The photograph above is the last image taken of Alice McCormick, and I am the lucky guy who took this picture. Alice and I were on the verge of returning home from the north side of Vancouver, Washington, where we “scored” a large package of Kirkland toilet paper during Costco’s senior shopping time. Twenty-four rolls, oh boy!
On the drive back home, Alice must have been musing about something, because she was notably silent. And once we sat down in the living room, she asked me to promise something. As I think about it now, I wonder if Alice knew she was close to leaving this gray-green planet.
“Mason, I need you to promise me something,” Alice began.
“Oh sure,” I responded. “What is it?”
“Mason, I want you to promise me that you’ll start writing again,” Alice said seriously.
“Well,” I said, “I’ve stopped [rideshare] driving. That means I have the time to do it.”
Alice looked into my eyes, and said, “Promise me.”
I mulled it over for less than five seconds, and muttered, “Yes, I’ll go back to my writing.”
Alice nodded to show her satisfaction, stood up, and went into the kitchen to put our Costco goodies away.
(Alice managed me so much that I was left few tasks in which to reciprocate. She simply wanted to witness me make a bona fide attempt before she took over.)
I look at the featured picture above and wonder what Alice was thinking about. In the almost 10 years living together, Alice was consistently good at concealing some pretty serious things.
I have no clue what Alice knew on the eve the day before I found her body wearing a faraway, wistful expression. (Alice would wake up early each morning to putz around the kitchen, cuddle the cat, open the blinds and gaze at the nearly 1,000-foot-high hill north of our development before coming back to bed.)
And now, I know I must write, I cannot screw around, I must make good to my promise, because Alice is all around, watching and guiding me. Dammit, I’ve already written one book, got it published, chronicled some major bands in concert (the Marshall Tucker Band, Heart, Norah Jones, Commander Cody and the Lost Planet Airmen), and won the heart of Alice McCormick, a remarkable denizen of a historic Pennsylvania town known as Doylestown.
My grandmother was a librarian, my mother was an English teacher and my father was a professional musician.
I went to private school in Princeton, N.J., and do I have a tale to tell about being there! Imagine a boy from Miami thrust into an environment where Albert Einstein was known to stroll, and being schooled with fewer than 8 children per teacher.
Twenty years later, the managing editor, Gloria Brown Anderson, at the Miami News increased my workload until I had to drop out of Florida International University in the late 1970s. Anderson justified this tactic by confessing she did not want to have an unknown scholar destroy a “natural gift.”
In 2002, I wrote a book: Gulag to Rhapsody: A Survivor’s Journey, for Paul Tarko, who was imprisoned in the same Soviet workcamp later occupied by noted Soviet dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn. (After a literary agent showed interest, Tarko decided to self-publish.)
After promoting the book in Hartford, Connecticut, I discovered the Pennsylvania borough of Doylestown (30 miles south of Princeton), where I met Alice McCormick, although, in fairness, I say she met me. I have never been loved by anyone so unabashedly, so flagrantly, so wholeheartedly and so fairly. Yes, Kailey, you’re right, Alice was amazing!
So give a lot of credit to Alice for this decrepit creature I am becoming again. Every time I sit down to write something new, I’m fulfilling my promise to Alice. What comes from these slender fingers dancing over the computer keyboard is a celebration to that long-legged lady. Each phrase is a commitment, revisited over and over, checked and re-checked for readable style.
But here’s the amazing part: Alice made me a promise eight years ago. She said that when she disappears to an unnamed place, I would find a hidden message inside something I used, but a place where I seldom looked. She giggled when she told me.
Three days ago, in the top drawer of a small bureau in my writer’s office, where Alice had commandeered some of her possessions, I came across a Post-it note written by Alice, written on Dec. 22, 2011, approximately three months after our commitment ceremony:
I am honor-bound to follow up what I promised. Alice is all around me.
I have begun the book.
Members of the Aphasia Network created a GoFundMe page to support me during the time ahead. To see their message and hopefully donate, follow this link Alice was amazing
No one should mistake my criticism of how I lost my virginity at the American Boychoir School as a condemnation of the institution itself. A previous post on my website goes into detail here. Followup posts can be viewed here, here and here.
Its founder, Herbert Huffman, dedicated his life to growing a selected cadre of gifted musical boys into a nationally beloved choir in Columbus, Ohio. Huffman oversaw its move and transition to the academically elite community of Princeton, NJ, where boys explored a community where they learned it was acceptable to learn as much as they could – as fast as they can.
That’s quite a contrast to the peer group pressure exerted by boys in Miami’s suburbs of Hialeah and Miami Springs, where I grew up. When I returned there in the 9th grade, classmates asked me not to do so well academically, “because it makes the rest of us look badly.”
I coasted, and made straight A’s. That’s how outstanding my Princeton education was.
More than 50 years after a twisted genius by the name of Donald Bryant orchestrated a loss of institutional control, the Princeton-based Boychoir’s inmates have finally taken over. Some of what transpired was revealed in well-written investigational stories by the New York Times and New Yorker magazine. Boychoir management only sought to quash these sensational revelations, revealing a serious disdain for transparency.
After I wrote my own story here of encountering a sexual predator, I heard enough response to sense a troubling undercurrent of suspicion resided in the surrounding area of Bucks and Mercer counties from women who had married previous members of the Boychoir. The lid of damnation that caused editors to censor stories about the American Boychoir had backfired. Eventually, bankruptcy was the only course the venerable institution had left.
The people I refer to as “inmates” are its new leaders, men who have matriculated through many of life’s pitfalls. They are accomplished in their fields and recognize what the Boychoir meant to them and its potential to future generations.
According to Kris Brewer, spokesman for the resurrection committee, “It is a shared sentiment and goal to make sure that if we are successful … that acknowledgment, transparency, learning, prevention and healing are essential to the success of the Foundation and a future ABS… We are not interested in keeping silent about or hiding the past. It does no one any good now or in the future.”
Chet Douglass and Aaron Smyth are joining Brewer to step forward as a triumvirate and promulgate a concept as time-honored as Christianity itself – a resurrection.
My personal story is meant to bequeath their cause far more than the $10 gift I donated; it is meant to inspire Messrs. Brewer, Douglass and Smyth to continue and persevere.
Back in the winter of 1955, I auditioned for Herbert Huffman, founder of the Columbus Boychoir. I don’t recall much of that audition, except it took place in Coral Gables. I remember Huffman as a gentle soul, whose interest in great music was legendary.
I remember my mother spoke with Huffman privately after I sang for him. I don’t know if she told him about my father, Virgil, but he was a tormented musical genius who once played with each of the Dorsey brothers in New York City, but evolved into a frustrated musician who savagely and frequently beat me for no reason at all.
At home, I had retreated into a private world in which I pretended to be a television programmer. (The quality of my first journalism gig – a TV writer – reveals how much I used media for an escape.) I developed a good singing voice by singing in the shower, and my mother, Thelma, who played piano for the First Presbyterian Church in Hialeah, hoped to get me away from my father’s physical abuse.
I was chosen, an unlikely selection because of the pigment of my skin. During the spring, summer and falls of my life, Virgil took my family to South Beach where we played with other boys on the soft sloping sands along the Atlantic Ocean. The constant exposure of the sun on my skin darkened me considerably; however, brothers Jon and Chris turned red from the exposure and suffered with serious sunburns. I sometimes burned, but kept getting darker and darker.
At Albemarle, where I lived in a dormitory setting with the other choirboys, I never thought of myself as outside the cultural norm until one day. We previewed a never-before-seen video film taken of us while performing a sacred choral piece. Each choirboy – one by one – was paraded before a camera while singing a Christmas hymn. The film was ready and edited with sound, and we were the first to enjoy it.
Because I tried not to care, my nonchalance was rewarded. I never saw myself! But some other boys said they had, so the film was rerun for my benefit. I didn’t see anything distinctive, except for an apparent Negro boy who walked through. I recognized almost everyone else. Who was that black kid?
“That’s you!” the other boys exclaimed. “Look again.”
Once again, the film was rewound to where I walked through. After strong urging, I recognized some of my features. I was the black one!
No way, I thought. What was going on?
After all these years, I think I understand. Because of the lighting used in the newspaper and on TV channels that was specific only to me, I appeared white and Caucasian. Compared to the other boys at the school, though, the camera portrayed me as dark.
Herbert Huffman chose me despite my complexion, because he saw the potential of my musical gifts. I played piano well, and I was a decent second soprano. So Huffman rescued me from my father.
I never revealed these details before, so you, readers of this blog, know them for the first time ever.
I saved and scanned the official story about me written courtesy of Jay Morton, publisher of the Hialeah Home News who on Feb. 11, 1955, announced my selection to the Columbus Boychoir.
(By the way, Jay Morton was no ordinary publisher. After studying art at the Pratt Institute in New York, receiving a master’s degree in Paris, he had moved to Miami to write and draw the animated cartoon, “Superman,” for Fleischer Studios. He was responsible for describing Superman as “faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.” He also drew Felix the Cat, Betty Boop and Popeye.)
As publisher of the Hialeah Home News, in the 1940s and ’50s, he ran a one-man crusade to drive the Ku Klux Klan out of Hialeah. He passed away on Sept. 6, 2003, the same day as my late brother Jon’s birthday. I am proud to share the text of his article verbatim, especially because it contains no typos, as follows:
When state and national honors are passed out, and individual achievements are brought to the attention of the American public, it’s a source of pride to Hialeah-Miami Springs that local residents come in for a goodly share of the limelight.
Latest addition of this roll of honor is little Mason Loika, son of Mr. and Mrs. Virgil Loika, 810 N.E. Third pl., Hialeah. Mason left this week for Princeton, N.J. where he won a scholarship at the nationally famous Columbus Boychoir School.
Mason looks like any other boy who is almost 12. His brown locks have a tendency to be unruly with a cowlick indicating, as the saying goes, bedevilment. But just let Mason don his choir-robe – a long, black, monk-like skirt, a white, wide-sleeved tunic, and a big, black bow under his chin …
Then he’s transformed into an angel, and surely sings like one.
That’s what Herbert Huffman, director of the Boychoir, thought when he auditioned Mason at the University of Miami two weeks ago. Huffman and his boys’ ensemble were here for a concert, and the Loikas felt fortunate when he consented to hear Mason’s voice.
Their joy was irrepressible when Huffman offered the boy an $800 scholarship at the non-sectarian school. But finance reared its ugly head. A year’s tuition, room and board, costs $1,600. The Loikas could raise $400 on their own, but where was the other $400 coming from?
That’s when Mrs. Loika came to the Home News (he is a Home News carrier) to pick up Mason’s papers. The story came out, and Publisher Jay Morton resolved that, if he could be of help, this opportunity and honor would not be bypassed.
Morton has been on the phone soliciting support from the city’s civic organizations and this week when Mason departed it looked as though his dream would come true. The pledges aren’t all in yet, but the Loikas are proceeding on faith.
Mason’s father is now employed at Pan-American, but he has 25 years as a professional musician behind him. He gave his son all the training he could. Mason’s mother, a music-teacher and music instructor for kindergarten, has been giving him piano lessons.
At Princeton, Mason will have a regular curriculum which will cover at least what he’s learning now in the seventh grade at Hialeah High. He’ll also have choir practice twice a day, plus individual voice training.
The Columbus Boychoir is renowned throughout the country. Besides appearing at festivals and secular gatherings, the boy choristers have been heard on national hook-ups of radio and television, and in recordings. They were on Ed Sullivan’s “Toast of the Town” at Christmas. They always “bring the house down” at every concert they appear in.
Just as Mason won applause at the Kiwanis club luncheon on Tuesday. While his mother accompanied him, his childish treble rose in melody and he won the hearts of the Kiwanians.
I participated in the American Boychoir School’s 75th anniversary concert at Saint Joseph’s Seminary in 2013.
In a July 2016 post, I wrote about my unwanted encounter with a pedophile in this heart of cultural civility, Princeton, New Jersey, in the mid-1950s. Anyone who wishes to read that post can find it here: sexual-predators.
The American Boychoir School never offered an open, frank discussion about rumors about its past. People whispered and wondered what had gone on, and the School continued to stick its head in the sand. I was there when a children’s show on Public Radio called “From the Top,” a showcase for young classical musicians, used the school as a setting for one of its young artists’ shows.
In 2014, Dustin Hoffman starred with Debra Winger in a movie called “Boychoir” that used the American Boychoir School as a backdrop; however, it only received limited release to tepid reviews. Hallmark Cards bought the movie, retitled it “Hear My Song” for national exposure on CBS-TV until the company learned of the New York Times archived exposé of the school’s sordid history, and the showing was quietly shelved. TV Week revealed the reasons Hallmark backed away in an article available online.
Here’s an update. The school is coming to an ignoble end. The American Boychoir School is abandoning its efforts to emerge from Chapter XI bankruptcy. It will close down. You can read about it here: boychoir school to close.
There is no joy in seeing the American Boychoir School go bust. But there is a high degree of poetic justice. This chapter of my childhood has reached its ultimate end.
On April 16, the CBS network was scheduled to telecast a Hallmark Hall of Fame movie entitled “Hear My Song,” based upon life at a school for musically gifted boys, a la the American Boychoir School in Princeton, NJ. The feature-length film, whose 2014 theatrical distribution carried the title “Boychoir,” starred Dustin Hoffman, Kathy Bates, Debra Winger, Kevin McHale and Eddie Izzard.
With no fanfare, the TV version was shelved in lieu of a repeat broadcast of “NCIS: New Orleans.” When asked why, Hallmark explained the cancellation on its Facebook page as follows:
“While the movie and actors were not intended to depict any particular individual, organization or institution, Hallmark was recently made aware of serious allegations of misconduct made many years ago at a school similar to the one depicted in the movie. After careful consideration, it was decided that the movie will not air on CBS, Hallmark Channel or Hallmark Movies & Mysteries.”
The serious allegations of misconduct refer to an April 16, 2002 exposé printed on the front page of the New York Times metro section about years of sex abuse at the American Boychoir School, known then as the Columbus Boychoir School.
After the cancellation of “Hear My Song,” filmed at the American Boychoir School that now touts itself as creating a “safe” environment, the school issued a statement on its Facebook page that said, “We do not seek to silence criticism.”
If that were so, the following story that I authored in January 2013 would have appeared in the Bucks County Herald. Instead, my editor killed it, citing the New Jersey school’s reputation for threatening legal action against stories of this sort.
I present it now, for the readers of this website. My motive for telling the story? At the time I was sodomized, I observed there was no mention – either in newspapers or “polite” conversation – of this kind of activity, other than general allegations of “molestation.” I was so ignorant that I thought “molesting” related to a poisonous burrowing animal: mole-sting, get it?
Now, 62 years later, I will no longer remain silent about this. Perhaps then the American Boychoir’s strategy of waiting for its past controversy to go away will change.
Many benefactors’ hopes were dashed when anecdotal stories were heard by “Hear My Song’s” distributors, and its airing was canned. It’s time to let some fresh air inside.
The photo above was taken of Albemarle in 2009, where boys resided until three years ago. As hard times beset the school, the stately home of the Boychoir was sold to be turned into condominiums. As an alumnus, I revisited the site of my youthful betrayal.
Sexual Predators Among Us
In 2013, a well-meaning, dewy-toned Quaker stood up during Buckingham Meeting’s silent worship to bemoan the sexual abuse at Penn State that has filled newspaper pages since its public discovery in 2011. She wrung her hands and cried, “If only we had known, if only we had known, we could have done something about it.”
Oh yeah? Is that right?
Something dramatic is necessary, because pedophiles are like cockroaches. You turn on the lights, and they scatter.
My first sexual experience, at the age of 11, was at the hands of a charismatic predator in Albemarle, a small palace with colonnades built by the founder of Warner Lambert Pharmaceuticals. After the perpetrator sodomized me, he “voluntarily” resigned his post as guidance counselor.
(Yes, it’s true. America’s premier training ground for musically gifted boys offered unchecked opportunities for vile rampages during the sexually repressed 1950s. I was there because of my boy-soprano voice and budding child-prodigy piano work, the oldest son of a professional musician who played trombone and wrote arrangements for each of the Dorsey Brothers’ bands.)
Even as dawn broke and news spread of his impending resignation, each and every one of the choirboys in residence that 1956 morning wept openly, as the guidance counselor said his personal goodbyes while his index finger twitched its usual invitation against the inside of my young hand.
The sexual violation occurred only once, but that was enough. You never forget your first time.
ABS strategy damages its reputation
Although future classmates in later decades won undisclosed settlements, I never filed suit against the Boychoir for several reasons. First and foremost, I never wished to sign away for money my right to speak about what happened. I could bide my time until what I say would do the most good. Now that I’m 73 years old, the time is right.
More importantly, though, was the quality of the education I received in Princeton. I learned at the American Boychoir School that it was acceptable to learn as much as you can as fast as you can. Our student-to-teacher ratio was often 6 to 1. Our teachers were the best of the best, and I thrived on the atmosphere.
As a prima facie example, I was able to attend a private Princeton University outdoor science lecture where Dr. Werner von Braun demonstrated how the three-stage rocket would work, long before Sputnik went into orbit. As I walked around Princeton’s Nassau Street, I often imagined what to do if I caught sight of Albert Einstein; he loved the town. While rehearsing, we boys learned how to stir an audience and, as a result, ourselves.
Ordinary was never good enough. How could I sue a school that did that – for me, or my classmates?
I slept in a room with five other boys. I believe one of them chose to become a whistle-blower after the institution’s guidance counselor fetched me for his self-indulging moment at 3 am. In return for confidentiality, one of my roommates could have told a teacher, or perhaps Columbus Boychoir founder Herbert Huffman himself. Why else did this pedophile resign so soon after my monstrous encounter? (In a letter to parents dated February 24, 1956, a letter from Huffman said the guidance counsel “had to take an indefinite leave of absence from School because of illness.”) Some unknown comrade probably saved my butt, figuratively and literally.
In 2008 as part of my alumni experience, I spoke with then-Boychoir president Dr. Charles Bickford about what happened to me in 1956. Bickford left the school soon thereafter. He and members of his staff never denied the plausibility of what I related to them. Leadership heading up the school continued to change, Albemarle was sold, the school changed location to St. Joseph’s Seminary in Plainsboro, NJ, and eventually left those auspicious grounds because of financial difficulty.
The American Boychoir’s position remains as it ever was: Its head is in the sand. Maybe the controversy will go away, they seemed to think. But such a position seems really stupid. How can such an esteemed institution in the education-rich environs of Princeton refuse to use its mid-20th Century history to heal survivors from unwanted sexual attention, not just from Princeton but from schools all over the country?
Keeping the system as is may work well for lawyers, but not so well for the survivors.
In June 2012, I drove past the bronze statue of Joe Paterno outside Penn State’s monstrous 104,000-plus-seat stadium at State College where former alumni gather to reflect on some of the newest revelations spewing forth like poisonous volcanic fumes. At home as I looked into the videotaped face of Penn State’s ex-assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky, the tape’s audio reminded me that the perpetual, generational cycle of cover-ups has yet to be broken. Countless lawyers profited from the generosity of the school’s historic benefactors and more young people considered themselves to be lifelong victims with little hope of regaining their tantalizing road to glory.
Legalized silences cause future slimy pedophiles to proliferate, and a new generation of brave whistleblowers find themselves poised to lift the cursed veil of politeness to once again peer into the seamy depths below.
How do we break this vicious cycle?
I think back on my behavior after that unwanted encounter, and I instinctively blamed a society that relegated conversations about sex to the darkest rooms and refused to turn the lights on. I began to rail against censorship. After all, the more you cover something up, the worse it becomes.
Predators thrive in darkness. My metaphor using cockroaches is apropos.
Statistics I recall about growing up in America purported that one of every three women is molested while growing up. For boys, the figure: one in four.
Do the math. That adds up to a lot of people keeping their mouths shut, whether for reasons of shame or convention. I believe keeping it all inside is far worse than letting it out, because victims of abuse face an ever-increasing toll as life goes on.
Those of us recovering from unsolicited sexual attention deserve a future where frank discussions about sex are no longer taboo. Sticking heads in the sand exasperated this whole mess in the first place.
In the Northeast’s hallowed corridors of high learning, good education is revered. Let’s heal the wounds of the past by coming out of the shadows.