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Andrea's column: Farewell to America's sweetheart

Last week's news that Annette Funicello had died hit me hard. The former Mouseketeer passed away from complications related to multiple sclerosis, a disease that attacks the central nervous system. She was 70 years old.

For anyone unfamiliar with her, Annette -- no last name needed; there was only one -- was 12 when Walt Disney discovered her and offered her a spot on "The Mickey Mouse Club" in the 1950s. Every boy I knew had a crush on her. I just wanted to be her. She was cute and perky and nice as could be.

I was in the eighth grade when Annette made an appearance in the juniors' department at Dayton's downtown Minneapolis store. On the appointed day, I rushed home after school and changed out of my uniform and into a red corduroy jumper and white long-sleeved blouse. Nylon stockings and red Capezio flats completed my outfit.

The bus that ran down 36th Avenue would take me to the department store but once there, I had to run up the escalator steps so I wouldn't be late. I took my place at the end of the line and craned my neck to get a glimpse of my favorite Mouseketeer.

When it was my turn to meet her, I held out my record album and asked if she would please autograph it. She smiled and said, "Sure." With a flourish, she wrote her name across the cover and smiled again as she handed it back to me. When I got home, I placed the record on the stereo turntable and played it again and again.

Over the years, I went to all her movies, bought all her records, watched her on TV and read everything written about her. When she told America about having MS, I admired her courage. She had kept the disease a secret for a number of years but decided to go public because she didn't want tongues to wag that her unsteadiness was a result of alcoholism.

Her statement came back to me a decade later when my legs gave out and I fell at the Mall of America. As I looked around for something to grab hold of so my husband could get me to my feet, I noticed two women sitting on a bench. Both were giving me a dirty look. One put her hand up to cover her mouth as she whispered into the other's ear.

I wanted to raise my right hand and make a not-so-nice gesture. Tell them I have an autoimmune disease that has attacked my muscles. That I never know when I might fall. Instead, I took the high road and smiled. Annette would have wanted it that way.

Last Sunday, looking for something to watch on television, I came across a repeat of Danny Thomas's show, "Make Room for Daddy." The 1959 episode was about a foreign exchange student played by Annette. My husband and I settled in to watch. Everyone's favorite "girl next door" didn't disappoint as she broke into a song and dance routine on the show.

Multiple Sclerosis would rob Annette of her ability to sing and dance; to walk or even talk. Let's hope she's in that better place people want to believe in. Singing her heart out and dancing up a storm.