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It's creepy but true: Looking at photos from June 24, 1977, when Elvis Presley appeared in Madison for the very last time and famously broke up a fight at an East Side gas station, my first thought was that he really didn't look that bad.

OK, he was a little puffy. And, yes, the Wisconsin State Journal's reviewer did describe him as a "chubby middle-aged man" who "mumbled so badly that any other featured performer would have been booed."

But I had to agree with Madison Police Detective Bruce Frey, who witnessed the fight and observed: If you put him in the average Wisconsin tavern today, Elvis at 42 would be one of the thin guys.

This is a comment on how much fatter Americans are now than in 1977.

And, just possibly the fact that Elvis doesn't look so bad in retrospect is because Frey and I are both now (gulp!) older than Elvis.

Frey was a 20-year-old East Side Madison native 30 years ago, when he talked his little sister into taking a ride up Highway 51 to see Elvis's plane land at old Four Lakes Aviation. It was around midnight on June 23, 1977, and Elvis had just done a show in Des Moines. He was flying into Madison for his show at the Coliseum the next night.

"There was a larger crowd than I expected. It was crazy," Frey recalled. The crowd screamed when Elvis exited the plane and got into one of two waiting limos.

The Freys left, too, and headed south on 51, where they wound up behind the limos, stopped for the traffic light at East Washington Avenue. The limos didn't move when the light turned green. Frey was about to pull around when, he said, "The back door of the second limo flies open. It's Elvis Presley. And he's flying out of the door."

Frey looked right, at the Skyland Service Station (recently torn down to make room for a car dealership) and saw a kid on the ground being beaten up by two other teens.

"Elvis said, 'I'll take you on,"' Frey remembers. "They looked up at him, froze in mid-punch, and the victim ran into the gas station."

The victim was 17-year-old Keith Lowry Jr., whose dad owned the gas station. His dad, who still lives in Madison, said he had fired one of the other youths for stealing from the station.

"I told the guys working for me that I didn't want him around," Lowry Sr. said. The fight started when his son tried to kick the other two off the property.

"Elvis made some of his karate moves and broke up the fight," is how Lowry Sr. heard the story.

Frey, who pulled into the station and jumped out of his car, said Elvis was wearing his trademark aviator sunglasses and "DEA Agent" navy blue jumpsuit over his sparkling stage outfit.

After the fight ended, the lot began to fill with Elvis fans who saw the stopped limos. Frey shook Elvis' hand and told him he had tickets to the next night's show. Then Elvis got back into the limo and headed for his hotel room at the Sheraton.

Over the years, Frey has researched the rest of the story, talking to retired Police Detective Supervisor Thomas McCarthy, who was working security for Elvis and was in one of the limos. He also talked to other bodyguards, and later, to Presley's cousin Billy Smith, who lived with Elvis during the final years of his life.

With the 30th anniversary of Elvis' death coming up in August, Frey hopes to publish his own version of the story.

He thinks the incident dramatizes two aspects of Elvis' complex personality.

"He was a person who prided himself on helping others, and he also prided himself on being friendly with law enforcement," Frey said.

As for the Drug Enforcement Agency jumpsuit, Frey said President Richard Nixon made Elvis an honorary special agent after the two met in 1970 and Elvis expressed an interest in helping fight "the drug culture."

Less than two months after wearing his DEA jumpsuit in Madison, Elvis himself would die from an overdose of prescription drugs.

Back then, Frey said, Elvis was probably just like the majority of Americans who didn't think drugs prescribed by a doctor were as dangerous as those obtained illegally.

After the Elvis incident, Frey himself became a Madison police officer. Today, some of his worst investigations involve the deaths of young people who accidently overdose on the prescription drug OxyContin.

The DEA jumpsuit is just another aspect of the "Elvis Sighting at the Gas Station" incident that seems oh-so-ironic, when viewed from the perspective of 30 years in the future.


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