Then: This story originally ran Oct. 1, 2004, in the Lewiston Tribune.
June Huckleberry was born with a talent her mother found shameful. She could whistle like a bird.
Her whistle is strong, quick and clear. It chirps and warbles through hymns and ballads without an audible stop for breath.
“This talent is something I didn’t learn. It’s just a God-given gift. It’s just there,” says Huckleberry. “I have no idea how you teach anybody.”
Huckleberry’s sound has been described as something out of the early 1900s, when the art of whistling was respected. Whistles were recorded on records for hand-cranked Victrolas and whistlers were featured acts at events.
Huckleberry always thought her whistle was special and wanted to do something with it. At 78 years old, she decided to make her first album.
She paid $2,000, and accompanied by her piano-playing friend, Audrey Foredyce, recorded 14 songs at a small Clarkston studio. She had 300 CDs made and arranged to sell them at Wasem’s, a Clarkston drug store.
The CDs, which feature songs like “Mockingbird Hill” and “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” are selling fast.
“June has basically outsold everyone who has recorded in my studio,” says Twin River Studio owner Bodie Dominguez, who has recorded half a dozen albums of local country music, cowboy poetry and rap.
The musician met Huckleberry through his fiddler’s group. She often performs with them at local nursing homes.
Huckleberry, who is recovering from a broken hip, sits in a wheelchair at Life Care Center of Lewiston and recalls her first memory of whistling.
She was about 5 and it was around the same time she last saw her biological mother.
Huckleberry was the youngest of four children born in the northern Idaho mill town of Harrison. She was a year old when her father left. Her mother tried to care for the family, but the Depression hit, and then she got sick.
She signed June over to the care of the children’s home in Lewiston for six months, until she could get back on her feet. It wasn’t an uncommon thing for poor families to do in those years.
When her mother arrived at the home the next February to retrieve her daughter, there was confusion. They said she was too late, according to the contract she’d signed.
“They took me out of her arms and said, ‘No, you signed papers for December,’ ” says Huckleberry.
She never saw her mother again.
“She died of a broken heart, naturally.”
Around age 6, Guy and May Huckleberry of Clarkston adopted her. Guy painted cars and May was a homemaker and June loved them both, especially her father. It was May who forbade her to whistle.
“Girls just don’t do that,” she told June.
When she turned 18, Huckleberry says, she started whistling and never quit.
She whistled through getting dentures at age 24 when they told her she wouldn’t whistle again. She whistled through her 40s when she got her GED — she quit school in the seventh grade to help her family.
She whistled through 38 years of work as an aide and then a nurse at the Orchards Nursing Home. Sometimes, residents told her, her whistle was the best medicine there was.
“I whistle the way I feel. I don’t practice. I just love to do it. ... I can’t walk any distance without running out of air. I can’t explain it, I never run out of air for whistling.”
She whistles at a nurse walking by and breaks into song, her lined cheeks puffing in and out.
Seven years ago she was in a Lewiston music box store, whistling along to the tune of a porcelain hobo, when the figure’s creator overheard her.
Melody in Motion President Ru Kato, who was visiting the store, asked her to record a 30-second version of “The Happy Wanderer” for another work, which Huckleberry did for $200 and a figurine.
She says although she has no family left, she is blessed with many friends. One of them brings her Shih Tzu Toye to visit her at Life Care each morning. Soon she will go home, but it won’t be long until she’s back to perform.
“I have been blessed really. Not only with my lifestyle ... but what I have now.”
Whistling as a pastime is not as common as it once was and musical whistling is nearly a lost art. June Huckleberry was a musical whistler. Born during the Great Depression, her talent followed her through her life, buoying her spirits no matter what life threw her way. Huckleberry died at the age of 80 on March 4, 2007. Her obituary noted that she kept whistling until a few weeks before her death of congestive heart failure. She’s buried in Normal Hill Cemetery where the birds continue her song.