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The day Olivia Newton-John brought star power to Olivia, Minnesota

At the height of her fame, the singer and actress chartered a flight to the small Minnesota town bearing her name. Here's why.

OLIVIA, Minn. — When Olivia Newton-John died on Monday, tributes poured in from around the world for the Grammy-winning singer and actress.

One of those tributes came from the town of Olivia, Minnesota, which hosted the movie star in 1978, just weeks after the premiere of Grease.

It was all thanks to a man who was willing to take a chance on scoring the ultimate grand marshal for a small town parade.

"I said, I've got an idea, how about we bring Olivia to Olivia?" said Dave Pederson, who was the editor of the Olivia Times Journal at the time. "Everyone said, 'Yeah, sure.'"

At the time, Pederson was also serving on the PR committee for Olivia's centennial celebration, so he decided to write a letter asking one of the biggest stars in the world, to come to a small town that shared her name. 

"I said, you're the one we want," Pederson said with a laugh. "I knew she could always say no, but you can't say yes, unless you ask."

Harry Hawkinson was on the Olivia city council at the time, and says he's still amazed the plan actually worked.

"It just doesn't happen," Hawkinson said. "It was certainly a miracle."

"Somehow the letter got to her, that's the biggest miracle," Pederson said. "The other miracle is she said yes. I told her we couldn't pay her. Her only reward was fresh baked bread, which she asked for, and two ears of corn, which were from the free corn feed that we had that day."

The corn was a fitting request in the 'Corn Capitol of the World' but there were a couple of other last minute problems, beginning with the star's private jet.

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"The runway wasn't quite long enough," Hawkinson said.

There was also a near-disaster before the parade ever began.

"She's getting on the horse and it took off across the football field 100 miles an hour," Pederson said. "The Sheriff's posse chased her down, brought her back, and they said, 'You can't ride this horse,' and she said, 'Yes I am.' She insisted on it. She said, 'Give me a minute.' She walks up to the horse, grabs him by the head, talked to it, got on, did a little jaunt, and said, 'We're good." 

Good doesn't quite describe the reception that followed.

"The attendance was tremendous," Hawkinson said.

"There were estimates that the number of people at the parade probably quadrupled the size of Olivia or more," said Joe Dollerschell, who helped work security as part of the local Jaycees.

Despite the massive crowd, the true impact of that trip could never be measured in numbers. 

"What it did for the town really goes back to the week before," Pederson said. "That's when the town suffered it's worst tragedy in its history. A small plane crashed carrying six of our prominent citizens."

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"We went from probably the darkest day to maybe one of the brightest days all within a couple of weeks," Dollerschell said.

That's why, all these years later, news of the star's death hit hard here.

"Everyone in Olivia is an Olivia Newton-John fan," Dollerschell said.

"When I first heard it, it was like somebody that I knew personally that had passed," Hawkinson said.

"On Monday night, all of a sudden it hit, and I hit the wall of emotion," Pederson said. "Probably because she's been a part of me for 44 years now. I got away from town 44 years after that, but I didn't get away from that story." 

It's a story he'll forever be grateful he took a chance on.

"To have that chance, to be that big of a celebrity at the time, who came to this little town, to get our name on the map... and to think, 'We did that?'" he said. "That's special."

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