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Ernest Wilson—If You Want To Enough

CHAPTER XXIX — Snowballing Events

The famous Chinese philosopher, Lin Yutang, describes events that snowball down the corridor of time, gaining size and speed as they go. Plans for the Los Angeles venture were like that.

Shrine Auditorium, where Charles Fillmore and I had spoken to over 6000 people, would be engaged for an Easter Sunday afternoon meeting, April 17, 1938, to be followed by regular Sunday and midweek meetings at Wilshire-Ebell Theater in the fashionable midtown Wilshire district.

The School would mail notices to its metropolitan Los Angeles area subscribers, provide printed programs for the Easter service and announce the services on their Los Angeles daily radio program. I would be responsible for rental fees and all subsequent expenses. I would also buy time on a radio station for an early evening “Dusk Hour” program to begin two weeks before Easter. It would, I planned, begin with an adaptation of the song, “The World Is Waiting For the Sunrise,” followed by the theme poem,

“God of the dusk hour, reach Thy gentle hands
Out over every country town and city streets,
And into every troubled heart that beats
Put forth tranquillity. Grant to each one
That bit of inward peace it could not find
In the tumultuous, care filled hours of sun.”

What would I do for music, which I felt was as essential as the spoken message I hoped to give? There was Arthur X. Beall, the eccentric but musically talented organist who had played for “The Friendly Voice.” He wanted to make a change. Los Angeles appealed to him. He gladly agreed to be organist.

There was also, perhaps, Franklyn Kelly; and why I thought so involves that curious element of synchronicity that so often seems to appear in my life.

You Ought to Know Pat

Nothing ever seems to happen singly; everything always seems to be part of a chain of events. It was through two Unity friends, Margaret Norwood who worked in Silent Unity, and the sister with whom she lived, Adonna Norwood Smith, a dramatic coach, that I first heard of Franklyn Kelly.

They were of Irish ancestry, with the ebullient nature that expresses in a love of the lively arts. They liked to entertain their friends, and I enjoyed many pleasant occasions along with Irwin Gregg, (also a Silent Unity worker) and his lovely red-haired wife, Anita, and other people from the School.

One of their special friends was a singing actor who appeared in Schubert productions in New York and with the Municipal Opera Association in St. Louis. His name often came up in conversation.

“You ought to know Pat,” Margaret told me. “You’d be great friends.” It was a coming event that cast its shadow before. How it came about is as strange as that it came about.

Early in 1937 I was on a lecture tour through the midwest, and though Sunday is the most favored lecture date, for some unaccountable reason I had a Sunday free. My schedule was printed in Weekly Unity, where Irwin Gregg, by this time center leader in Detroit, discovered it and wired me an invitation to come and speak for his congregation on the free Sunday, for both morning and evening services, which I did.

The engagement was like many others except for two things. The meetings were larger, close to a thousand at the morning service; and the soloist, whom I did not meet until later, had an exceptional high baritone voice, and the clearest diction of any singer I could remember. He disappeared after each service to keep some other commitment. His name was Franklyn Kelly.

I remarked to Irwin what a fine soloist he had.

“I want you to meet him. He’s the “Pat” you’ve heard us talk about. I’ve arranged for a small gathering in our apartment and he’s agreed to come and sing for us.”

He did for an hour or more; songs from Showboat and the baritone solo from The Student Prince, in which I had actually heard him on stage without identifying him as Margaret and Adonna’s friend, “Pat.”

Finally Irwin had to say, “I know you have to be on your way early in the morning to keep your lecture commitments, so let me take you back to the Book-Cadillac before it’s late.”

“Oh, no! Let me take him,” Franklyn protested, and Irwin agreed.

We stopped for a snack in the coffee shop and talked until the wee hours. “I’ve read everything you’ve ever written, Ernest. Ever since I’ve known about you, I’ve felt we should work together. If there’s ever any chance, let me know, and I’ll drop whatever I’m doing and come, no questions asked.”

“Nothing would please me more, but it’s only wishful thinking. There is no foreseeable opening for a musician of your attainments in our Kansas City ministry, and I am so involved in it, that I expect to be there for the rest of my life.” On this somewhat negative note we parted, with the mutual promise to keep in touch.

Whitty Discovers Norma

It was Whitty who was responsible for my coming to know a woman who was to play a part in my life equal to if not greater than that of Franklyn Kelly. Both Whitty and I were omnivorous readers. Through most of my ministry I’ve read an average of four books a week, pored through the pages of a score of magazines. Often Whitty would discover new books I had missed and would share them with me. So when he read in The Star that a costumed book review was to be presented locally he invited me to attend it with him.

The review was to be in the home of the Harroun sisters, supporters of worthy causes and sponsors of Gladys Swarthout, a rising young opera star. The reviewer was a lady unknown to either of us, Norma Knight Jones. As for the book I remember only that it had a Colonial theme, the reviewer an attractive matron dressed in keeping, white wig and flowered gown. She was a winsome and effective speaker and we were completely charmed by her.

Book reviews were popular. I did some myself, for service clubs and church dinners, and particularly for Unity Inn whose manager sought to increase evening patronage by making a book review an added attraction to the appetizing food. I suggested that he should engage our newly discovered speaker for a series. She was a great success. Before long Lowell’s wife, Alice, invited her to do a program for the Woman’s Auxiliary of Unity Society, which led to her doing a review of Unity’s textbook, Lessons In Truth. By that time Norma and I had become friends. “This has opened a whole new field of interest for me,” she declared, as we had luncheon in the Bellerive Hotel suite of her sister, Elvessa Luther. “I knew nothing about Unity beyond its famous vegetarian Inn. Now it seems like something I’ve always believed.

Norma’s presentation of Doctor Cady’s book so impressed the directors of the Teachers Training Course that they asked her to teach a course for credit. “Norma, do you realize what has happened to you? Everybody else has to start at the bottom and work up. Here you appear and start at the top. Maybe one of these days you would like to be an accredited teacher. Why don’t you enroll for it?” And she did.

She must have completed it in record time, for it was only a year or so later that I heard she was interim teacher of a Unity center somewhere back east.

Chance or Guidance

Even when that silent voice within me said, “You must go!” I didn’t relate that feeling to my unscheduled visit to Detroit Unity and my meeting with Franklyn Kelly, the “Pat” that I had heard so much about. It wasn’t until Los Angeles seemed definitely to be my destination that I thought seriously about Franklyn’s impetuous offer. People of an emotional nature are often given to strong assertions that are not likely to last.

I wrote him about the strange turn of events. Did he really mean what he’d said about wanting to work with me? Was he willing to relinquish things at hand to take a chance on the Los Angeles adventure? He did. He was. He would drive his car to California, meet me at the airport when my flight was scheduled to land. It looked as if the whole thing had been planned!


“We say it with a smile, we say it with a sigh—Good-bye.” I’ve always found good-byes difficult—this one, after eleven years of treasured associations, most of all. I begged off on the proposal of a congregational banquet. But there were some farewells of a more intimate nature that I could not avoid, nor would I have wanted to miss the sentiments they expressed.

One of them was a workers meeting, in which one of the young men presented me, on behalf of the School, the Bell and Howell motion picture camera that had been loaned to me for use on my first trip abroad, with a quantity of accessories and color film as the workers’ farewell gift. I complimented him on his poise and ease on the platform (he was one of a score of young men who had taken my speakers class), with the comment, “Charles Fillmore is our ideal and we may all wish we could be like him, but perhaps we honor him most by trying to do what we admire him for doing—his insistence in being himself. Don’t be a little Charles Fillmore; be your best you!” He laughed and came back at me with the comment, “Ernest hasn’t said anything about the ‘little Ernest Wilsons’ on the staff!”

I thanked them for their gift and the sentiments it symbolized. “Give me your prayers. If I come back in a year’s time and say ‘Pinfeathers!’ you’ll know what I mean.”

Another was the tribute of the Young People’s Forum group. They insisted on a banquet. Some two hundred of them, radiant in their party apparel, assembled to express their devotion. For once in trying to respond, I choked up and couldn’t speak, which may have testified better than words, my affection for them.

Last Words

Those final days were saddened for me, too, by the illness of my helpful friend, Minna K. Powell, music critic on The Star. It was a day before I was to leave for Los Angeles that I got word of it, and went to see her at the hospital.

I was the last visitor to see her before her transition.

Roy Roberts phoned me to ask if I could stay over two days to conduct services for her. Of course I could—and did. Ernest Tucker confided in me that Roberts had also called him, and remarked, “I don’t think we have given Ernest Wilson the publicity he deserved for all he has done for Kansas City. Now that he’s leaving let’s give him a good send-off.”

It was a good part of three columns—extravagant for The Star in those days.

Only someone with the sensitivity and way-with-words of Jim Freeman (who you more likely know as James Dillet Freeman) could offer the light touch I needed in that time of momentous change.

Jim is a many-gifted man, but above all, in my opinion, a poet. You must have read some of his inspiring verse, but might have difficulty identifying him with the rhyme which accompanied a jocular going away gift (some silk socks) from him and his wife on March 3, 1938:

“Dear Ernest:

Man’s extremities are God’s opportunity
But they may appear in white socks with impunity.
So here’s to adorn ya In gay California.
Arrayed in these socks Go gather your flocks;
With a step made light,
With a ‘sole’ made white.
With a halo round your shins
You can save ’em from their sins.

Our gift’s not romantic,
Colossal, gigantic,
Hair-raising, or shocking—
Just a plain white stocking.
But sent with it too Is a blessing for you:
For your troubles a vacation,
For your meetings approbation,
For your loneliness a friend,
For your happiness no end,
For your days warm suns,
For the socks no runs!

And to supplement our wishes
A stanza ‘admonitious’:
You’ll have lots of good swimmin’
And beautiful women,
So be careful of cramps
And Hollywood vamps.
And so, to end, though the gift’s not much.
Still, cheerio, bon voyage, and such!
To the best of fellows the best of luck,
From a hazy,
infinitely lazy

Please remember the sinner Who owes you a dinner,
And forgive the verse—
It might have been worse.

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