I was in Keyser, West Virginia to honor Jonah “Ed” Kelley, a young man who was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his bravery during World War Two. But before I left Queens Point Cemetery, I had one more stop, so I left Kelley’s resting place and carefully navigated the narrow roadways to a spot near the entrance to the cemetery. Note: More about Jonah Kelley can be found here: Jonah E. Kelley.
I had noticed figures attached to the wall when I first entered the cemetery and knew they marked the grave I sought. Parking in the grass near the entrance, I studied the two faded snowmen attached to the top of the wall and the memorial they stood watch over. This was the resting place of Jack Rollins, a songwriter whose best-known hit is still sung around the world at Christmastime – “Frosty the Snowman.”
Walter E. “Jack” Rollins was born September 15, 1906, the middle child of the five children of Francis and Bessie Rollins. Note: It varies from article to article where Rollins was born. Some state he was born in Keyser, West Virginia, while in other places it is stated he was born in Scottboro, Pennsylvania.
Rollins would eventually arrive in New York City, where married and found work as a baggage clerk at Penn Station for the Pennsylvania Railroad. It was while he was working there he began composing music with Steve Nelson. With Nelson, Rollins would create his best-known and still celebrated songs.
1950 would find a number of Jack Rollins songs on the radio. In April, Eddy Arnold recorded “A Prison Without Walls,” a song he co-wrote with Rollins and Nelson. The song would be released for radio in September of that year.
While the song saw commercial success, it was two other songs written by Nelson and Rollins that grabbed the public’s attention in 1950. The two songs, which were written in 1949, would capture the hearts of both children and adults everywhere.
The first was a springtime, non-secular Easter tune, released in February – “(Here Comes) Peter Cottontail.” Rollins wrote the lyrics in less than six minutes after Nelson said he had been telling his son Peter Cottontail stories the night before to his son. The song was first released that year by Mervin Shiner, the song would also be covered by both Roy Rogers and Gene Autry that same year, with Autry’s version becoming to best-known of the song.
In September 1950, Gene Autry would release another Rollins and Nelson collaborations. The song “Frosty the Snowman” captured the hearts of children everywhere. The song would also be on releases by both Roy Rogers and Nat “King” Cole that same year and has been recorded by over four hundred artists since its release.
Interestingly when Rollins and Nelson wrote “Frosty the Snowman” they wrote it to celebrate the winter season, not the Christmas season. However, when the song appeared in the 1969 Frosty the Snowman television special, the final line was changed for “I’ll be back again someday” to “I’ll be back on Christmas Day.”
“Frosty the Snowman” would not be the only Holiday song they saw released in 1950. In November, “The Christmas Choo Choo Train” would be released by Art Mooney and his Orchestra. Rollins and Nelson would adapt the song in “The Christmas Cannonball,” which was recorded and released by country singer Hank Snow in 1966.
November of 1951 saw “Heart of a Clown” achieve airplay and chart success with Wade Ray and The Ozark Mountain Boys. Francis Kane joined Nelson and Rollins in writing it and it has been covered by country artists including Willie Nelson and Gene Watson.
In 1952, Rollins and Nelson would compose a song for the US Department of the Interior. The song “Smokey the Bear” was recorded by Gene Autry and used as a part of the national program for fire prevention. It was due to Nelson and Rollins’ composition that the word “the” was placed in Smokey the Bear. Before the song, the mascot was Smokey Bear, but to make it easier to sing Smokey Bear became Smokey the Bear and the slight name change stuck.
In December 1963, Rollins and Nelson would find success with “I Don’t Hurt Anymore,” a song recorded by Hank Snow, which would stay at Number One on the country music charts for twelve weeks. The song would go on to be recorded by numerous musicians including Bill Haley and His Comets, Johnny Cash, Dinah Washington and Martina McBride.
In 1965, Jack and his wife, Mary, moved from California to Cincinnati to be closer to family. He was sixty-six when he passed on January 1, 1973. Rollins would be returned to Keyser and buried with his family in Queens Point Cemetery. He was survived by his wife, two children and their families.
I finished paying my respects to the noted songwriter and knew it was time to start towards home, leaving Rollins to rest under the guard of the two faded snowmen. As I left the cemetery, the ending of “Frosty the Snowman” popped into my head. “Had to hurry on his way / But he waved good-bye, / saying, “Don’t you cry / I’ll be back again some day” and I knew I would be back one of these days to celebrate the legacy of the man whose songs were an important part of my childhood.