day, proudly escorting her upstairs where they eat together and take their nightly walk surrounded by admirers.

"You can just watch them and see that something is there between them," says Jenice Wilkinson, one of their four children. "People love to be around them because their love and commitment is just so cool."

Once the game begins, Billy wanders down the club level and searches for an empty seat, usually just outside the Dodgers suite, from where Don Newcombe has tapped on the window to say hello. If there are no empty seats, he goes back inside the suite level and sits on a hallway couch and watches the game on television.

"I just want to be there if she needs me," he says.

Like the time Nancy Bea was recovering from eye surgery, when Billy sat by her side and told her when to play. Or the time she was recovering from neck surgery, when he would sit nearby and help her watch the game.

He has gently helped her onto the organ bench when she was struggling with a torn rotator cuff -- yeah, even the Dodgers organist isn't immune. He was there to hold her when she momentarily passed out while fighting off an illness before a game.

Says Nancy Bea: "He's my brawn."

Says Billy: "She's my brains."

They've been a pair since they met at the First Baptist Church in Bellflower in 1956. Nancy Bea was the organist, Billy was a young Navy veteran who finally got the courage to ask her out. On the Sunday after their first date, Nancy Bea's father, a church usher, directed Billy up to her pew, and they've virtually sat side by side ever since.

"The two of them would be lost without each other," says daughter Jenice.

Last summer, after Billy suffered a heart attack, he briefly couldn't drive, and Nancy would not leave his side, so owner Frank McCourt arranged for a car and a driver to take them both to the stadium for the last two months of the season.

Their permanent home is in the small desert town of Silver Springs, Nev. They live there when the team is on the road, then return to a mobile home in Canyon Country for the home games, Billy always at the wheel, Nancy quietly knitting next to him.

"I think the key is, he still laughs at all my jokes," she says.

"I really love her, no question about it," he says.

On Saturday night, in honor of her 25 years as the Dodger Stadium organist, Nancy Bea was asked to throw out the first pitch. She was scheduled to throw it alone, but, once again, in ways nobody would see, Billy would be right next to her.

Last weekend, Billy drove her to a park, and, to practice for this monumental night, the two silly seventysomethings played a game of catch.

"We didn't have any gloves, just a ball, but I needed to see if I could still throw it, and I could," Nancy Bea recalls.

And did he catch it?

She pauses as if that was the dumbest question ever.

"Yes," she says firmly, the organist piping up for her lifelong accompanist. "Yes, he caught it."

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bill.plaschke@latimes.com

twitter.com/billplaschke

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