Not since an associate of evangelist Billy Graham spoke here had Danville seen anything like it, Mayor Robert H. Clarke proudly declared.
Despite an angry, pre-dawn thunderstorm yesterday, there were 717 residents of this Bible-Belt town on the North Carolina border queving up with plastic plates filled with grits, ham, eggs, apples, and biscuits and waiting for the chance to pray for Virginia's next governor.
"You can't believe it, can you?" said William A. Royall, the 32-year-old Virginia politican who masterminded Gov.-elect John N. Dalton's landslide victory in November.
Royall, with a group of aides connected by walkie-talkies, oversaw what townsfolk billed as "the Virginia governor's prayer breakfast." It was one of a series of eight inaugural events the Dalton staff spread across the state in an effort, as Dalton said here, to dispel the belief "that everything takes place in Richmond."
To break that image, Dalton danced this weekend in Roanoke, prayed in Danville and shared a stage in the mountain town of Wise with an Elvis Presley look-alike who had scores of teenage girls screaming for his sweat-dabbed scarves minutes before Dalton arrived.
These events, which ended Jan. 21 with a $35-a-couple inaugural "gala" at a Fairfax County Shriners' temple, speak volumes about both the 46-year-old Dalton and the electorate which on Saturday will see him inaugurated in Richmond.
As he dart across the state in state police cars or borrowed corporate aircraft, Dalton repeatedly makes that point. In his brief remarks, he assues those attending his functions that he will not ignore them once he is in office.
His pre-inaugural schedule is unprecedented and has been promoted by his staff to the state's media with an aggressiveness unseen since the finale of his campaign against Democrat Henry E. Howell. "You mean you're not going to the torch-light parade?" Dalton spokesman Richard Lobb asked a Washington reporter who was noncommittal about covering a parade the Dalton staff had scheduled for Abingdon, a town in southwest Virginia.
After all, Lobb explained, this was not an ordinary parade with 100 torch-bearing marchers, 12 high school bands, six local beauty queens, a "Smokey the Bear" float and "numerous other marching units." Dalton's staff was so excited about the parade that chartered press planes were scheduled from Washington and Richmond and a press center with "two phones" was established for media covering Dalton's planned "inspirational remarks" at the end of the parade.
A sudden snowstorm last night forced the Dalton staff to postpone the parade, scheduled for tonight, until Wednesday night. But as the Dalton staff's meticulous advance work in Abingdon and elsewhere illustrates, hundreds of people can be turned out for events with a distinctly small town flavor.
Here, for instance, the prayer breakfast audience consumed 1,500 eggs, 70 pounds of ham and grits and apples measured "in bushels." They seemed to enjoy it all.
"Terrific, terrific," explained the Rev. R. G. Barber, clutching Dalton by the shoulder at the prayer breakfast. "I think he's a dear Christian gentleman. He is not using religion."
Since Barber's 3,000-member Baptist Tabernacle is the largest church in town, that makes his opinion and that of other churchmen important. Danville, a town of 46,000, boasts of 114 churches and politicians here don't take their religion lightly. Numerous local officials, including U.S. Rep. W. C. (Dan) Daniel, a conservative Democrat, turned out for the 7:30 a.m. breakfast.
The Dalton staff staged the breakfast early in hopes of avoiding conflicts with Sunday church services. Still, there was some grumbling in the audience about what the large turnout might do to church attendance.
"Welcome to the cultural and intellectual center of Virginia," joked Virginia Attorney General-elect J. Marshall Coleman, to a visitor at the breakfast. The turnout even surprised the sharp-tongued Coleman, who said, in jest, that people came because "they knew I was coming."
In Wise, there were a few scattered boos from a crowd of 700 as Dalton entered the Clinch Valley College gymnasium, but the boos appeared to come from teenage youths angry because his arrival ended a free performance by Greer Craig, a 35-year-old Johnson City, Tenn., office furniture salesman who has been giving imitations of Elvis Presley professionally since the singer's death.
The heavy rainstorm cut attendance at the Wise rally by about 300 people below what the Dalton staff had expected. Not everyone came to see Dalton and there were audible moans in the crowd as a speaker announced that Republican Senate candidate John W. Warner and his wife, actress Elizabeth Taylor, had been unable to attend because of the weather.
"Ladies and gentlemen, I didn't come here to make any long-winded speeches," Dalton told the rally. He came, he said, simply to show his commitment to a part of the state that often feels Virginia's boundaries end at Roanoke, 150 miles east of Wise.
"The campaign's over and today we're endeavoring to bring all the people together," Dalton said.
The success of the pre-inaugural events is doubly important. Not only should they help build enthusiasm and draw attention to the inaugural Saturday, but many of the events will raise funds to wipe out Dalton's campaign debt of about $200,000.
Since more than $100,000 of that debt represents money that Dalton, a wealthy lawyer and a land owner, loaned his own campaign, he has a personal stake in the events. Republican party officials who have overall responsibility for the fundraising have said they hope to clear $200,000 from the inaugural events, but those plans may be in trouble.
Walter W. Craigie, a Richmond investment banker serving as head of an inaugural committee, said yesterday that about 2,500 tickets to Dalton's Inaugural Balls in Richmond have been sold. That is well below the 4,000 tickets GOP officials had hoped to sell.
One major reason may be the $150-A-couple price tag that the parties carry - an amount that Dalton spokesman Lobb concedes "is fairly steep."
In an effort to stave off complaints, Craigie, himself a wealthy man, made a point of announcing he was charging his tickets on a bank credit card. He did so, he said, to emphasize "how important I think it is" to attend the inaugural balls. Since the proceeds from the balls will go to the Republican party, many Democratic legislators have said they probably will stay at home Saturday night.
However, Democrat Charles S. Robb. the lieutenant governor-elect. submitted 1,600 names for invitations to the balls and Robb said the Republicans have given office space to Democratic official to help coordinate the inaugural events.