Tom Petty’s Father Knows Best
Earl Petty lives a quiet, lives the quiet life in Gainesville — Usually.

dave hogerty

Editor’s Note: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers are appearing tonight in concert at the O’Connell Center.

By Diane Julin
Alligator Staff Writer

Even though it was a warm night, 16-year-old Betsy Marcus clutched a black jacket tightly around her shoulders. Eyes transfixed on a color TV a foot from her nose, she sang and she cried both at once.

She was singing because Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers were singing right there on the screen. She was crying because Tom Petty was breaking her heart.

Every few seconds, when the camera shot a close-up of the lanky rock n’ roll singer with the overbite and the surfer blond hair, Betsy pressed two fingers to her lips and enthusiastically transferred a big kiss to the screen.

Across the living room sat the owner of the TV set. He also owned the black Heartbreakers “roadie” jacket and the Tom Petty baseball cap Betsy was wearing. He had the same. lean build, the same toothy grin, the same laughing blue eyes, and yes, the same big ears as the object of Betsy’s intense affections. And he was chuckling.

“Betsy,” he said in a southern drawl, “I might have that boy give you a big, old kiss.”

What hard-core Tom Petty fan wouldn’t love to hear the rock star’s very own father say that? Of course, not all the fans who over the years have turned up on the doorstep of Earl Petty’s northeast Gainesville home have been as lucky as Betsy. While she was visiting two Sundays ago, Tom just happened to call his dad before going on stage in Baton Rouge.
Earl surrendered the phone to Betsy. >>>


“American Girl”
Tom Petty
Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers

1976 “She could hear the cars roll by out on 441/ Like waves crashing on the beach.”
((( love song )))

dave hogerty

Over the edge in love
By Diane Julin

Alligator Staff Writer

Betsy Marcus will be the first to admit she is “obsessed” with Tom Petty. She is absolutely over the edge, gone crazy, in love.

The day she found out he was married – a secret he kept from the public until recently — she jumped up and down on his picture screaming’ “hypocrite, hypocrite.”

She’s forgiven him though, for leading her on. Just get her on the subject of the blond rock ‘n’ roll superstar and you’d swear she’s talking too fast to get a breath between. the words.

She even looked up Tom’s father Earl, who lives in Gainesville, and now she calls him regularly long distance from Orlando.

Everything would be wonderful, she used to tell her friends, if she could just talk to Tom. Just over the telephone.

One night while visiting Earl, the 16-year-old Winter Park high school student with dimples and braces had her dream come true.

Tom called, and Earl put her on the phone.

A few minutes later it was over and Betsy was crying. Her friends, Sherry and Debbie, thought they were tears of happiness.

Nope. She was full of regrets.

“I’ve told my friends I’d just like to talk to him over the phone and that would be enough,” she said, after the tears had let up a little. “But then I talked to him and it wasn’t enough.”

Betsy said she’s dreamed about meeting Tom and having him fall in love with her. “But that’s not a fantasy I indulge in,” she said, matter of factly. “I know I’m just one of millions like me, and there’s no way I’ll ever be special to Tom.” Though Tom has been special to Betsy ever since she bought the Heartbreakers’ first album in January 1980. It was the picture of him on the cover in a black jacket that caught her eye.’

“He looks like this little punk,”‘ Betsy said.

Before long, she’d bought the rest of the Heartbreakers’ albums. Then she was into bootlegs, singles, posters, magazine articles, buttons… she was hooked. And in love.

“It just seems like Tom could be somebody from my high school. He seems so much like me. He expresses so many feelings (in his songs) that I’ve felt.”

Betsy was “devastated” when she found out Tom had a wife (Jane, a Gainesville girl who lived in the neighborhood). Some of the songs are hard to listen to now, said Betsy. because she knows Tom wrote them for “her.”

But if Tom is happy being married: then Betsy says she’s happy for him. If she can’t have him, at least she can have his music.

“The music is magic,” Betsy said. “It should be enough for anybody.”

Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers


>>> But other fans who have tracked down Tom Petty’s dad get thrills from seeing the platinum and gold albums on the living room wall. And watching videotapes of Tom’s performances and interviews Earl recorded with the Beta Max Tom gave him for Christmas. And looking at pictures of Tom as a little kid wearing a cowboy hat at Christmas.

The best part, though, is just being with Earl.

Hospitality and friendliness come naturally to the 57-year-old former insurance salesman. As long as the fans don’t start camping out on his front lawn — like they did on Tom’s in California — he doesn’t mind the company at all.

Do you want to see the shed where Tom’s old band and some friends of theirs — now members of the Eagles — practiced as kids? It’s right out back past the potato patch. They used to drown out the neighborhood. Do you want to see the roadie jacket with the Heartbreakers insignia on the back that Tom gave him?

Earl displays it proudly.

The phone rang the other day, Earl said, and it was another one of Tom’s fans calling. A female voice wanted to know, did Earl ever pick peaches for a living? She’d read that in a magazine. No, he said, the only peach-picking he’d ever done was out in his back yard — seven peaches.

Well, was Tom’s brother Bruce ever a truck driver? she asked. No, Earl said, he drives a brand new station wagon.

OK, well, did Earl ever say he wanted Tom to grow up and have a respectable job like his brother the truck driver? No, for one thing, Tom’s about six years older than Bruce so that wouldn’t make any sense at all, he said.

“I’m going to write Tom a hot letter,” the voice said.

“You do that,” said Earl.

Why perfect strangers call him up to ask him “frivolous things” Earl doesn’t really understand. Why they come to visit him is more of a mystery.

“I don’t know what the idea is behind it,” he said. “I guess they think it’s the closest they can get to Tom.

Earl and the rest of the family don’t get much of a chance to see Tom themselves.

Rock n’ roll superstars have to live in California.

It takes him so far away,” laments Tom’s aunt, Evelyn Jernigan, who doesn’t like rock ‘n’ roll anyway.

“It consumes him completely. To me he’s still little Tommy … it robs us of our little boy.”

That’s not to say the family isn’t proud and happy at the “fuss” millions of people have made over Tom and the Heart-breakers. Double-platinum albums. Cover story after cover story in national magazines. Sell-out concerts everywhere. TV appearances. Fans so enthusiastic, that Tom needs two bodyguards for his own protection.

“Every time I see him,” said Mrs. Jerinigan, with a giggle, “I says give me a big hug and a kiss so I can tell all the girls that Tommy Petty kissed me.” There aren’t many opportunities for hugs and kisses, but Earl says Tom calls regularly to see how he’s doing. Earl has lived alone since his wife passed away last year. Earl may have lost his son to the music business, but he’s gained a house full of young friends who are all crazy about Tom. Once they get to know Earl, they’re crazy about him, too. Seated in a comfortable chair in a living room filled with photos, crocheted pillows and delicate glass knickknacks, Earl smokes a cigarette and prepares to tell his Tom Petty stories one more time.

Earl could sum it all up in one sentence: he had a kid – a good kid, a smart kid – who was determined as hell to be a musician and there was nothing his old dad could do to talk him out of it. That’s it in a nutshell but of course, nobody’s satisfied with a nutshell. They want to know how many girlfriends he had stuff like that.

So Earl smiles and fills in the details.

“It all started when Elvis Presley came to Florida to shoot his first picture.” said Tom’s Uncle Earl Jernigan – who owns a motion picture service in Gainesville, and was working on the film. “His aunt Evelyn took Tom to the movie set in Ocala for a look at the king of rock ‘n’ roll.”

“He saw all that hullaballoo and all those young girls, and he came back all excited about the rock and roll business,’ said Earl.

That’s the story Tom himself tells all the magazines, but Earl’s got something to add. Earl thinks a baseball manager deserves a little credit for getting Tom together with a guitar.

The way his dad tells it, Tom wasn’t tall enough to play basketball, not big enough to play football, but pretty good at baseball. That is, except for the batting part. Or so his little league coach thought.

“For some reason or another,” said Earl, the coach didn’t see fit to let him bat. One day he was just so dejected about playing baseball, he was all beside himself.”

So Earl asked his boy what was wrong.

“Well the manager won’t let me bat,” Tom said.

“Well, if I was you,” said Earl, “I would put that little old uniform in a little old sack and I would take it down there, and I would hand it to that manager and I would tell him I had found something I would rather do.”

But what will I do? Tom asked.

And Earl said, you’ll find something else.

So Tom quit that very day, and became a rock ‘n’ roll superstar instead. Not quite that fast, but fast enough.

“His mom bought him a little Spanish guitar for about $28,” Earl said. “I told him he could have music lessons if he didn’t let his grades slip.”

Sure enough, after three or four lessons, the grades began to fall, and Earl put his foot down. No more lessons.

“You can’t serve two masters,” Earl told him.

As it turned out, three or four lessons were enough. He joined a band in junior high school and another band after that one broke up. Since they didn’t yet have limos to deliver them to their gigs, good old Mom was emploved as chauffeur.

Of course, the boys didn’t want anybody to see Mom drop them off. *She would have to let them off a block before they got there,” said Earl, chuckling. “It was a no-no for their mothers to drive them up.”

The music distracted Tom from his school work and Earl didn’t like it. He always has believed that education was important. He wanted Tom to learn a trade, and have the music as a sideline.

There were somany bands who never made it, Earl thought for sure Tom and his band would never accomplish anything. The family didn’t know any celebrities or entertainers to help him. And according to Tom’s aunt, she and his mother were sure it all would come to no good.

Earl told him, “For you to make it, it’s going to be a hard job because you’re a little old small town kid and you really don’t know anything.”

Earl wanted to see Tom become an architect or an artist. “He could draw tremendously.”

Tom did go to college, a fact Earl wishes the magazines would mention instead of depicting him as a drop-out. After high school, Tom went to an art school in Tampa for six months, and transferred to a junior college in St. Petersburg for another six months.

Finally, Tom came back to Gainesville and went to Santa Fe Community College for almost a year.

Then, the inevitable happened.

“He came to me after his second year of college and told me he knew what he wanted to do and not to discourage him,” Earl said. “So I changed my mind.” From then, Earl had to watch the rest from across the country.

It was 1974 when Mudcrutch, the top local band Tom was in with fellow Gainesville natives, Benmont Tench and Mike Campbell, left for California. Soon after making it to Los Angeles,  Mudcrutch broke up. Eventually, still on the west coast, Tom, Tench, Campbell, Stan Lynch, and another Gainesville boy, Ron Blair, formed the Heartbreakers.

‘The rest is rock ‘n’ roll legend – legal disputes with the record company, fight with the industry over high record prices.

And, of course, success. Phenomenal success.

Tom hasn’t forgotten his roots, though, said Earl. In fact, he writes a lot of songs about Gainesville.

The song “American Girl” is about a girl who committed suicide by jumping off a sorority house in Gainesville.

Or so Earl thinks. He’s never really just sat down with Tom and asked what all his songs mean. *I thought about doing that a lot of times.” he says, “but I don’t want to foul him up if he’s got his mind on something else.”

Earl makes it a point to stay out of the business aspect of Tom’s life. That’s for him and his managers to work out. But he figures it is his business to see if his boy is keeping healthy and happy.

And he does like to give him one piece of advice. “If you’re making money, save some,” he tells Tom, “because if you save some, then you’ll always have some.”

When Tom was a kid, he obviously appreciated money. Earl recalls the first time Tom made an honest wage. He was 12, and mowed a neighbor’s lawn.

They paid him $2, and he got so excited, he lost one on the way home.

Tom may be saving some money now, but he’s spent some, too. He drives a Mercedes 450SL. *I told him to give it to me when it wore out, or when the ashtray got full,” says Earl.

You get the impression Earl isn’t really interested in driving a Mercedes, though. He seems more interested in the wild rabbit that hides in his potato patch, and sometimes almost comes close enough to pet. A fish fry with the neighbors on a Sunday evening can really light up his grin. And he likes to do what he can to make Tom’s fans happy — since there just isn’t enough of his boy to go around.

“I’m proud,” Earl says, “that people think as much of him as they do.”


september 24, 1912
vol. 1 no. 1
florida history (1912-1983)
Much more than just another sleepy, little, North Florida town.
New Student Edition 1981
OPINION (Letters To The Editor)
CONVENIENCE (Is In The Eye of The Beholder)
Gainesville Green (“I’d like to fertilize her buds”)
TOM PETTY (Coming Home)
MUSIC (The Sound of Higher Education)
PREACHERS (On The Green)
Murphree’s Opening Message (alt.)
Naked Launch (Pretty As A Florida Picture)
Diamond Teeth Mary (Singing With The Devil’s)
MOVIES (Pop Culture of The Day)

Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers
Coming Home


NEW YEAR’S EVE (78/79) — Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers, at the Santa Monica Civic Center. Petty was an all-Florida boy when he left Gainesville to find fame and fortune in Los Angeles. After Damn the Torpedoes, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers were World renowned,  making his Tom’s coming home to Gainesville a more than special occasion.
Since their fresh-out-of-high-school days in Gainesville, Mike Campbell and Tom Petty (above) have always been Rock N Roll bandmates. In the early 1970s, their band, Mudcrutch, was on any list of North Florida’s best, along with The Outlaws (Tampa), Lynyrd Skynyrd (Jacksonville), and the Allman Brothers, Gregg and Duane, who went to Daytona Beach High School.