Cathye Leshay was a talented dancer and often performed on Villages’ stages with her husband David. But she was also known for something else: nanny for Tammy Wynette’s four daughters.
Leshay, 75, who died on Aug. 25, was a friend and confidante to Wynette, better known as the Queen of Country Music who sang “Stand By Your Man.”
But you didn’t have to be famous to appreciate Cathye Leshay. She possessed a magnetic personality, along with physical beauty, a gentle laugh, an Alabama drawl and, most of all, spiritual faith.
“Her Southern hospitality and personality made her seem bigger than life,” said Debra Heath, her close friend and one-time dance director. “She was always the one who led the cast in prayer before every performance. Even if she wasn’t in a show, directors would ask her to please come to opening night and lead the prayer.”
Cathye Leshay started dancing in The Villages in 2005 and over the next 15 years appeared in an estimated 25 musical productions. She left an indelible mark, as her fellow cast members could attest.
“Cathye was one of the most wonderful people it has been my privilege to perform with,” said Bill Krone, head of the Villages Musical Theater. “She was not only a talented dancer, but a gifted comedic actress and singer.
“Most importantly, Cathye was a giving, thoughtful and caring lady who could light up a room instantly with her humor and spirit. And it was always delivered with Southern charm.”
“I’m so proud to be a Southern Belle,” Leshay once said. She grew up in Alabama and started dancing at the age of 3. The stage was her first love but after she graduated from the University of Alabama, she became a teacher.
Eventually, she moved to Tennessee and left a teaching career to take care of Tammy Wynette’s four daughters in Nashville. Wynette was married five times – including to famed country singer George Jones – and had four girls.
She was on the road during their early years and Leshay was hired to be their governess. The relationship between Wynette and Leshay was detailed in the book, “Tammy Wynette: Tragic Country Queen,” by Jimmy McDonough.
Leshay, McDonough wrote, was watching the girls but early on had little instruction or guidance from Wynette. The girls had a way of acting up and one day Wynette called from the road. McDonough described the conversation this way:
“Is that your mother, give me that phone. Tammy, this is Cathye. Excuse me, but you have never told me what your rules are for these girls, what your limitations are.
“And if I had an emergency with one of them, I do not have any paper sayin’ that I can take them to the hospital. And I need a phone number where I can reach you anytime.
“Tammy whispered, ‘Cathye if you need me, call my lawyer.’
“That sent Leshay through the roof,” McDonough wrote. “Your lawyer? Is your lawyer gonna raise these girls, or are me and you gonna raise ’em?”
“I was furious,” Leshay told McDonough. “And I could hear her kind of chuckling.”
“Leshay’s directness endeared her to Wynette, and she was given a free hand to raise the girls. She would also be one of the very few people that Tammy confided in during the years ahead,” the book states.
Cathye Leshay had a way of inspiring those who knew her. She and David, also a singer and dancer, often performed together in shows here. The couple had been married nearly 35 years and came to The Villages almost two decades ago.
“He is my soul mate and the best thing God has ever given me,” Cathye said in a lengthy online podcast for the “Geezer Girls Entertainment Gab” (GGEG) website.
I had a chance to talk to Cathye a few years ago when she was part of Debra Heath’s “Christmas Spectacular.”
“I started dancing as a kid and now, 60 years later, I’m dancing like a Rockette. That’s makes my Christmas.”
She explained the magic of dancing.
“It’s about the boom, pizzazz and all those high kicks,” Cathye said in that warm, sweet-as-honey Alabama accent. “It makes me feel good all over.”
She had the same effect on others.
“Cathye stood out, she was beautiful on stage,” Jim Caisse, of Music in Motion, said during the GGEG podcast. “She was so fun, so animated and so beautiful.”
Other comments from the podcast:
“Cathye had that certain something that made her special,” added dancer Diane Bolton.
“I will miss her smile, energy and prayers,” said director Carol Greenfield.
Cathye recalled spending three hours with country music star Loretta Lynn in a Nashville recording studio while Tammy Wynette was making a record.
“Loretta told me, ‘Girl, you’re just like me. Everything hits your brain and mouth at the same time.’”
Cathye said that Tammy Wynette, an only child, called her, “the best sister I ever had. I wanted you to raise my babies.”
Cathye Leshay had a remarkable life. She traveled the world, met country music stars but she seemed to appreciate most her final years in The Villages.
“It has been a joy for me to do the shows and to know and be with the most positive people I have ever known.”
Sandie Hawthorne, who worked with Cathye Leshay on many projects for The Villages Musical Theater, plans to honor her.
“I’m in charge of writing a tribute and arranging for a custom plaque for The Villages Musical Theater to award David Leshay,” she said. “Since it was my idea, I asked the theater board if I could handle the project and they agreed. I am honored to take care of it.
“It will be the Cathye Leshay award. It will be given each year to honor a dancer who most emulates Cathye’s talent, smile, attitude and other attributes. Cathye was special and I loved her dearly.”