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Posted on Tue. Aug. 12, 2014 - 12:01 am EDT

Potato chip collection changed life for the late Myrtle Young

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Potato chips changed Myrtle Young's life. It's only fitting then, family thought, that some of them be there to see her off.

Some of Young's collection of potato chips that look like famous people, animals and objects will be among the memorabilia at her viewing and funeral this week, her daughter, Marilyn Young Wiles of Fort Wayne, said Monday.

"It was part of her life, so it is going to be with her," Wiles said of the chips and memorabilia, which will include a repeating video clip of her famous guest appearance in October 1987 on "The Tonight Show," with host Johnny Carson.

Young, 90, died Saturday morning of congestive heart failure, Wiles said. She had been wheelchair-bound for the past five or more years, but lived in her own home until being hospitalized Thursday.

The viewing will take place from 3 to 8 p.m. Wednesday at Joy Fellowship Assembly of God church, 109 Moeller Road in New Haven. The funeral service will take place at 11 a.m. Thursday at the church. Arrangements are being coordinated by Covington Memorial Gardens on Covington Road in Fort Wayne.

Young had been a potato chip inspector for 17 years at the former Seyfert's plant at Lima Road and Interstate 69 when she called up The News-Sentinel in summer 1987 to tell us about her unique collection. She had seen a "Ripley's Believe It or Not" cartoon about a peanut shaped like a wooden shoe.

"'That's nothing, they should see what I've got!'" she said of her collection of potato chips that looked like horses' heads, boots, cartoon character Yogi Bear and more.

The reporter who went out to interview her, Alan Derringer, found 100 unusually shaped chips arranged on newspaper on her Formica kitchen table and a total collection that covered most of a spare bed.

Young's job had been to pull brown, burned and raw chips off of the conveyor system as the chips headed toward packaging. She told Derringer she began collecting unusually shaped chips in 1986.

As he was leaving, he remembered saying her collection was just the sort of thing that could attract interest from "Late Night with David Letterman," which then followed "The Tonight Show" weeknights on NBC, Derringer recalled Monday during a phone interview from Detroit, where he is Autos editor at The Detroit News.

Two weeks later, Young was off to New York City to appear on "Late Night." But her celebrity status soared after the October 1987 appearance on Carson's "Tonight Show."

"He was utterly charmed by her," said Derringer, who accompanied Young on the trip to write about her experiences for The News-Sentinel. Carson kept Young on stage so long the show had to cancel the appearance by actress Jennifer Tilly, who also was scheduled to be a guest.

But what really made Young well-known came when Carson and sidekick Ed McMahon pulled a trick on her: McMahon distracted her by telling Carson to look at one of the chips in the collection. When Young turned to see what chip he meant, Carson grabbed a potato chip from a bowl hidden behind his desk and bit down on it, making a loud crunch. Thinking it was one of her prized chips, Young whirled back around "with her hand over her heart and a look of horror on her face," Derringer wrote.

"She about had a heart attack," he recalled Monday.

In 1999, the editors of TV Guide named that moment the funniest on television in the previous 50 years. Carson also included it in on Volume 3 of "Johnny Carson: His Favorite Moments from 'The Tonight Show," a four-volume set of show highlights released in May 1994.

The "Tonight Show" appearance led to guest spots on many other shows, including Bill Cosby's "You Bet Your Life," Geraldo Rivera's "Geraldo," Vicki Lawrence's "Vicki!" and "The Chevy Chase Show." Young also took her collection, which included a prized chip resembling comedian Bob Hope, overseas to appear on shows in London and Amsterdam, her daughter said.

Young had another scare in 1990, when a local chiropractor reached through a crowd to grab one of her chips and started eating it at a retirement expo at Memorial Coliseum. A Seyfert's official assisting Young made him spit out the pieces.

After retiring from work as a potato chip inspector at Seyfert's, Young stayed on as a tour guide to show school groups and other visitors around the plant and to show off her chip collection. The plant closed in 2000 and later was demolished.

Interest in Young's potato chip collection began to wane about 2006, and she also became less able to travel, Wiles said. Wiles and family are ensuring the chip collection, which now includes about 250 to 300 chips, will live on as a historic artifact.

The collection continued to bring Young pleasure even late in life. Every time she had a new home caregiver, she would show the person her collection and recount her experiences when sharing it, granddaughter Pam Tracy of Fort Wayne said.

Young also became devoted to feeding rabbits, squirrels and birds in her backyard, Tracy said.

"The squirrels would come tapping on the back patio window when they were hungry," she said. Young then would slide open the door and toss them shelled or unshelled peanuts.

Young didn't specify any funeral arrangements, but she seem pleased when family members kept saying they thought part of her chip collection should be there, Wiles said.

"I don't think anyone will leave there sad," she added.

kkilbane@news-sentinel.com


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