Ernest Wilson—If You Want To Enough

CHAPTER XXVI — By Appointment

When on March 29, 1931, I officiated at the celebration of Charles’ and Myrtle’s golden wedding anniversary I could not have imagined that I would ever be called upon to perform a similar ceremony involving either of them. Yet in less than three years I was called upon to do so.

In December of 1933 Charles Fillmore, then halfway through his seventy-ninth year, made two decisions that were of special import to the Unity movement.

He had served as minister of Unity Society of Practical Christianity and as president of Unity School of Christianity since their inception. He was also writing books, tracts, and magazine articles, speaking on radio. He rejoiced in the great growth of the movement, but at one point, when demands were especially pressing, he commented, “Sometimes I wish I could get away from so much formality and go out in the woods and sit on a log for a spell.”

He decided to lessen his responsibilities. He resigned as minister of Unity Society and appointed me to follow him as its minister, a natural enough appointment, I suppose, since I had been assisting him in its services for several years. Word reached the local press, and Lowell called me up on the phone to tell me that reporters were in the front office awaiting an interview. “Will you meet with them?” he asked.

“It’s really your father’s place to do so,” I responded, “since it is his decision. But I know how he dislikes such interviews so of course I will, but I’d appreciate it if you and Rick, as members of the family, would join me.”

They did so. Unfortunately the reporters made the same mistake that a lot of other people do. They did not note or make a distinction between Unity Society and Unity School. (“It’s all Unity to me,” people frequently remark to me.)

The Star’s story, repeated by the Associated Press, announced that Charles Fillmore had resigned as head of Unity School, and appointed me as his successor!

Mr. Fillmore was simply amused by all subsequent mixed reactions and efforts to place the blame for the mistake. It simply resulted from a confusion of terms. Fortunately the Fillmore family understood this. But I was glad that Lowell and Rick had been present at the press interview.

I Need Her

Shortly before the turn of the year, Mr. Fillmore made a second and more startling announcement, his intention of marrying his longtime secretary, Cora Dedrick. He asked me to conduct the ceremony.

Although the idea of anyone replacing Myrtle in his life came as a shock to most of us—most of all his sons—it was a logical thing. Cora had been a pioneer in the Unity movement. She had preceded May Rowland as director of Silent Unity. She had been secretary to Myrtle before she became secretary to Charles. She was deeply in sympathy with his most advanced teachings such as the twelve powers, physical regeneration, bodily immortality. Perhaps even more than his sons, she knew his spiritual and physical needs.

But I was still missing Myrtle Fillmore, (it didn’t occur to me that he was, too, and that that was one reason why he was marrying again), and had the temerity to ask, “Are you in love with Cora?”

He was not affronted as he might well have been. “I wouldn’t call it any great romance; but yes, I do love her—and I need her.”

My heart went out to him, as it had in Myrtle’s transition. He needed someone with whom he came first. His mother was gone. Myrtle was gone. His sons had their own homes, their own personal lives. Though he had countless friends and admirers, he was—in the personal sense that demands fulfillment no matter how much we deny ‘personality’—very much alone. Not really. There was someone who loved him personally, idolized him spiritually, fostered and supported the most far-out concepts that he cherished. Cora.

I felt honored that he wanted me to perform the ceremony.

A Day to Remember

December 31, 1933 is one New Year’s Eve I think I shall never forget, for it was on that day, a sunny Sunday afternoon, that I met with the immediate members of the Fillmore family, excepting Rickert, in the livingroom of Lowell’s and Alice’s beautiful home at the Village to perform the marriage ceremony for Charles and Cora. The ritual that I used at that time was derived mostly from the one that Mr. Fillmore had composed. Short and simple, it included the admonition in Mr. Fillmore’s terminology: “If in the sight of the law there is any reason why this marriage should not take place, let it now be made known.” Unfortunately I did not have the foresight to omit this question. (I’ve never used it since.)

Right on cue, Rick appeared in the doorway, pleading with his father to forego the marriage. (I know Rick dearly loved his father and that his intention was good, but he needed to free his father so he could choose the course of his own life.)

No one else had ever responded (at least not audibly), to that marriage ceremony question. I think we were all stunned. It remained for Mr. Fillmore to break the silence. “Let the ceremony proceed,” he said grimly. As I did so, Rick left the room and the service continued without further incident.

The next day the couple left for California. Mr. Fillmore entered upon a new phase of activity. He embarked on an extended lecture tour. It was to begin with a meeting in Shrine Auditorium, where I had spoken with Whitty’s assistance. Retta Chilcott, Lowell’s assistant, called on me to discuss what we could do to make the occasion an outstanding success. Charles had specified that I should be chairman. We talked about music, flowers, printed programs, advertising in Los Angeles papers. I came up with one more notion.

“We must come up with something to give the meeting a personal meaning and pack that huge auditorium. What would you think of getting Mr. Fillmore to write an invitation in his vigorous unmistakable handwriting, to be reproduced on a postcard and mailed to all our subscribers in the greater Los Angeles area? It could read something like this: ‘Dear Friend: I want to see you personally at the meeting when I speak at Shrine Auditorium,’ with date and his signature added.”

Retta liked the idea. Lowell liked it. Charles and Cora liked it. It was printed and mailed to the 35,000 names on our list in the area. The turnout was tremendous, surpassing the crowd that had turned out for my earlier meeting.

Expansion

The next four years, beginning in 1934 were years of mounting activity in all departments of the work at headquarters. Attendance at Sunday morning services increased so that we found it necessary to add a balcony to the chapel at 913 Tracy to accommodate the crowds. We had outgrown available rented quarters in the Country Club Plaza. The little basement church at Forty-seventh and Roanoke where I conducted my first Master Class Series of lessons was outgrown, and we leased Ivanhoe Temple for Sunday evening meetings. It seated some 1800, and attendance varied from a minimum of a thousand to capacity on special occasions. The Young People’s Forum of teen-agers that had started with a dozen in the late twenties was reaching 200. Ellen Griffith who became president of the group had a special gift for organization. She established a telephone committee whose responsibility was to keep track of attendance. Absentees were phoned to be told they were missed. We had a basketball team that reached the finals among similar civic groups. (I still have a little golden emblem presented to me by Ted Goelz, presented by the class—not for being a player, but as outstanding booster.) A tennis team was organized. There were even checker contests. We had monthly dances which opened and closed with circle prayers. Girls who didn’t like dancing were encouraged to make scrapbooks of paper cambric, in which pages were filled with colorful pictures, children’s prayers and happy jingles, and were contributed to Mercy Hospital to amuse little patients. At Thanksgiving time the public was invited to a home talent program, the price of admission being some item of food for needy families from lists provided by the church congregation and welfare agencies. The climax of this project filled Ivanhoe Temple. A farmer brought a load of vegetables, a bakery, loaves of bread. Unity School contributed the use of its trucks for delivery. It reached the point of providing dinner to 900 families in 1937.

A Special Bond

There was a great bond between these young people and me. My move into the apartment that Rick had planned for his parents, was appealing to these lively young people. Until the class grew too large, we had many a spaghetti supper there, followed by parlor games, and sometimes a gathering around an open fire in the livingroom fireplace, where we all sat on the floor and I read poems from Don Blanding’s Vagabond House. We had an occasional stag party when the boys played cards. On one such occasion the committee members asked me if they could have beer instead of Cokes.

“I suppose some of you drink beer at other gatherings. Suppose you give it some thought, and I’ll back you up if you decide that’s what you want,” I responded.

A week later I saw their chairman. “What have you decided?” I asked.

“We decided there was no harm in a glass of beer, but it might get you in trouble if we had it on your premises, so we voted against it.”

“I’m proud of you; bless you!” I answered, trying to speak over the huskiness that suddenly appeared in my throat.

They loved these intimate meetings. They thought up names for my apartment, such as Alley Castle, Preacher’s Perch, and Reverend’s Roost. I was almost sorry when the class attendance became too large to accommodate at one time all those who were attracted to those informal get-togethers.

All this was in addition to the Sunday morning services in the Pergola Room at the Unity Inn, when several young people led prayers, made announcements, sang or played musical instruments, augmenting the Bible lessons I offered, which varied one Sunday a month with a lively Question and Answer session.

The total Sunday School attendance varied from 1500 to 2000, under the direction of Edith Kinley, overflowing space in Unity’s administration building and borrowing space in a business college located across the street.

In addition to the Forum meetings, Sunday morning and evening services, Wednesday evening meetings, and Master Classes, averaging two a year, I was still doing fourteen radio programs a week, with an occasional two-weeks session of classes at Unity Farm.

Colorful People

Rhea Dale and her mother, Viola Dale McMurray were two of the colorful people who were attracted to the services at 913 Tracy. Rhea was a dancer of the Russian ballet school who had toured America and Europe and had even appeared in Russian performances, chaperoned by her managerial mother. I was fascinated by the stories they told of places they’d been, people they had met, acclaim they had won. They became frequent visitors to my Alley Castle apartment and sometimes volunteered advice about making my ministry more effective.

“Ernest, there’s just one thing the matter with you,” Viola offered. “You’re too simple. If you would just stain your skin darker, wear a turban and a robe, you’d be sensational!”

“Viola, I know what you mean. Probably a good many people would rather be impressed than informed. Maybe I make Truth seem too simple, and they want to be made blinky. But it wouldn’t be me in such a get-up. I’ll try to be a better me, but me I’ve got to be.”

She shrugged her shoulders in mock despair.

We shared a friendship in the person of Landon Laird, movie and theater critic on The Star. When Thanksgiving Day was near I invited them to join me for a holiday dinner to be prepared by my housekeeper, Lovey Gray, which all three accepted.

A few days beforehand Landon phoned me. There was a slight problem. Gene Dennis, the Wichita Psychic, was appearing at the Pant ages Theater. He had known her for years, felt obligated to look after her. Would I mind if she joined us for dinner?

I was, of course, delighted. Though I am skeptical of psychic gifts—even my mother’s—they do interest me. The very fact of so many counterfeits seems to imply a reality to imitate.

I had heard about Gene. As a country-type girl of fifteen she had shown signs of extrasensory perception, according to one of our church members who had known her. Her talent, if such it was, attracted the attention of one of The Star's editors, and he had commissioned a reporter to look her up at her rural home in Wichita with a sealed envelope containing the name of a prominent person, to see if by holding the sealed envelope in her hand, her “second sight” could tell what it contained. According to my informant, Gene said, “It’s the name of a man who writes plays. It’s something like Neal.” Actually it was the name, Eugene O’Neill, whose plays were appearing on Broadway.

I decided that since she was to be my guest, I’d catch her show, and thereby be better prepared for the occasion.

Frank Opinion Requested

There was no production in her act. She appeared alone on stage clad in a forest green knitted street dress. Her makeup and hairdo were unflattering. Coupled with and in contrast to this casual ensemble were jewels that I thought merited a floor-length ball gown: an emerald bracelet with earrings and finger ring to match. She assured me later that they were genuine emeralds, not costume jewelry. Her act consisted of a brief talk about her gift, following which she invited written questions from the audience. She read the questions aloud, answering them in a positive manner, explaining that often she did not understand the answers she gave; to one question she responded, “I don’t get an answer. I’m sorry.”

The dinner was at one o’clock. Gene arrived with Landon right after Rhea and her mother. We had an animated conversation which climaxed by her asking for a frank appraisal of her performance.

Gene was not much like the show people I had met and was to meet. She was a tall, raw-boned peasant type person in appearance. Casual on dress and manner, she seemed to be somewhat in awe of the public life into which her gift had taken her. She commented on how friendly toward her the girls in the chorus line and other performers on the vaudeville bill were. She wanted to get some token gifts for them to show her appreciation. I surmised that Viola would say of her what she had said to me—“too simple.” I found I shared that opinion, and it came out in my response to Gene’s question.

“I’ve seen Anna Eva Fay, who claimed to have a gift similar to yours. She appeared to be reading sealed ballots, but I felt that she was using a trick, enhanced by skillful stage effects. With you, working alone and reading the questions openly, I felt that the answers you gave, whether from natural or supernatural origin, were practical and came from a sincere desire to be helpful to the questioners. But I would like to have seen you in a formal evening gown to accord with your gorgeous jewels. Better makeup, better lighting, a background of music and a master of ceremonies in white tie and tails to introduce you would have impressed the audience with the importance of what you had to share with them.’’

I Didn’t Want to Enough

She thanked me and remarked that she was supposed to be a guest at the football game at Lawrence, “But I’ll forego that. I’d like to spend some more time here with you if I may. What you’ve said about the presentation of my readings makes me feel that our meeting could be a guidance. I’m scheduled to return to London for a ten-week engagement sponsored by Neville Chamberlain and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s son. I am to receive five thousand dollars a week for the engagement. If you will go with me, acting as my master of ceremonies, I’ll split the fee with you.”

I told her I felt honored, but that other commitments made it impossible. I had no temptation to accept, but couldn’t resist at least telling Lowell and Retta of the offer!

I never saw Gene again, and don’t know whether she returned to London for the ten-week assignment she had described. I did run across a news item telling of her engagement to the son of a Seattle newspaper publisher, and coincidentally Viola brought me a copy of the paper which featured a Question and Answer column featuring Gene’s predictions. Perhaps these events took precedence over the London series.

Divine Appointment?

Upon the transition of his mother, Landon was deeply grieved. This served to aggravate a problem for which he asked prayers, and also sought medical help. His eyesight was threatened by an obscure affliction. He thought a boat trip might be relaxing, and was dismayed by a painful flare-up. Midway in the trip the boat stopped at a small community to unload cargo and take on passengers.

Pacing the deck in distraction, Landon noted that there was a Catholic church within short walking distance. Calling to the boat’s captain not to leave without him, he made his way to the church and knelt in a pew praying for God to help him. A few passengers were embarking when he returned. He stood on deck, eyes closed, in prayer, and was startled to hear a familiar voice cry, “Good Lord, Landon, your eyes!”

It was his ophthalmologist, returning from a brief vacation. “Surely we are both here by divine appointment!” and was able to give emergency treatment on board, which Landon told me probably saved his sight.


© 1984, by Ronald and Beverly Potter
All rights reserved.
Reprinted with permission.