Last week my niece, Kessa, reminded me what family means by saying 13 simple words, “I love my dad – he’s the best I could have ever hoped for.”
Her unconditional love toward Chris revealed the same bond I felt toward my mother, Thelma. Mom wrote a remembrance about how she married a talented New York City big-band musician and started a family in South Florida on my website, called “Virgil’s Story.” How she single-handedly kept the family in one piece testifies to her ingenuity, persistence, warrior spirit and maternal love.
In 1969, brother Chris Loika Englert married a girl who lived two houses away – not quite the girl next door, but pretty damn close. I found his hand-written marriage invitation earlier this November, which was sent to my Los Angeles address as a birthday card. “I’m getting married April 4 (Friday). If you can, come on down and see another person led to his doom. If you have any doubts as to who – it’s MaryLou.”
Nine years later, I enthusiastically followed my brother’s lead. Instead of a neighbor, I married “a nice Jewish girl,” who carried the seed from at least 30 nights’ passionate lovemaking in a North Bay Harbor Island condominium above Biscayne Bay. When presented with the moral responsibility I faced, my expectant wife-to-be’s family proposed an instant marriage before a Justice of the Peace in Golden Beach, a quaint town north of North Miami Beach.
I didn’t reject the idea of responsibility; after our matter-of-fact ceremony, I soon awaited a doctor’s confirmation of her pregnancy and planned a celebration immediately thereafter. That’s when I encountered the ultimate betrayal. My wife underwent an on-demand abortion in the city’s ghetto side of town accompanied only by her mother.
While I sat at the foot of the stairs for two-and-a-half hours outside our Miami Shores apartment building, trying my best to keep a bottle of celebratory champagne chilled, I waited, and waited, and waited some more. Then in confusion, I went upstairs where a phone call from my bride’s mother an hour later revealed the awful truth.
That was the terrible price I paid when my newly discovered three-member family, who descended from Egypt, expected me to completely reject my mother’s influence. After I couldn’t awake from an expectant parent’s ultimate nightmare, I filed for divorce in two weeks, and the court approved our annulment nine months later.
Last week in the Covid-19 world of 2020, I spent the day after Thanksgiving with my cousin, Margaret, surrounded by socially distant well-wishers from our Johnston clan, and I was served ceremonial turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, gravy, green beans, rolls and two heaping portions of love.
While reflecting on my mother’s Southern roots, I wondered why it wasn’t acceptable to become attached to both families. Was it our two religions? I later married for a second time – a marriage that lasted 22 years – whereupon Wife #1 phoned one night seeking to have an affair while I was relatively happy. Was she serious? Did she expect a repeat performance?
What nerve! How awful! How painful!
This year, Thanksgiving 2020 was filled with lots of needless curiosity about my preschool years, which came to an abrupt end, thanks to my niece’s unabashed expression of a daughter’s love for her father. Somehow, I began reflecting on the innocence lost from my first passionate marriage and the child I never knew. Perhaps the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence, but I miss having a son’s and/or daughter’s affection.
Who knew tragedy could co-exist with a horn of plenty adorning a holiday table? What a dichotomy.
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.
The last offspring of Mason Johnston and Grace Brantley passed away peacefully on Thursday, Jan. 5, in Chesapeake, Virginia.
Grace Wiley Johnston McCormick reached the age of 90, and in doing so, she embodied the name “Grace.” My grandmother must be clapping her hands excitedly, exclaiming “My-oh,” anticipating her final daughter’s entry into that other existence to which we are headed. There is no doubt that the two Graces are being reunited.
Grace Wiley was married for 65 years to Eddie McCormick, a Navy seal whose valiant service in World War II speaks of a dark world he once inhabited. Grace bore up to Eddie’s demons, keeping them invisible to the outside world with nary a complaint, reflecting what it means to live up to the name “Grace.”
Grace Wiley and Eddie gave birth to two wonderful children: Barbara and Michael. I became friends with them both, and I bless the day we became related. Each of them manages his or her respective worlds under tenuous circumstances, and their daily sacrifices reflect on the quality of Grace’s motherly essence.
Barbara’s pride and joy offspring is named Dylan, who was conceived with her late husband David. Michael, who regularly sends up dog apples to his dearest companions, enjoys a continuously bountiful marriage with wife Kim, which produced Cameron, Corey, Kyle and Kara.
Here’s what Barbara and Michael wrote about their mother: “She loved everyone and never said anything bad about anyone. The word ‘hate’ was not in her vocabulary,” and they go on to relate how Grace was not shy about remonstrating her children if anything resembling “defugalties” fell from their mouths.
Barbara and Michael recall how Grace helped others any way she could, especially migrant workers. “She was a very tough individual and never complained about pain or circumstances. I think a lot of that came from growing up on the farm picking cotton and eating collard-green sandwiches.”
I, Mason Loika, am honored to have matriculated on my mother’s side through such fine family stock, and whenever I should feel frightened or alone, I have the advantage of recalling vivid memories of fine personages who set a high standard. Grace Wiley McCormick was one of those amazing good hearts, and I am glad to hear that she passed peacefully while in God’s waiting room.
Grace Wiley’s memorial service takes place tomorrow morning at Cradock Presbyterian Church, where her family worships on a regular basis. They ask nothing for themselves; rather, that all contributions go to the church.
Alongside her mother, Grace Wiley now joins her other siblings: Richard, Gladys, my mother Thelma and Bill. In doing so, I become established as a next-generation elder to humbly salute the Johnston quintet along with their respective offspring.
On the 10th day of January, 2017, the Johnston family stands tall and proud amidst a glorious treasure chest of memories as we pause at 11 am Eastern Time to salute one more family hero who has passed over: Grace Wiley McCormick.