HAYES MAGUIRE FUHR: THE EARLY YEARS –
AN AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH
It all began in Lewistown, a little town in west-central Illinois, where my father had opened a dental office immediately following his marriage. Both the Fuhr and Maguire families had come overland in an earlier day - the former from Pennsylvania, and the latter from Kentucky – settling on adjacent farms northeast of Macomb, a county seat surrounded by fertile fields and wooded hills, some forty miles east of Burlington and the Mississippi.
William was a small boy when his parents made the long trek westward, but Mary was born on the new homestead which lay just south of that of the new family from Pennsylvania. When he had grown to young manhood, my father left the farm and attended a small academy in Macomb for a time, after which, he went into apprenticeship in a dental office to learn that trade. On completion of his service, my parents were married and moved to Lewistown where father opened an office in his own name. Two brothers were born before me, and when I was three, our family moved back to Macomb where my uncle had built a home for us on a large plot of ground.
Here, all of my remembered youth was spent. From my earliest recollection music seems to have been a bright thread in the otherwise plain and unadorned tapestry of my childhood. I was kept from school and was evidently not very rugged of frame, for I remember that I spent hours standing at the double front windows in the parlor, watching the more fortunate children go to and from their studies, or following the unfailing routine of the potters at their wheels through the windows of the private pottery across the street from our house.
In summer, I would sit entranced as the spinning wheels whirled jugs, jars, and crocks of all kinds into existence from the soft gray clay under the deft fingers of the silent workmen. Even now, I can shut my eyes and see the huge grinders with their spiral knives, mixing and kneading the doughy soil; the endlessly turning wheels; and the fascinating shapes which came from them. When the potter would place a ball of clay on the wheel and begin mounding an outline from its revolving forms, I could hardly contain my eagerness to see what the finished product was to be. If a jug, I was delighted, for I especially liked to watch him taper off the narrow mouth at the top and then, out of a little roll in his fingers, miraculously transform the clay into a curling handle, snipping off the tail with a deft little flourish for which I always waited with breathless expectancy.
When the vessels, whatever they turned out to be, were finished, the potter would place them very carefully on a slow-moving conveyor belt with wooden blocks fastened at intervals to hold the newly made forms, and off they would go to the drying rooms and the kilns, those enormous brick bee-hives, from which they would emerge as glistening receptacles for a thousand household uses. Between times, when I was kept at home, I would talk to my mother as she baked or cooked or did the family washing – always by hand, for it seemed we could never afford a machine – and I can remember her arms as they moved ceaselessly up and down the board in the foaming suds. I watched them with studied interest, for although she never seemed to give out and was seldom ill, I was haunted by the fear that something might happen to take her away from me; and it seemed to me that if her arms grew thin or lost their strength, that that would signal the beginning of evil days.
Strange childhood fears! They haunted me endlessly. Why or from whence they came I do not know. I only know that they, too, were an inexorable part of those formative days of youth. Perhaps the shadow they cast was but a part of the ever-present struggle for existence, which seemed to be always in the forefront of things. True, the house was new and it had a large lawn and huge back garden which I came to hate, but of luxury or ease we had so little, it seemed to me. Everything was conditioned upon its cost. We had a combined kitchen and dining room, a living room, a parlor, and a bedroom below and three rooms upstairs, with an attic, which always seemed a rather weird place to me. In the winter we had, at first, a cheery hard-coal stove, and then got along with one soft-coal heater in the living room, shutting off the parlor with green oil cloth bound doors to conserve heat, and thus to close us in more and more from the cold outside.
A register in the ceiling of the living room had to suffice for the upstairs, and after my brothers had gone away and I had grown old enough, I had to go upstairs to a room of my own, instead of sharing my mother’s and father’s bedroom. It called for courage to face the icy stair behind the closed door and the still icier sheets of the little black bed above. Mornings, I would dress "over the register," but the warmth was more psychological than actual. Downstairs, however, it was cozy and of an evening when the lamp was lit (we’d neither gas nor electricity) I would lie on the floor in front of the stove and read and reread books from our meager library. My greatest early treasure was a little red book of Grimm’s Fairy Tales, which I got for Christmas, and soon had memorized every tale in it.
After supper, my father would settle down to his paper in the living room, and that was mother’s and my time. With the door closed as she was doing the dishes or cooking for the next days to come, I would take my place in the corner farthest away (it wasn’t far at that) and there go through my repertoire of songs and school readings, while she listened and corrected me or made suggestions. She knew very little about music, actually, for her advantages had been few, but she loved it dearly, and her sense for it was keen. She was a loving, although an exacting master, and nothing was overlooked that she could do to improve the product. She had taught me my first song, which at the age of three, I sang to a capacity crowd on a program at the Opera House. From that time on she never seemed to lose the hope that somehow, someday, I might find a place in a world she loved but had been denied.
We talked much together in those times and came to have a mature understanding of each other. Although I was too young to sense it then, she told me years afterward in a Los Angeles hospital that our early relationship was something separate and apart from all the rest of the family concepts and routines.
My father was somewhat of an enigma to me, and I have never been able to fathom the strange complexes which made up his nature. He was at most times very quiet and absorbed in things which were his own. However, he had a fiery temper which might flare at any moment over small things, and it seemed to me that the necessity for expenditures, even for food or clothing, or our wish to go somewhere, or do something out of the normal routine, frequently caused his outbursts. I never knew what he was thinking, but if I wanted something very much, I had to plan a long time ahead to get the courage to ask for it and to approach the subject in just the right way, knowing that the odds were high in favor of his answer being in the negative.
Yet, in spite of the walls between us and the complete absence of that funding of interests and problems which I had always supposed existed in such relationships, I had genuine respect for him, and I feared for him too. As I said, his custom after supper was to sit in his chair in the living room and read the paper. Then, if the evening was mild, he would silently lay the paper aside and put on his hat for his customary walk downtown. What he did there or where he went, I never knew, for I never went with him and, of course, I wouldn’t ask. But I would sit in my small chair, watching him read and turn the pages and wondering if he would go that night.
We had an evening train whose whistle was as much a part of our lives as the fall of dusk. The train came in about three blocks away, past a dark row of buildings which housed another and larger stoneware factory. I knew that when he went downtown he had to cross the dark tracks, and always it seemed to me that he timed his going so that he would reach the tracks almost at the same time that the night train came roaring in.
I was always in a tension of fear lest he fall a victim to one of the train’s engines, and I would listen in dread for the whistle, then almost in terror for the sound of its departure which, if it were delayed, was a sign that he was safe, and that I could breathe easily until the next night. This fear of things happening was very real and tragic to me then, and even when I grew older and attended the upper grades at the Teacher’s College (established a mile west of us), I would come home in the late afternoon, only freed from apprehension when at last I turned the corner of our block and saw that there was nothing unusual about our house which would seem to auger calamity. How these dark fantasies of dread were born, I do not know. I only know that I was a long time in losing them, and that they left a dark and somber thread in the weaving of my personality.
The whole structure of those family days seems almost impossible now and yet it was pathetically real for me at the time. Our food problem was an acute one. We had no phone or deliveries, no charge accounts or any of the conveniences of normal living. So many, many times I have seen my mother follow my father to the front door and even beyond, putting off the evil moment as long as possible to inform him in her quiet voice that we were out of flour and sugar or butter or some other staple, and that she was afraid we would need some that very day. Sometimes there was no answer but only a seeming admission that if it must be, it must be. Sometimes his reaction was worse, and then I would writhe in remonstrance at everything which made for living, as though she, who ate nothing (it seemed to me), were responsible for the depletion of our small stores through the mouths of hungry, growing children.
Usually at noon or night, father would stop at a grocery store on the way home and bring a package of meat or sugar, or whatever he saw which seemed in order for the occasion. Butter was the thing that always seemed either to be just "out" or fast disappearing, and at times we were completely without it. Thanks to mother’s careful husbanding and her storing of fruits and home canned foods, we really had enough to eat, though it achieved "balance" only by accident.
Easter mornings were always a gala occasion, for then we could have as many eggs as we wished, but I can’t remember that we ever ate more than three. It wasn’t that I haven’t fond memories of lovely rolls, pumpkin pies, and cupcakes now and then, but that the trials of bringing them about were more than I wished my mother to bear. Upon occasion, we would have unexpected delicacies like muskmelon or watermelon, brought by my father from the new crop. I shall never forget one watermelon which was just large enough for me to sit on comfortably and reach the ground. I pumped water from the well over and over it to cool it for the feast. I have never seen its equal!
As I said, we had a large garden of fruit trees and many vegetables, some berries and grapes, and a few chickens. My father worked outside after his office hours until dark, and in the early mornings, and from him I came to know the techniques of gathering all the growing things – tasks I did not like too well. I was never made to do heavy work beyond my strength, but a long razor strop was a real threat for misdemeanors, though it seemed to me that my older brothers ran afoul of it much more often than I did.
These events were terrible for all of us, and the climax of all the strife was the awful threat of the boys "to leave home" when such things happened. One such occasion marked the only time I ever heard my mother raise her voice, and then she simply said that if my brother went, she would go with him. That settled it.
I would not have you believe that there were never occasions of happiness or mutual pleasure over simple things. We went to church with unvarying regularity. That is, all but mother, and she had her reasons for not going. I went with father of evenings, thinking a boy’s thousand thoughts and trudging silently along with my hand in his where the dark shadows were deepest. Later, I sang in the church choir and, of course, in Sunday school, where I mostly performed duets with a tall, slim girl, who for years seemed inevitably to be a part of my existence. When I began in the choir, I was still in short trousers – a white faced, shy little fellow who was having real difficulty with a changing voice. I always wanted my mother to come and sit in the first pew in the west balcony, but I also wanted her to look as fine as the mothers of the boys who were my companions at school; and when her shoes were unfit or she had worn the winter coat and hat so long that any more appearances in public were more than her pride would stand, I sensed a woe too deep for words.
One Sunday, my father asked me why it was I always looked so sad in the choir and in my surprise, I stammered some non-committal reply which went for an answer to something which no power could have dragged from me. Clothes, clothes, I came to hate them. One fall, I remember walking downtown with my father on a Saturday morning. I had no overcoat, yet, and as we crossed "my tracks" he suddenly said we were going to buy an overcoat for me, for he didn’t intend for people to say of his son that he was unprotected from the cold. My heart gave a leap and I had visions of grandeur, but while the new coat was worthy, it turned out to be a "Mackinaw," which seemed oddly sober and middle-aged for an undersized stripling such as I was. However, it was an overcoat, and I was grateful.
Christmas was a strange holiday of mingled joy and frustration. For weeks it was in the air – at church, at school, and even at home. I always knew what I wanted but was afraid even to hope to receive it, and so I watched eagerly for signs of the unexpected. Mother, of course, was busier than ever, working late on things I couldn’t see, and then, usually a day before Christmas, she would put on her best dress and go down to the office for almost the only time of the year. Our Christmas presents (outside of what she made with her own hands) were the result. Always there was something she had made – once a robe which I kept a long, long time. After the program at the church, we came home. Mother usually stayed up to finish the last stitches on things which her already bursting days simply could not encompass. She would hang our stockings on the couch (which at other times was my ferry to the world of romance through books). Then we were off to dream of what might be in our Christmas stockings in the morning.
There was always something of course – a knife, the Grimm books, some things to wear. My wildest desire for several years was a signet ring such as some boys were then wearing – a mannish and massive piece of jewelry. I finally got one, but it was a modest little thing with a diminutive seal, and though I tried to voice my appreciation, I could not bring myself to wear it very long, and it soon went into the archives of forgotten days. I was always much concerned about what mother would get, but one Christmas, father amazed us all by giving her a fur neckpiece. That was a real celebration.
So deep were the impressions that centered about Christmas, that when I got my first teaching position, and again after I came to Hastings, and on the last holiday I was at home, I bought a tremendous tree for the parlor, adorned it with beautiful glass balls, and had presents for everyone on a scale that I thought befitted the occasion. My brothers and sister did the same when they left home, and the packages which they sent were marvels to behold.
Speaking of the parlor brings back memories of the beginnings of my musical career, which, in those days, was so meager that it consisted almost entirely of wishful thinking. My first efforts in the field of music-making were expended on an organ. When, or where we got it, I don’t remember. Perhaps sometime after the birth of a brother who did not survive, or perhaps nearer my sister’s coming. In Lewistown, there had been a first child, I believe, who did not survive; then came my two older brothers; and next after me, came another baby. About that, I remember the stout old doctor and the long black bag which he carried up the stairs. Mother lay in the south room, resting, while a small, quaint stove, erected for the occasion, gave heat and cheeriness to the plump little old practical nurse with the deep, hoarse voice, who seemed to rule over such historic occasions. She only stayed a few days, but while she was there, there was no doubt about who was master in our house!
I also remember the little white casket which sat on the table in the front room for an hour or two. Massive Jim Hainline, whom I always liked, put it under his arm for the walk out to the cemetery with my father and the minister. It all came and went so quickly that I hardly had time to comprehend the sad event. I only knew a vague regret that I could not have the strange new experience of a baby in the family. However, as the days went by and another year or so rolled around, another change seemed to be in the air, and mother told me this time that I was to have a baby sister – she hoped. To the accompaniment of the doctor and the "duchess," life took on a different pattern. I did not lose my mother, but she was infinitely busier than ever she had been before, and I began the serious business of helping myself.
I started to tell you about the organ. It was made by the same Boston people who built the church organ here.¹ When the contract for the Hastings organ was let, I smiled within myself at the memory of days in the old parlor at home where my short legs struggled to pedal and work the knee crescendo at the same time. It wasn’t easy!
In those days I had for a music teacher an assertive, black-eyed young woman of twenty or so who came weekly to instruct me, and whose favorite means of correcting my erring fingers was to tap them with a long pencil, which, when it wasn’t so occupied, was used to write instructions on the pages with bold, dashing strokes. I never liked her, and I abhorred the pencil. By a strange twist of fate, on our trip to Billings two years ago, I ran straight into two girls whom I had not seen in years. One came to the church where we were to have lunch. When she asked if I remembered her, I groped through the mists of the past and finally placed her as a neighbor who had been a schoolmate in my grade school days. That same evening, a man phoned while I was dressing, disclosing himself as the husband of the finger-tapping teacher, who had remembered my name and who, after reading in the notice that we were coming, had laid it upon him to call me, since she would be absent, attending a wedding in the West.
Fortunately for me, our organ did not achieve immortality. One day out of a clear blue sky, my father announced that he was considering the purchase of a piano! I was breathless with incredulity, and during the long days of determination concerning the make and the place of purchase, I was almost afraid to refer to the subject for fear it would vanish. However, a friend of father’s in the church had bought a piano from a firm in Burlington, a "Gabler" – a brand not much known in the Midwest, but an instrument which he liked enormously – and, of course, that influenced father. There was also among our acquaintances, a huge old itinerant German piano tuner who finally tipped the scales for us. He was unique – a giant of a man with a massive head and a riotous mane of gray hair, which was always wildly disordered. His rugged face was fascinatingly and unbelievably homely. He walked with little mincing steps as delicately as Cinderella in glass slippers. He smoked cigars incessantly, dropping the ashes wherever he might be, and his teeth were a horror. But he had the soul of an artist and a reverence for, and a concept of, music which in some happier state would have made him immortal. (I never knew what Beethoven must have been like, but in my imagination I saw Mr. Gardner as an arch prototype of that master.) To hear him improvise on the pipe organ or on our piano after he had talked and sworn at the instrument continuously for three hours was to lose oneself in an unearthly garden of delights – and Mr. Gardner loved Gabler pianos!
At last came the day when I typed a letter for father to the Guest piano people in Burlington, saying he would come to their loft in Burlington to consider a purchase. The most surprising thing in the letter was the final sentence, which I hammered out with trembling fingers. I can see it yet: "I want to bring my son, Hayes, with me when I come." I have often wondered what nice old, white-haired Mr. Guest must have thought of the naivete of that sentence: Although it may have seemed but the whimsical personality of a prospective small town customer, to me, it was the promise of a round-trip journey to fairyland.
The days were leaden while I waited. At home, or at the office, I lived the anticipated excursion a thousand times. I didn’t dare question my father about it, for he was always deliberate, and I knew that no word of mine could hurry events. I also knew that when the time came I would be told. Until then, I should keep silent.
I speak of "the office," for I spent a good deal of time in my father’s office during holidays or vacations. It was very plain and modestly equipped with old-fashioned appliances and fixtures, not like other offices which had all the outfitting customary to dentistry. There was nothing to do there but look at a few old dental trade magazines or sit in silence while father worked at his bench making bridges or plates in the craftsmanlike fashion which was his. He had learned his trade in the old school and learned it thoroughly. When a job was done, it was completely done. I used to be concerned over the lack of glittering contrivances which adorned the other offices of the profession and wondered how people would come to him even if his work was so well done, but I never talked of it. I never knew whether he considered that possibility or what he thought. Anyhow, those days helped me to pass time that otherwise might have dragged, although it didn’t exactly soar on wings there! During the waiting for the "day," my presence there kept me close to "headquarters."
At last "the day" came, and we departed on the morning train for Galesburg, forty miles away. Then came a change of trains and another thirty miles westward across the bayous and tangled woodlands adjacent to the rivers. Then we crossed over the mighty Mississippi and headed into the sleepy old town, built on towering bluffs. We had lunch at the Burlington station, where I was almost too excited to eat, and where, at the close of the meal, we were brought odd little green bowls of water, for what purpose I hadn’t the vaguest notion! Then we walked back to the store, and I met the amiable young Mr. Guest, a singer of note in the community, who sang for me. I hadn’t known there could be such notes, outside of recordings to which I had listened down at kindly Mr. Dicker’s drugstore during evenings when there were no customers. Mr. Guest pronounced words in a strange and quaint colloquial fashion that bespoke both reverence and appreciation. He was kind, however, and very genuine. Somehow, he prevailed on me to sing, which I did to no effect whatsoever, but he encouraged me and when I got home, after a day or two, I received a copy of Toste’s "Goodbye," the song he had sung, with his compliments and best wishes. I still have that piece of music.
That afternoon saw the purchase of a sturdy little Gabler piano, and, to cap the climax, we entrained for Fort Madison, a few miles south, for a night’s lodging and a visit in my mother’s sister’s home. She and her husband were lovely people, as was their son, just a little my senior (and always a brilliant fellow), who later became a department head at DePauw University in Indiana.
Next morning, we took passage on a freight train caboose across the fields to a junction twelve miles from Macomb. We were home by dinner time with breathless tales of all that had transpired. In a few days the big box arrived, and eventually it was unpacked, under the meticulous direction of my father. The glistening new piano was placed in a corner where the sun would not check the veneer. Needless to say, my happiness knew no bounds. Now there remained only the matter of tuning at the loving hands of Mr. Gardner. This was accomplished while I sat like a gnome, listening to his profane mutterings. Finally, the moment came when the task completed, he sat down and lost himself in reverie at the beautiful sound of the tuned instrument.
As a special dispensation, we kept Mr. Gardner for supper, putting a big screen about the stove (which we always did when we had company) and stretching the round steak (which father had brought) to feed four, instead of three. Mr. Gardner was a prodigious eater, who washed down enormous mouthfuls of steak and mashed potatoes with tumbler after tumbler of water and successive cups of coffee, talking meanwhile in explosive little eruptions, punctuated by hissing chuckles which started far below the table edge – and his strained vest – and vanished as quickly as they began.
So now I had a new companion, and though, for me, playing was always secondary to singing, I began a series of lessons with a new teacher whom I had always known—a very loveable, mature young woman in the church—whose family was well-to-do and who was active in P. E. O. and other clubs in town. The lessons didn’t last long enough, but they gave me a keyboard foundation, and I set out to learn to play my own accompaniments.
I owned very few songs except for those that appeared in The Musician’s Magazine (a publication similar to The Etude), which arrived monthly. I always passed over the piano pieces and concentrated on the songs, which were all too few in number and nearly always beyond my voice range. But I plugged away at them and tried to teach myself some magic formulas, which hopefully would "uncork" the notes I coveted.
Some of the songs I have since taught many times, and I never come across one of them but that I feel once again the old surge of despair that coursed through me as I struggled to learn to sing them. The only help I could get was from the voice forums which appeared in the magazine’s columns each month. There, singers and teachers discussed many of the problems of singing. These I mulled over in search of aid, for I was prey to all the difficulties mentioned and more. It was heavy going, and much of the time my frustration led me to near despair.
About this time, the State established a beautiful new teachers’ college on a lovely campus overlooking a deep, wooded ravine in the west part of our town. When the doors opened on the first day, I was there to enter the upper-grades training school that prepared one for the high school curriculum. Getting to school meant a mile’s walk, straight west on our street, then down a long hill to a meandering little stream and finally up a steep ascent to the big new hall. Lunches (which were rather Spartan some days) were eaten at school, but there were always sandwiches, even if they had only mustard for filling (which I liked) and an apple or sometimes an egg, milk, and oranges or bananas – the latter two luxuries, being present only occasionally.
At the new school, I had wonderful teachers, many of whom opened to me horizons that I had not known existed. One little white-haired lady, plump and starched in the fashion that only such persons can be, and with an habitually rather stern expression, which I was at first instinctively overawed by, one day called me to her desk on some trivial matter and then smiled at me with a twinkle in her piercing blue eyes. I totally surrendered, and she became my guiding star. I still have some of her written reports about my progress. One day as we were walking down the hall between classes and no one was in sight, she suddenly put her arm around my shoulders and leaning over, kissed me on the cheek and said: "Bless your bones!" After that I would have died for her! She was a great soul and an inspired teacher, who gave me visions that took me unscathed over many a troubled bit of intellectual highway.
My music teacher, who was pleasant and efficient, did not register deeply with me. By a strange coincidence, years later, I came home from a choir rehearsal to find that a Mr. and Mrs. Fairbanks had called, saying I had been a former student. I rang them up at the Clarke Hotel and found that she was the music teacher of those former days and that she had married one of the faculty members whom I also remembered. I went to call on them and we had a fine visit. She, remembering more about me than I thought possible, asked if I recalled the operetta we had given. I did, in fact, very much recall it, for in it I played the part of "King Winter," appearing in a cotton trimmed white suit which at every turn shed snow flakes mixed with artificial glitter. Also, I knew that my uncle, an architect, had built her a fine big house near the College.
I remember my high school beginning time most vividly, because it was almost my ending. I had sold magazines all summer and accumulated enough funds, kept in a green pocketbook, to buy my books. (I had the cost figured out to the last dime.) Father had bought a bicycle for himself, and on rare occasions, he would let me ride it to do errands. I never felt easy riding it, for I knew if anything happened while I was "on tour," I would be in for some unhappy consequences. On the Saturday afternoon before the opening of school, I had his permission to ride down town for my books. (Father was in a nearby town where he spent one day a week as a visiting dentist.) I got over the tracks and down the main street when I suddenly realized that the back tire of the bicycle was down. Panic-stricken, I looked back, oblivious of a rugged team of horses which were drawing a wagon toward me. The driver very considerately reared the team to keep the wagon tongue from hitting me directly. When I woke up in the hospital a block away, my mother’s brother, who had a store on the square, was standing by me with my purse in his pocket. The bicycle was pretzel-shaped, but I was still whole, except for a lacerated ear and minor contusions. Long afterward, my father had the machine straightened and finally rode it again. We never discussed my accident.
High school brought me new friends and new problems, but no relief from the music urge. I worked in two bookstores before and after school and also in summers, for the extras a boy somehow always needs. At one time I worked in a variety store where they sold everything from needles to sprinklers. When I had put the mops and buckets, garden tools, and express wagons inside for the night (at six o’clock) and had helped with the routine of closing, I was off on the double-quick to supper and then to the high school playground, where four of us – a boy classmate and two girls – played tennis until it was too dark to see the balls any longer.
In those days, I was still in short trousers and small and insignificant looking. I felt especially insignificant when called upon to appear in public. I don’t remember being embarrassed that I still sang soprano – though I suppose I should have been – but that stopped with a suddenness which was electric. At the final exercises of my second year, I was booked for a solo and picked the one mother and I had worked on so many times in the kitchen: "Angels Ever Bright and Fair." It had a "g’’ at the close, but that was not a particular bother and even went off quite satisfactorily. However, that was the last of my soprano singing, and I thought that my world had come to an end. In consternation, I sought out the music instructor, whom I revered, and learned that it might be some months before I had a new and different vocal organ. She was right, and that was the beginning of a long and baffling problem which had me bested for years. The change wrought other changes than that of the voice, however; and I determined to be mature in clothes as well as in the larynx!
My oldest brother (Edward) had gone into railroad work as a dispatcher and then as an agent, while my next brother (Myron) had taken a position in my uncle’s store in dry goods. He still lived at home, and his clothes were an envy to me. One light gray summer suit I considered the finest thing that I had ever seen, and when he had had it for some time and was contemplating buying another suit, I bargained with him to sell me the gray coat. That it was much too long I knew, but I also knew a tailor who I was sure could cut off the bottom in such a way that no one would guess that it had been altered. The deal was made, and I bore the coat off in triumph to my tailor friend who did his best. That it looked odd to practiced eyes, I have no doubt, but to me it was a piece of “glorified raiment.”
I had also gotten a pair of tweed trousers which, after shortening, looked elegant to me. In September, I arrayed myself in the “new-old” coat, and the tweeds and departed for school with a sense of well being which is hard to describe. All went well until an overstout young senior, whose family lived very comfortably on the proceeds of a shoe store, took one appraising glance at me as I came up the stairs, and the next thing I knew it was all over school that I was wearing my brother’s cast-off coat.
When one realizes that most of the friends I had, both boys and girls, were members of families who did not know the pinch of circumstance, while some of them were really well-to-do, and that my inclusion in their circle was only the result of my participation in music and dramatic activities – circumstances which gave me an entrée I might not otherwise have had – the effect of this episode may be imagined. I became a cauldron of seething emotions, and, for a time I hated the world and all who dwelt therein!
Mother helped me through this emotional outbreak, however, and somehow I picked up the scattered remnants of my pride and did not lose the friendships that meant so much to me. Nevertheless, the sting of realization of the gulf which separated me from most of my friends had been born in a travail which was to mark me with pain for many a day. Somehow, I did continue to make friends, both boys and girls, and we were inseparable through all the coming days of high school and again in college. I was invited to their homes, and we had a delightful comradeship which has never ceased to be sweet in recollection. However, I never could have invited them to my home in the way that they invited me to theirs – a situation that was the occasion for many a heartache on my part. One, Keith Kerman, my closest friend, lived most of the time with an uncle, who was a Bishop. What great hours we spent together in all kinds of experiences, and how delightful his sweet Aunt Etta was to me, I shall never forget.
I don’t think I made a very spectacular record in high school, but I loved the musical experiences, and especially those connected with our male quartet, which performed on every possible occasion, serenading the teachers and the girls on moonlight nights, and at times appearing at such events as farmers’ picnics.
The operettas were a joy to me. One I particularly liked, a setting of the Robin Hood story, had a tenor solo that was the ideal of my heart. I wanted that part above all else in the world, but I knew my size was anything but heroic and that my voice had a range of only about an octave and a third. “G’s” were still over the horizon for me and in that operetta, there were a good many to be sung. I was not surprised that another student got the part. It was an English operetta called “Sherwood’s Queen.”²
The Latin class was my nemesis, and when I got into too deep water with it, I went off to see my Great Uncle David – Mother’s uncle, who lived in the eastern part of Macomb. He would put on his spectacles and bail me out. “Lord of All the Family,” he had kept the country homestead when grandfather bought land across the road and built the home where mother spent her childhood. Great Uncle David married an Eastern woman of learning and spirit, who for some reason had run afoul of the good graces of her sisters-in-law. “Aunt Beck” became a name that was rarely spoken by our families. When it was mentioned it was accompanied by an ensuing tight closure of lips and an arching of eyebrows that was most expressive. I never did learn the “why” for all the ruckus, and frankly I liked her and respected her, too.
Uncle David was a delight, and his Latin ability was a seven-day’s wonder to me. My next older brother (Myron) was his favorite, but he was also kindness itself to me, and I loved the hours we had together. He reminded me of grandfather, who was also a patriarch of the first order. My grandparents’ home often served as a Mecca for me. Grandmother was an energetic, peppery little lady with a sharp tongue, which she used on the slightest provocation. Grandfather, however, was as soft-spoken and mild as the Kentucky air, which he left with regret and to which he always longed to return. His face showed an infinite sadness, but his quiet chuckle and hearty greeting were of such quality that in his presence nothing could ever seem very wrong or pessimistic. He loved horses with a passion, and they responded with equal friendship. He always kept a spirited one for himself and a quiet, docile old mare for grandmother. The springtime trips along the hedges to the farm with him were things to remember, almost with tears.
Once in a while, my grandparents would come for the day – their buggy stacked with good things from their abundant kitchen. I think grandmother, and grandfather too, worried a great deal about mother, though nothing was ever said. Dinner with them was always at noon, and at their house, a meal replete with food which refused to be forgotten, for grandmother, who was of the old school, cooked with an expertise which left nothing to be desired. Now and then, I would also see Edward Bartlett, my Fort Madison cousin, who would occasionally come up for a visit with his parents.
Of my father’s parents I knew less, for they both died when I was quite young; but I can remember Grandfather Fuhr as a tall, quiet, rather austere person to whom life always seemed to be a very serious matter. My Uncle Ed (father’s brother who had stayed on the farm) was, however, a lovable type, and when we would “borrow” old “Kate” from Grandfather Maguire on Sunday afternoons – as we often did – and ride out to the old home, I enjoyed every minute of our time together and reveled in the Russet, Bellflower, and Jonathan apples along with the big melons which he raised between the rows of lofty corn.
During my high school years, I was a fairly permanent “fixture” at my uncle’s store, both before and after school, as well as on Saturdays and during vacations. When I was working full time there, I reached an all-time wage peak of six dollars a week – a condition of near affluence for me.
Concerning financial matters, a most astounding event took place one morning at our front door. A knock sounded and I went to answer it, only to be met by Aunt Beck! Never had I known her to come to our house, nor for us as a family to go to hers. I was so surprised that I stammered a little before asking her in. This she refused, but she handed me three envelopes, saying that they were a little gift from Uncle Dave. On that, she was gone and I was left holding the three mysterious packets. After the surprise had subsided (only my mother and my sister were home), we opened them to find checks for two hundred and fifty dollars each for Esther and me, and five hundred for Uncle Dave’s favorite, my brother Myron. (Edward, my oldest brother, was gone from home and was not remembered.) We finally came down to earth and learned that most of the grand nephews and nieces had been presented with like amounts. The gifts were never explained, but the less sociable members of the clan interpreted the gesture as an action of Aunt Beck’s to forestall any substantial legacies whenever Uncle Dave should be “gathered to his fathers.”
I did not worry about any hidden motives, for I had never expected anything and I was grateful for what I received. It was more money than I had ever seen at one time, and I hastened to deposit it in the care of my good friend and Sunday school teacher who, with his father, was an officer of the pioneer bank of the region. With this hoard at my back, my income of three dollars a week during school terms brought relief from many difficulties, including such things as class levies for projects of one kind or another. One time I needed sixty cents for so long that I was about ready to steal it; but now I was a capitalist, though I well knew that the fund must be hoarded against withdrawals for anything but the most necessary causes, for it was all that stood between me and a life behind an oaken counter.
An event of even greater importance took place at about the same time, without which, I am sure, I should not now be reminiscing in this meandering fashion. It was announced in the press that John Karl Jackson, a Harvard graduate student at the London Academy and a student of the illustrious William Shakespeare and Luigi Denza, would make his future home in Macomb with his mother, establishing a Conservatory of Music. He would also be looking after his farm estate some seven miles out of town.³
Naturally, this news created considerable excitement among the high school students, and we were eager to hear more of the project and to see the new director. I had small hope of being able to study with him, but I was nonetheless much interested. Having no immediate excuse for seeking him out, I learned, only from gossip, of his lease of the second floor of a large building, of the appointment of teachers, and of the opening of classes at the new Conservatory. Through all of this, I had the feelings of one who looks at a fascinating vista from behind an insurmountable barrier. However, one Sunday when I was soloist at church, I was surprised to have been approached by a pleasant, well-dressed gentleman who introduced himself as “Mr. Jackson.” He spoke kindly of my modest effort and asked me if I was studying voice. I had to confess that I was not, and he must have read between the lines, for he asked me if I would like to come to see him without any obligation. That was not hard to answer, and the result was a job and lessons with him.
Mr. Jackson had bought an old home with a deep lawn on a quiet street of the town and was remodeling the place to his taste and also building a rose garden and a lily pond. With unnecessary tact on his part, he finally got around to the suggestion that I might help build the pool and clean up odds and ends from the builders in exchange for lessons. This was in the summer before I began working full time at the store, so I had ample time. The only trouble was that the work didn’t last long. However, that did not seem to make any difference in the time allotted for my vocal study. We had rapidly begun a friendship that not only lasted for years but made me the recipient of his help and advice. Lonely, and somewhat shy in the presence of women, Mr. Jackson seemed to find something of the companionship he craved in helping me. Extremely artistic, he showed an unusual talent for decorating in a somewhat European manner.
The formal music room of the Jackson house with its great windows and French furniture contained a new grand piano. Also there was a library-den filled with quantities of books, antiques, and odds-and-ends gathered from everywhere – all charmingly bohemian and restful to the eye. His sleeping rooms were likewise filled with an array of rugs, tapestries, mementos, and furnishings which were quite beyond my ken. The dining room, with its huge fireplace, looked out onto a back garden. Its walls were delft blue trimmed in almost-black oak, with heavy beams. Here, his elderly mother moved about like a fading shadow, staying mostly in her own quarters, but when she was in evidence, being very gracious. I began to be asked to visit them with more and more regularity, until their house became almost as much a home to me as was my own. Mr. Jackson seemed to be utterly unconscious of the disparity in our ages and of the even greater disparity in both our backgrounds and our training, literally adopting me in every way except the legal one. My mother was enraptured and on every occasion possible tried to thank him. He threw it off, as he did my own expressions of gratitude, vowing that he was merely indulging himself at my expense.
Soon I was studying piano and theory, along with voice, and finding myself a member of the Conservatory family, whether I willed it or not. He was planning a career for me, the extent of which I could not even have guessed. He had taken in as a piano assistant, a girl my senior by several years, who, although from a modest grocer’s family, had a profound talent for teaching and accompanying. Clara Dunsworth left an impression on my life that endured. Unquestionably an asset to the school, she joined the Conservatory staff bringing with her a large class of private students. Her radiant disposition and her smile were winsomeness itself. Despite her rather humble circumstances, she was sought after by those whose lives were surrounded by luxury. Old Mr. Gardner worshipped her and would creep into the back of the auditorium or the church when she played, listening to her, and then leaving as silently as he came. One Christmas he gave her a lovely watch. Although she knew he could not afford it, she could not bring herself to return it, not wanting to offend him. After I was assigned to her class in piano, she dragged me out to the homes of her friends, soon making our forays into society as natural as my misgivings and embarrassment would permit. Through some magic of hers, I began to feel at home in “society.”
My feelings of inadequacy were also helped by my association with a mixed quartet which Mr. Jackson formed. We four – with Mr. Jackson as the pianist and coach – sang all over the area and even went to Chatauqua. We were also featured in the operas which the school gave (somewhat ambitiously), such as The Bohemian Girl, and The Rose of Castille. How I toiled over the Thaddeus role in The Bohemian Girl! To start with, I was still of unheroic size, and furthermore, the high notes were still “over the horizon” for me. But when Mr. Jackson got through with that score, I was both singing and acting as if I had a right to do so. When I got into college (the Conservatory was a two-year institution), I plunged into music and dramatics, and into my life walked jolly, rotund, lovely Susan Davies, head of the speech and drama department. She gathered me to her like a clucking hen. I finally discovered that she wanted me to write an oration and represent Western at the state contest, which, of course, I was supposed to win. Who was I to demur when those devastating big brown eyes pleaded with me?
With her to push me and rewrite most of the ineffectual drivel that I carried to her, we finally got the thing done. It was a saccharine, lachrimose effusion on America: “The Spirit of the Conquest.” When she got through with me, an Arkansas circuit rider could have done no worse and no better. Came the night: as I stood backstage in the beautiful auditorium at our school with Louise Hainline holding my script, I suddenly realized that I could not remember the first sentence. In a daze, I heard the dying applause and Louise whispering encouragement in my ear; and knowing that the knell of doom had rung, I walked onto the stage, took a long look at the murals on the distant walls, and opened my lips.
Susan Davies had done a good job, because I could no more have stopped when the time came to speak than I could have halted an avalanche. After the tumult and shouting were all over, I had won by unanimous decision of the judges, and for the only time in my life, was hoisted onto the shoulders of a crowd of demented fellow students and paraded before the multitude. It all ended with a serenade at my home, where father sat silently, thinking his own thoughts. The serenade he thought rather silly, but I think mother liked it. There was then only the matter of the trip to Oskosh, Wisconsin, to meet the other winners of the Mid-West area.
Dear Susan Davies gave a luncheon for me with all my favorite teachers as guests and, having sensed that I wasn’t bursting with funds, explained that expenses would be borne by the Association. She hinted that we might like to stop in Chicago on the way back to see a play or musical comedy. Since boys did not usually have a lot of extra cash, couldn’t she loan me twenty dollars? In addition, she asked Fritz Kerman to go along as a sort of “ambassador of good will,” and he was only too glad to go. We made up a jolly party as we enjoyed the beautiful countryside and all the thrills of travel and hotels. When the contest verdict was read, a chap with a “lisp” from Kansas won first place, while I placed fourth. Alas for Susan! She never got over it, although I did – quite soon. She was in a real “fever.” I would have been glad for her sake if the outcome had been different, but I had done my best and was glad the whole thing was over. We had a happy day and night in Chicago and arrived home safely – although wiser. She made a grand talk at chapel and saw to it that I was not in disgrace, but she never entirely got over her pique.
I was next involved in producing incidental music for the Shakespearean play we were undertaking – none other than Hamlet. Louise was to play the part of the Queen and Carolyn that of Ophelia. I had been memorizing my lines for weeks as I trod the mile to and from school. Clara and another woman worked out the incidental music from one of Grieg’s Suites, and the whole production was lovely. The crowd was huge and the thrill of presenting the play was all any of us could have wished. Susan Davies was as happy as a Meadowlark. Our greatest thrill, I think, came from the review written by old Dr. Hursh, an English scholar and critic, who we expected to be “commiserate,” or at best, “only tolerant.” However, he outdid himself in kindness, and we all reserved special pages in our memory books for his critique.
Several years later, I met our then head janitor in a hall of the College, and though I remembered him vividly (for he had been on duty since the first day I entered the door as a preparatory student), I thought he would hardly have recognized me. I was wrong. He said: “Hayes, do you remember the throne chair you used in Hamlet?” Did I remember? “Well,” he said, “I still have that chair and intend to keep it.” Of such little things is the tapestry of life woven, in one’s memory to remain dear.
I felt that Mr. Jackson seemed to take my drama appearances with some reservation, and I could not be sure that he condoned my efforts, which were, as I think back, rather juvenile. One night when we were together at the studio and he was questioning me about the progress of the play, he suddenly asked me to read one of the soliloquies to him. Of course, he had seen the best that the Shakespearean stage offered, and I felt like a fool, but I sat down at his desk and gave the “To be” all I had. He said very little afterward, and I was uncertain what he really thought. Presuming that he wished to spare my feelings, I decided to say nothing. Afterward, when he assured me that I had no heart for anything but music, he told me that he was dumbfounded and saw all his plans for me falling in a heap. I had a good laugh at that. Summer was coming, and he was scheduled to take a party of students and teachers abroad on a personally conducted tour. He knew well the countries and the historic places they wished to see and had worked out itineraries which occupied two months or more, covering England, France, Germany, and Italy. I was to take over his choir while he was away. I had, of course, sung in the choir for years, but now I was to experience the group from a new vantage point. My fellow members rallied round me, like the good friends that they were, and we not only supplied a full complement of church music, but also gave a formal program. In doing this job, I found something that drew me to it as nothing before had done. From that experience came the conducting “infection” that has fevered me from that day to this.
That fall, and Mr. Jackson’s return, saw the start of my last year to live at home. It was full of musical productions of all kinds, both at the College and at the Conservatory. My dedication to music did not particularly please my father. As a matter of fact, in some talks we had had at the office, he had made it plain that he thought a music career for me “hazardous” and doomed to failure. However, in spite of his protest, my mind was set, and mother was my champion. Though deeply anxious over the possibility of my getting gainful employment, it was what she wanted most for me.
Since my little legacy was by now eaten away, I told my story to Mr. Eads of the bank, and he let me have one hundred and fifty dollars without raising an eyebrow. Then, Mr. Jackson and I boarded a midnight train for Chicago. We went first to the Fisk Teachers’ Bureau, where a kind, but slightly dubious, old lady met us. She was, it turned out, acting as an agent for aspiring young teachers. I met and sang for the frock-coated President of Iowa Wesleyan, but my youth was, for him, an obstacle. After we had done all we could to further my employment, we consigned my fate to the Bureau and Heaven, and climbed fourteen stories of stairs to see the opera Tannhäuser. The stage was so far away that one seemed to be looking at it through reversed binoculars. However, the opera was lavishly produced, and I was overwhelmed. I went to bed that night to dream of clanging railway tracks, processions of college presidents, and operas, all jumbled together. Next day, we saw Pagliacci with Caruso, and Cavalleria Rusticana in a double afternoon bill, then Geraldine Farrar in Madama Butterfly at night. Caruso left me speechless. Given after that trip, my senior recital did not seem to represent an event of world importance, but I did what I was capable of doing at that time. Fortunately, Mr. Jackson accompanied me.
One morning in mid-June, the postman handed me a letter while I was mowing the lawn. It bore the embossed seal of Culver Military Academy on the corner of its long buff envelope. I tore it open in a tremor of excitement and read with incredulous eyes the order to report for duty as “voice instructor and director of the glee club” on June 27. Bounding up the front steps, I dashed through the house to the kitchen where mother was busy in her morning routine. We had a celebration, just we two. Father took the news very calmly and, I think, was quite as surprised as I, though he made very few comments. Mr. Jackson, of course, was delighted and when the news got around, I was congratulated on all sides. I had not known of the opening there and knew very little about the place, except that I did have the impression that the Academy was a rich and exclusive school.
My original salary was modest – only $75.00 per month plus all living expenses – but that was the least of my worries. I had only about two weeks to get my wardrobe ready for my new duties, and the days flew by quickly. My greatest concern was my youth, for I was only twenty and looked even younger. Finally, the day of departure came and I arrived at the quaint little station on the shore of beautiful Lake Maxincuckee. (The Academy is about half a mile from the station, reached by a wooded walk along the lake.) I was first sent to the mess hall, a tremendous dining room with oak paneling, seating more than 750 cadets and officers. The first meal included a half fried chicken and all the accoutrements. After lunch, I was assigned quarters in the main barracks, facing the lake. The Colonel was formally polite and explained my duties, which were to teach all who registered for voice lessons and develop a cadet choir for the Sunday morning services.
From the very first, I had my problems. The rigidity of the military routine made individual practice difficult, and the boys were so occupied with their schedule of activities that group practice was very hard to engineer. However, I got a respectable squad together and we started in, mostly with unison material at first, for boys at the Academy with real musical talent were exceedingly few. The students came from everywhere – mostly from wealthy families. The Colonel put the fear of heaven in us all by proving to be a fiery southerner with an iron hand and a voice that could cut through plate glass when he was roused. So long as one’s work went smoothly and produced results, he was very suave, but let some hitch, however unavoidable, occur, and he was like an incendiary bomb. His distinction and length of service made a newcomer in the arts field feel quite uncomfortable.
Young Morris Andrews, who was a recent alumnus of the Academy, was the teacher of violin and a most delightful friend. He was as handsome as an “Apollo” and played beautifully. I felt privileged to be asked to play his accompaniments.
My paycheck turned out to be a gorgeous affair with a lithographed design of the flagstaff, cannon, and color guard, and the seventy-five dollars was thrilling, too. Part of it went back to Mr. Eads to apply on my loan. Summer passed quickly, and I was rejoiced to be notified that I could continue for the winter term. My short vacation was spent in relating my experiences to the family and Mr. Jackson, and picnicking with school friends at home.
Soon, however, I became convinced that permanency at the Academy was not advisable if I were to get on in my career. One of my job application letters went to Hastings College, about which I knew nothing. A reply came inviting me to come to Omaha to meet the President – President Crone! However, he offered me nothing definite, not even board and lodging. He only offered to pay me 85% of all the monies that I brought in to the College during the first year and the hope that I would join his staff. After three days, I wired him that I would accept and went to the Academy officer with my resignation. I packed with a bit of a lump in my throat, but with a strange new joy in my heart, in anticipation of what might lie ahead.
This autobiographical sketch, probably intended as a kind of informative open letter to be read by Doctor Fuhr on various occasions, was typed from handwritten pages by his son, Dr. Tom Fuhr, and later edited by Elinore Barber. We assume the sketch to have been written at some time between 1940 and the mid-1950s.
¹In this case, "here" probably meant Hastings’ First Presbyterian Church where the Hutchings Organ Company installed an organ in 1916.
²Hayes Fuhr would later produce this operetta at Hastings College.
³Hayes Fuhr studied with John Karl Jackson, presenting his graduation ("diploma") recital in May of 1911. It is clear from this program that Hayes could still reach the high "G’s."
This autobiographical sketch, probably intended as a kind of informative open letter to be read by Doctor Fuhr on various occasions, was typed from handwritten pages by his son, Dr. Tom Fuhr, and later edited by Elinore Barber. We assume the sketch to have been written at some time between 1940 and the mid-1950s.