On a snowy afternoon in 1958, Annette Funicello, Tommy Cole, and several other The Mickey Mouse Club members were on an East Coast bus tour when they gave one unsuspecting family a huge surprise. “The new Annette series was coming on the air and we wanted to see it,” Tommy exclusively recalls to Closer Weekly of the sitcom in which Annette played a rural girl who moves in with rich relatives.

“Our bus driver went up to a house that had bikes on the porch — we knew there were kids. He knocked and said, ‘I have some of the original Mouseketeers on my bus — can we come in and watch Annette with you?’ And they went, ‘Oh my!'” By the third season of The Mickey Mouse Club, Annette had become the most beloved girl in America.

the mickey mouse club cast getty images

The Mickey Mouse Club cast.

“She was someone that everyone wanted to be,” says Tommy, 76, who paid tribute to his friend on Feb. 22 at The Hollywood Museum’s Annette: America’s Girl Next Door exhibit in LA. In fact, the Mouseketeers showing up at someone’s house didn’t seem odd at all. “All of us were picked because we were the kids next door,” says Tommy, adding, “Annette’s squeaky-clean image wasn’t fake.”

Even later in life when her health began to fail from multiple sclerosis (MS), Annette never lost her sunny sweetness. Says Tommy, her frequent dance partner on the show, “She was a genuinely nice person.” After The Mickey Mouse Club ended in 1959, the close-knit cast remained in touch. “We all got married and had kids,” remembers Paul Petersen, 72.

annette funicello getty images
R/R / Getty Images

Annette in her Mousketeer outfit.

“It didn’t matter where Annette was, the Little League field or the Academy Awards, she was always effortlessly genuine,” he adds. But she was never saccharine, says actor Keith Coogan, who appeared on the sitcom Growing Pains with Annette in 1986. “She was a consummate professional, but she could have a little saltiness,” he says. “I wasn’t expecting that!”

Grateful to have had such a long career, Annette never forgot how much she owed her fans. When Tommy, who became a makeup artist, suggested she update her famous eyebrows, Annette refused. “She didn’t want to change her image,” he says. “[My fans are] used to seeing me a certain way,” she explained. “I don’t want to hurt them or have them feel like I’ve done something wrong.”

tommy cole and johnny crawford getty images

Mouseketeers Tommy (left) and Johnny (right) at the Annette exhibit. (Photo Credit: Getty Images)

Annette also kept quiet about the MS that ended her life in 2013 at age 70. “She was hesitant to disclose her illness because she was afraid people wouldn’t love her,” remembers Paul. Yet her caring nature never flagged, even as Annette’s illness progressed. “My wife went through a back surgery and was in bed for over a year,” relates Tommy. “Annette was sick and getting sicker but she called my wife to make her feel better. That’s the kind of person she was.” Mouseketeer Johnny Crawford, 71, remembers their last meeting fondly. “She was still beautiful, even in a wheelchair,” he marvels. “I wish I could talk to her again.”

For more on your favorite stars, pick up the latest issue of Closer Weekly, on newsstands now — and be sure to sign up for our newsletter for more exclusive news!