By Karl Terry: PNT Managing Editor
If there is square dancing in heaven, James Pettus is probably calling one right now.
The Portales resident, who died of pancreatic cancer in 2003, and his wife Wanda were the heart and soul of square dancing in eastern New Mexico for three decades, according to local square dancers. The couple was recognized for their dedication to the pastime May 12 in Ruidoso as the New Mexico Square and Round Dance Association enshrined them in their Hall of Fame.
“That caught me completely by surprise,” Wanda Pettus said of the honor that came at the annual meeting of the association.
Norene Weigl nominated the Pettuses, then when they were voted in, conspired with the couple’s daughters to get their mother there without knowing about the honor.
“Everybody in this whole country just thought the world of James and Wanda,” Weigl said.
Weigl, a member of the Starlight Swingers square dance club in Portales for approximately 20 years, said she didn’t know of anyone more deserving of the honor than the Pettuses.
“They have both committed their lives to the promotion of square dancing,” Weigl said in her nominating letter. “James called for the love of it and not the money, as many, many times, he called for free or at least very little money.
“They never met a stranger. They could walk into a square dance hall and within a few minutes, everyone felt at ease and knew they had found a friend in James and Wanda,” Weigl said.
Both Wanda and James worked at the Portales News-Tribune before retirement — Wanda as ad manager and James as press and production foreman. Wanda recalls it was their newspaper jobs that brought the couple together in 1971, but square dancing quickly became something they did together.
“He already knew how to square dance and he wanted me to take lessons,” Wanda said of her late husband. She was unsure about it but took the lessons and loved it. The couple became active in the Swinging Wings square dance club at Cannon Air Force Base in 1972.
Soon after their marriage James decided he wanted to become a caller. He even went to a callers school in Las Vegas, Nev. Soon he was a regular at the microphone all over the eastern plains. His enjoyment of calling square dances soon led to his becoming the regular caller at several area clubs.
“There’s many a time he would call four times a week,” Wanda said. “We’d get off work and run home and get ready to go to a square dance. You’d think with all that get-up (square dance outfit) it would take forever. I got where I could do that in about five minutes,” Wanda laughed.
Both Weigl and Wanda confirm that James was truly a shy sort when he began calling. Once he had a microphone in his hand his personality changed with his clear twangy voice effortlessly calling out the moves. In between he had no problem cracking a joke to keep the fun flowing.
“He always wanted to sing but he didn’t want to do it in bars,” Wanda said. “And the people, there’s some great people out there square dancing and he was just comfortable with them. He could get up there and call all night long and never realize he was shy.”
The couple served together as state second vice president of the association in 2002 and organized the callers for the Ruidoso event that year. Besides the Starlight Swingers, they were active in the Fort Sumner Kids, Clovis Circle 8 and Muleshoe Squares clubs. James regularly called “specials” all over eastern New Mexico and West Texas, traveling up to seven hours for some of those events.
James promoted square dancing by volunteering his time at senior citizen centers and nursing homes. He also taught school children to square dance and trained several callers over the years.
James was a guest caller at national square dance festivals in Louisville, Ky. and Memphis, Tenn. and also recorded his own square dance callers album, “Summer Sounds.” He and Wanda also helped organize a callers’ association in the Lubbock region.
“I’ve got to say square dancing is not the same since James passed away,” Weigl said.