Fifty years ago Monday, Maria Elena Holly talked by phone with her husband, Buddy, as he was about to take the stage at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa.

He promised to call her from Moorhead, Minn., the next stop on the Winter Dance Party Tour. He didn't tell her he was planning to fly.

"He always said to me, 'When I get to the next one, I'll give you a call,'" she said in a telephone interview Sunday from Iowa. "I said, 'Make sure you do, so I know you got there safe.'" She never got that call.

It's now legend: After the show at the Surf on Feb. 2, 1959, Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. (the Big Bopper) Richardson boarded a single-engine plane that crashed shortly after takeoff. The three and the pilot were killed.

Tonight at the Surf, Maria Elena Holly, 73, will join a long lineup of old rock 'n' rollers -- including Tommy Allsup, who was on the '59 tour, and Bobby Vee, who filled in at the Moorhead show -- for a 50th-anniversary tribute to "The Day the Music Died."

"Celebrating Buddy's music, that's what I'm here for," she said. "I actually have a bittersweet feeling because, of course, you can't stop thinking this is where it happened. But when I come in and see all the fans that are here, 2,000 people at the Surf, dancing and enjoying themselves, that erases from my mind that this is where this happened."

Maria Elena Santiago married Charles Hardin Holley (family spelling) in August 1958, about two months after they met in New York City, where she worked for a music publisher. After his death, she eventually remarried, had three children and divorced.

Maria Elena, now living in Dallas, has dedicated her life to preserving Holly's musical legacy. That legacy is evident, she says, by the way his music inspired other rock legends, including the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.

"What he really wanted was for his music to be liked and enjoyed, and 50 years later, it is still fresh. ... You hear the fans say, 'Oh, this music will never die.'"

Fans also tell her that his music appeals across generations. "You can see at the Surf -- they bring their children and you see them dancing to Buddy's music."

She has vivid memories of the last time she saw him. They were living in a New York City apartment and he took the gig with the Midwest Winter Dance Party tour because they needed the money.

Ordinarily, she accompanied him. But she was pregnant (she later lost the baby), and he insisted she stay home.

"He said, 'Honey, it's just going to be two weeks. I don't want you to get sick and lose our baby.' Still, I had my suitcases all beside the door, and up to this day, I say to myself, 'My God, I should have put my foot down and followed him there because I know as a fact, he would have never, never [taken a plane]. I would have taken over and found new transportation."

The tour had been plagued by frozen buses that broke down and a travel schedule that pingponged across the Upper Midwest. She said Buddy chartered the airplane in Mason City to give him time to make arrangements for better buses.

Maria Elena, who is terrified of flying in small planes, also blames the service that chartered the plane for allowing a takeoff in bad weather.

But she tries to remember the good times and revel in the joy his music brings to people: "That is really my consolation for losing Buddy at such a tender age."

Pamela Huey • 612-673-7044