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Ernest Wilson—If You Want To Enough


The weeks that followed seem like a dream.

Friends in the little church took up a collection to provide a going away gift. The young people gave me a billfold to put the money in. One of the motherly women prepared a box of sandwiches, oranges, and hard-boiled eggs (overlooking salt to help down them) to sustain me on the five-day train trip. I felt in my coat pocket to reassure myself that I had my ticket, including an upper berth in the Pullman car, as I faced the little group in the parlor of the church, and tried to thank them. I felt like Barrie’s “Sentimental Tommy” as these kindly folk attempted to assure me of success in this bold venture. My last glance caught sight of a framed group picture of the church board, that included the Honorary Secretary, Charles “A.” Wilson. I hoped the wrong initial was not a bad omen. John insisted that I should be called by my middle name, Ernest, instead of Charles (“C. Ernest Wilson” seemed pretentious to me, so I put the “C.” in the middle).

I was in a kind of dream state, my emotions fluctuating between hope and fear, like an erratic needle on a ten-cent store compass. Could I ever feel at ease facing and speaking before people? I thought of my self-consciousness standing before a class in high school, and the even worse occasion of having to leave the platform in that Sunday morning effort. But I did come back, and I did complete the talk. John had told me how he learned to speak. He would sit down, close his eyes, place his hands on his knees, something would come over him and he would rise to find himself saying things he hadn’t known he knew. I had tried it out by myself, and nothing had come out but fear. Would it be any different under his tutelage?

“Oh, My California!”

It must have been about the third or fourth day of the train trip, in the late afternoon, that we crossed the Nevada state line into California. I stared out the window. The setting sun gave a rosy tint to the sand and sagebrush. Saguaros, tall sentinels standing like organ pipes, were silhouetted against the distant purple mountains. The closing lines from the play, The Girl of the Golden West that I had seen as a boy in Seattle came to my mind: “Oh, my mountains, Oh, my California!” I felt like I was coming home. If the train had stopped, I would have gotten off and knelt on the sand before one of those saguaros.

The train trip ended at Oakland, and we passengers were ferried across the bay to the landings at the foot of Market Street in San Francisco. I stood on deck and gazed in wonder at the harbor, the Embarcadero, the precipitous peopled hills. There was a chilly wind in the bay, in contrast to the misty brightness of the noonday sun. I was grateful for my winter coat, and snuggled against the fur collar.


A beaming John Ring greeted me at the wharf, checked my luggage, declared I must be starved, and led me to one of seemingly countless eating places along the waterfront, where we had what seemed to me a lavish luncheon—for fifty cents! He outlined his plans for me. We would spend that day and most of the next sightseeing. Although he loved San Diego, he was, like most every Californian, native or adopted, inordinately proud of the flamboyant Queen City of the West: “a wonderful place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there” as people say, perhaps in self-defense against its ambivalent charms.

Through my wondering eyes, and his enthusiasm, I was introduced to Chinatown, Union Square, Golden Gate Park, Fisherman’s Wharf, even the Barbary Coast. I marvelled at the courage and vitality that had rebuilt the city after the terrible fire of 1906. Only out-of-staters referred to that calamity as “the earthquake.”

San Diego was another world. It represents the most idyllic period of my life. Friends of John’s met us at the Santa Fe railway station and took us out the palm-bordered streets through Balboa Park to the little rose-bowered church which was to be my home for the formative period of my ministry. It was built like a theater but had the atmosphere of a church. The auditorium, or sanctuary, was two stories high, with a stage, orchestra pit, and comfortable orchestra seats that folded back when not in use. There was a balcony backed by several rooms that had windows facing the street. Cecil Bruner roses climbed the front of the building. I could reach out the window of the room assigned to me and pluck blossoms to put in a vase on my desk. Window boxes provided still other flowers and vines. Below these rooms, was a large combined entry hall and library. Waist-high bookshelves provided a divider between the entry and the auditorium. Monk’s cloth curtains above the bookshelves could be closed to separate the sanctuary and the combined entrance and library, or opened to provide extra seating when the sanctuary was overcrowded.

A Cloud Over My Sun

John Ring was an amazing man. He received a very modest salary from his ministry. He did not own a car, but depended upon public transportation. He was an able gardener, and grew most of the vegetables that appeared at daily meals; meals skillfully prepared by his aged sister, who, with her husband, occupied a cottage adjoining and owned by the church. John’s brother-in-law was gainfully employed by the city, and on his own time helped tend the vegetable garden on the north side of the church, which like the flower garden on the south side, was pleasant to look at, made more so by an impressive border of calla lilies which, unlike their multicolored neighbors, preferred shade to full sun.

I appreciated the hospitality that went with being a student minister, but anxiously awaited my first interview with my prospective employers in the local engraving house. I took with me to that first interview, a thick folio of work that I had done in Minneapolis; samples of greeting cards, letterheads, canned goods labels, furniture catalogs, streetcar cards, ornamental lettering.

“Thanks. We’ll let you know,” was the response.

But they didn’t.

John Ring returned from a funeral service one afternoon to find me sitting morosely in the garden.

“How did the interview turn out?” he asked. “I don’t think they want me,” I answered.

“You’ll never get a job with that attitude. I’m sure you will hear from them. When you do, take the attitude, ‘I go to accept a position!’ ”

They did, and I did. “Haven’t you some more samples of your work? You gave us so few,” the manager said, pointing to four or five sheets topping a pile on his desk. A sheet of cardboard had become inserted between the ones he had seen, and the rest. I lifted it, and he exclaimed with surprise at the larger number of samples that had escaped his attention.

I got the job.

It lasted only a few months. There was a recession, with not enough work to keep me busy. They would call me on special assignment, which they did. By the time their work increased to the point of putting me back to work full time, I was fully occupied with combined work and instruction at the church.

Training in Earnest

The John Ring version of Ministerial Training is probably unique, if indeed it could be recognized as such.

Every morning after ablutions we would meet before a simple altar over which hung an always lighted votive candle. Beneath it on a narrow table was an open Bible, a cross, and a picture representing Jesus. To the left of the table was a growing plant, to the right a goldfish bowl. Standing before the altar we would intone, with ritualistic gestures:

“O, Mighty Power of fire and air,
Of earth and sea,
That cometh with prosperity,
Bring much of such
To all, and unto me.”

Following this we would work for an hour or so in the garden, then come into the church kitchen for a simple breakfast; fresh fruit—figs or kumquats and guavas from the garden—eggs, toast, and coffee for me, cocoa for John.

There were always letters to write, copy for or from a printer, Sunday School material to be written, stencilled, and run off on a mimeograph machine.

Part of most mornings, though, was devoted to sessions in public speaking in the chapel. John would order me to the speaker’s platform. He would take a seat in the back of the room.

“Don’t just stand there. Say something,” he called to me.

“What shall I say?” I responded miserably.

“That’s up to you.”

“I wish the floor would swallow me up. I’ll never be a good speaker. I have no ideas, no voice. I can’t do it,” I said.

“You can if you want to enough,” the familiar words came back at me, “and at least you said something. It’s a beginning.”

A sorry beginning, surely. But he would not give up. He would plead with me, praise me, scold me, but he wouldn’t let me give up.

I soon learned to prepare for the inevitable. Whenever I thought of an idea to talk about, I’d jot it down. I began to watch for such ideas, and accumulated a list. John applauded the habit.

“Stand up straight. Take a deep breath. Relax. Bring your voice forward; don’t let it sink into your throat!” Over and over he would keep at me. Only his patience and persistence kept me going.

Sometimes after such a session I would seek refuge in a place that still comes vividly to my mind, now, over half a century later. I would take a streetcar to Fifth and Laurel, and cross the bridge to Balboa Park. The park lands had been the sight of the World’s Fair in 1914 and the buildings erected to house its exhibits, though constructed in a manner to serve only a temporary purpose were so handsome that an effort was made to preserve them. One of the most appealing structures to me was the great outdoor pipe organ. Daily concerts were offered by Humphrey Stewart. The structure housing the organ was surrounded by stately buildings on three sides, enclosing an open court with benches arranged like a concert hall. It was open to the public without charge. Sometimes there might be no more than a dozen sightseers awaiting the program; on special occasions a capacity crowd of two thousand crammed the area. But whether it was a dozen or thousands of persons, when the organist appeared, he was always formally clad in traditional morning clothes: tail coat, striped trousers, gray vest, white shirt, wing collar,and pearl-gray cravat. He would step forward, bow in concert style and go to the organ console.

Listening to the music, or strolling through grounds, or sitting in meditation overlooking the morning glory glen gave me release from the intensity of my initiation into the ministry.

Christmas services featuring the organ, famous singers, and robed choir in red and white vestments, holding lighted candles as they sang from open courts on upper levels of the surrounding buildings were memorable, but the most moving of all special events that I witnessed was a concert before the organ during the stressful days of World War I, when Madame Ernestine Schumann-Heink was the featured soloist. She was a Southern California resident with a home on the side of Mount Grossmont, a few miles east of San Diego. People often would drive up the winding road to park near her home in the hope of hearing her great voice as she rehearsed for coming performances.

She had returned to a second singing career after retirement, appearing on the Orpheum vaudeville circuit, in order to help her children recoup financial losses, and had responded to an invitation to give a concert at the great organ in tribute to the armed forces. It was at the height of World War I. Although her voice showed the strain of the years, her artistry dominated her voice. Her nobility of character transformed her physical plainness. She was magnificent. For some reason her regular accompanist could not be there, and a young local pianist was called on to assist her. The emotional response of the great crowd that had thronged to hear her increased with every song. She was singing not only to them, but to her two sons, one serving Germany on a U-boat, the other in the American Army. Her final encore was “Danny Boy,” a touching tribute to them and all the sons represented there.

The great assembly rose as one person, shouting, weeping, applauding. They did not want to let her go. A great artist, but for the moment she was their mother, her face like theirs, tear-stained. They kept her standing in acknowledgment of their acclaim. Finally she turned to the young accompanist, reaching out her arms to embrace her, to another crescendo of applause, as they left the stage.

She gave that assembly something more than a concert, an incentive to greater love, greater faith, greater courage.

In a kind of comedy relief, another performance assaults my memory. It featured John Ring, who was always active in civic affairs, always a dramatist at heart. Some community organization had asked him to direct and take the lead in a morality play, Everybody. It was to be given on the stage in front of the organ. At that time, as when Schumann-Heink sang, the handsome buildings surrounding the organ court housed military recruits. Wondering if his voice would carry to the limits of the vast enclosure, he asked me to accompany him one morning to try out his voice. I was to stand at the back, while he mounted the platform and came down to stage front. His voice boomed out in the descriptive words, “I am Everybody!”

From a window in one of the buildings came a booming response: “The hell you are!”

The comment was once made by a devotee of Aimee Semple Mac-Pherson, “She should have been an actress!” “Should have been? She is!” was the response.

Something similar applied to John Ring. A compelling minister he certainly was. But he was also an actor, like my associate of much later years, Franklyn Kelly—or Franklin Roosevelt. Remember when he dispensed plates of turkey to undernourished children at Warm Springs? You’d think he was giving them a fortune.

Watching John Ring “perform,” I would be filled with dismay. “Is that what is demanded of me? Til never make it!” And never make it I did. Whatever compelling power I might have with an audience or congregation, I have used another method, perhaps unwittingly—understatement.

But John never changed, and he never gave up trying to make an actor of me, as well as a minister.


The first time was in Minneapolis, when John had me read the lines from Shakespeare’s As You Like It, beginning “All the world’s a stage.” Other times were in San Diego. Henry Walthall, the Little Colonel of Birth of a Nation, appeared in a road show production of Ibsen’s gloomy play, Ghosts, which you may remember closes with the tragic appeal of the afflicted Oswald, “Give me the sun!” John took me to see the play, and was enthusiastic in his praise of the actor, but felt that the play need not be so depressing. The action should build up to a hopeful climax. And he would do it! We would put on our own production! We? Yes, declared John, and Walthall was much too old for the part, a young man in his twenties. I was just the right age. I would be Oswald, and he (John) would play the character part of Engstrand.

John Ring had a whim of iron.

So, “I couldn’t memorize all those lines and cues—ninety sides—and moreover I didn’t want to,” but I did. The play was so well received that we performed it every night for a week, successful more on account of John’s portrayal of Engstrand than the efforts of the rest of the cast.

The play, and others that I managed to stay out of for the most part, seemed to me to be distractions from what I could do best, which was writing.

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