"OVER MY SHOULDER"
Hayes Fuhr addresses the Hastings Rotary Club
on the occasion of its 50th Anniversary
Reminiscence is the prerogative of age, and that is no striking phenomenon. For when a man suddenly and unexpectedly reaches three-score years and ten, twenty, thirty, or more, he can’t go up, down, sideways, or forward, but he can (and often does) go backward in retrospect and frequently, for the first time, is able to trace the road that was his alone, back to where as a foot-path, it first emerged from the mists of anonymity. As a sort of compensation for society’s denial of the right further to participate in whatever has been one’s adult business in life, such rejuvenation is sometimes a wholesome tonic for a sagging physical and mental morale. It’s free; it needs no guides, guards, or gallery; and it may, or may not, be shared, depending on available auditors and the disposition of the originator. Which more or less brings us up to Friday, July 30, 1965, and my inexplicable presence as your luncheon "dead-end."
In the drowsy county seat of McDonough County, Illinois, just forty miles south of the site of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, November 1894 was typical of autumn in a region where Mother Nature flaunts her full colorama when the "frost is on the pumpkin and the fodder’s in the shock." No event of spectacular importance seemed destined to happen, but – it did. By attraction and custom as fixed as the planets in their courses, November was the month for that pageant of splendor, the Firemen’s Ball, when the loyal community citizenry paid tribute to the heroic squad of three regulars and forty-four-odd volunteers, whose feats of valor – under fire – were legendary, including the salvaging of Abe Noodson’s outhouse, which ignited when Abe dozed off and dropped his pipe among the pages of Montgomery Ward’s catalog.
The Ball was traditionally held in Chandler’s Opera House, which was appropriate, since the old relic was a wooden fire-trap upstairs above the newspaper offices and the butcher shop. This location of the only community arena was typical of the times, since in case of fire, the only risk was that of the audience and not the valueless files of old news sheets or the slowly putrefying cadavers of pork or beef, below. The talent for the Ball was always "home grown and processed," and the M.C. was usually the local auctioneer, whose oratorical style was picturesque, if somewhat ungrammatical. The program committee, working on hearsay and "the grapevine," chose the performers, who were only too glad to oblige; and when their inning was over and the persimmon folding chairs were tiered against the walls during the intermission, the action shifted to an orgy of waltz and two-step to the music of the Symphonette, consisting of an 1870 Kimball upright piano, a violin, and trap drum.
As noted above, the year was 1894, and at his modest home at 320 East Pierce Street, your reminiscer was well into his third year – old enough to wear pants but not to support them without big horn buttons or galluses. Being considerably younger than his brothers, he was thrown back upon himself for entertainment, and by an unaccountable mutation of heritage – since no one of all his tribal kinsmen had ever been known to utter vocal sounds other than speech – he found his chief outlet for expression in song. Now to such deviates from the normal pattern of communication, song is effective with or without words, and so his limited vocabulary was no problem. Lack of words, or even of recognizable melodies, didn’t stop him. He sang to the family’s aging Water Spaniel, to the Jersey cow in the barn lot, and even to himself. Why not? Song was a language, and what matter if no one understood it but himself? So long as he was the sole auditor no limitations were imposed. Although his mother had been reared in the "yea, yea" and "nay, nay" rural pattern of communication, she was perceptive and sensed that her latest born might just possibly possess (she hoped) certain musical powers not here-to-fore encountered on any other branches of the family tree. So she encouraged his singing endeavors without stint.
After supper was their favorite music hour, and while she washed dishes in one corner of the kitchen, he preempted the opposite corner and, to his heart’s content, sang all the home and folk songs his mother could recall and impart. Naturally, such a strange bent in a fledgling could not be concealed, and somewhat to his chagrin, he became a regular performer at frequent large or small family gatherings on Sunday afternoons. Thus, it was inevitable that the program committee of the Firemen’s extravaganza should hear of this new star in the musical firmament and that the incredible young soprano should be asked to make his public debut at the Ball.
When he trudged out of the wings into the scenic monstrosity of a simulated forest glade, he was unaffected by the cordial reception of the capacity crowd or by the seemingly unlimited dimensions of his first view of a theatre. But he was saturated with an incandescent dislike for the song which certainly he had not chosen for his debut. He thought it plain silly, and while he would sing it if it killed him, the sooner it was over the happier he’d be.
It was a juvenile ditty of the Victorian Age, and the text has never left me. You be the judge:
"My kitty has gone from her basket,
My kitty has fled up a tree,
O who’ll climb the old slip-prey el-um
And bring back my kitty to me?
Bring back, bring back, O bring back my kitty to me, to me,
Bring back, bring back, O bring back my kitty to me."
Since not even a fireman volunteered for the rescue, I presume the feline is still up there. Need I add the footnote that though I trod the splintered stage floor of that old Opera House numerous times in many roles in subsequent years, I never ceased to be embarrassed and chagrined over the musically degrading incident of my first public performance.
In ensuing days I was to learn that while song was a realm of enchantment which never failed to provide areas of adventure just waiting to be explored, it could not be enjoyed by one’s self alone or in isolation. It had to be shared. Also, I learned that the instinct to sing could be found in young or old, rich or poor, and that even girls occasionally possessed the gift. I had been going along enjoying my own little private world of music, singing when and what I liked, when one of the motherly, "all sweetness and light" Sunday School teachers discovered that Jeanette Creel also "had a voice" and enjoyed using it. Jeanette was of my generation, but she was long and lean while I was short and squat; however, between us, we provided the teachers with a tingling inspiration. If we each were effective alone, why shouldn’t we be a sensation together? Again the freedom of choice was denied me, and for a protracted period I became the male half of a duo with my spindle-legged consort towering over me, much as Vincent Price does over George Goble. We sang at every Sunday school rally, ice cream social, old settlers’ picnic, Odd Fellows’ banquet, and minstrel show on the yearly calendar. Finally, to prevent the development of a dual personality, I enlisted, alone, in a community declamatory contest. My elocutionary vehicle was entitled "The First Violin," a sob-saturated "gusher" about an emaciated fiddler who found one of the 10,000 Stradivarius violins supposed to be cached in attics, tool-sheds, and junk shops. Unfortunately, our hero collapsed over his priceless instrument at the climax of a concerto. My coach was a stooped, grizzled police judge, who was about as emotional as the characters in Grant Wood’s painting, "American Gothic," but I had him in tears during the final rehearsals and after twenty-four hours of debate, the judges awarded me the five-dollar prize for fourteen-year-olds.
That triumph encouraged me to try an interstate oratorical contest as a college senior. This called for a simon-pure original creation, so I concocted the most potent "barnstormer" I could devise and christened it "America and the Spirit of Conquest." During the fray Old Uncle Sam, somewhat younger in those days, beat the living whey out of every misbegotten opponent in the spiritual, physical, and economic worlds. Attired in a wing collar with bow tie and a pair of elevator heels, I survived the state skirmish but at the interstate, in Wisconsin, I met my downfall at the hands and tongue of an anemic, near-sighted scholar from Kansas—who lisped—but effectively. With that, I took off my breastplate and put it in the ash-can, deciding that the nation could jolly well solve its own problems.
Exactly fifty-three years ago this July (shades of Methuselah!) at Culver Military Academy in Indiana on the shores of picturesque Lake Maxincuckee, I was about my customary business of trying to make musical mountains out of vocal mole-hills with a corps of cadets, many of whose families were in the social register, but who had, themselves, been woefully short-changed in the capacity to sing. In the midst of this activity (in which my percentage of winnings was comparable to that of the New York Mets), I received a letter from the newly appointed President of Hastings College in Nebraska, asking me to meet him in Omaha to discuss an appointment to his faculty. I complied, and after nine hours of mutual dissection of what he had to offer and I to give – pursued in a well-heated room in the Hinshaw Hotel – he said: "Young man, if you want to invest your life where it will draw rich dividends of challenge and opportunity, you’ll come out to Hastings, Nebraska, roll up your sleeves, and go to work. You’ll be Director of the College Conservatory, but until we find a piano teacher, you’ll be alone. You’ll direct the choral groups, teach as many private voice lessons a week as you can promote at a dollar a lesson, and I’ll give you eighty-five cents of every dollar you take in."
When I was able to speak after this amazing offer, I said, "But Mr. President, I thought colleges guaranteed salaries to their instructors. You haven’t even assured me of board and room." "I know, I know," he replied, "but, you see, music must pay for itself from the fees, and I want to see what you can do. We’re starting to build a department, and this contract should give you the incentive to make it grow. If you succeed, you’ll make a better income than I could offer you in salary. Board and room is a minor detail."
Thereupon, I headed back to Indiana, promising my decision in a week. I wanted a college assignment above all else in life, but this proposal seemed a bit like going to sea in a rowboat. After three days of quandary I was still adrift when a telegram came from the President, urging me to accept the appointment. On impulse, I flipped a coin, assigning "Heads" to Hastings and fervently asked Providence to direct the toss. It did, and the die was cast. Up to that time, if I had thought of Nebraska at all, it was as a "home where the prairie-dogs roam and coyotes and jack-rabbits play"; also, as the home of William Jennings Bryan, whose pudgy, moist hand I had once clasped at a farmers’ picnic in McDonough County. Now, however, I was to join the endless, westbound caravan across the wide Missouri, and only the angels knew what lay beyond that horizon.
Early in the following September, I arrived in Hastings at high noon on Burlington’s old "Number 1," wearing, I blush to admit, a derby hat, which I hoped might lend some maturity and dignity to my callow twenty-one years, but which must have made me resemble a juvenile replica of Charles Laughton in "Ruggles of Red Cap." Soon, I was to regret the bowler, for I promptly learned that Nebraska winds have a habit of blowing where they well listeth, and on my first appearance on Second Street my derby preceded me by a block. I finally rescued what was left of it from beneath a parked horse and surrey in front of Lib Phillips tavern and mid-life museum.
My adventures at the College and the absorbing challenge there would fill another life-time of remembrance, but high on the list of early personal benefits received here was that I came to meet and to enjoy the friendship of many of the stalwart townsmen of those subsequent days. Their friendly acceptance and generous support of a fledgling citizen became, for me, a potent incentive and a hallmark of this loveable community. There was, and is, a spirit about this place – a civic soul and conscience and a tolerance and good will among its people – which had, and still has, an irresistible appeal.
For example, I can never forget a summer’s morning in 1918. I was spending an hour of work in my garden when around the house came Herman Stein and R. D. Gaston, two men whose names, together with many of yours, must forever be linked with the development and character of this community. They had left their respective places of business to do me the honor of extending, in the name of the Board of Directors, an invitation to become a Rotarian.
I was deeply impressed as they enthusiastically described the nature of the organization, its personnel, and the ideals which I, as a representative of my profession, would be expected to uphold. As they concluded, I asked for a moment of consideration: First of all concerning the fifty-dollar dues and the luncheon fees, which would constitute a sizeable percentage of my salary (by now, it had become assured); and secondly, I wanted to consider the rare opportunity thus afforded me to meet and to mingle with a select group of community men in a manner which no other association might provide. The decision was self-propelled and thereby I entered into a fellowship, individual and collective, which has blessed me ever since. When thirty years later, I became president of this body in the most illogical, inconsistent, and unprecedented election ever contrived by an electorate, my cup of amazement and incredulity reached the flood stage and has never receded.
We are, I think, cognizant of the community and international aspects of Rotary. They are important and worthy aspects of an organization of free men. Other clubs have them and rightly so. The objectives of professional integrity, service, and community and world interest are implementations of the ties of unselfish friendship which are available to members of this organization. However, this does not imply that stimulating and productive friendships are limited to the roster of the Rotary Club.
The inevitability of change is apparent in this club, which now marks a near half-century of existence. It was a lusty and vigorous unit in its youth, when it had the field largely to itself and when the zest for camaraderie and action was young and flowing free. The weekly luncheons were not enough to satisfy the thirst for activity, and numbers of projects were developed to give variety and spice to the over-all program.
Are these, the good old days, gone then, never to return? Perhaps to a few of us old enough to recall them, there comes an occasional feeling of nostalgia in the same way we remember certain episodes of our youth. But time marches on; the patterns of life and custom change; and in a developing community, each generation must evolve its own agenda of activities suited to the tastes, resources, and objectives of its time. Any really functional activities, regardless of type, which were ever developed here, were, after all, only vitalized expressions of the spirit of fellowship which nourished them. The only danger, as I see it, is that we should become so engrossed in personal, professional, or business problems that we should fail to make our individual contribution to the fellowship of this club and thereby wall ourselves off from one of the most vital and invigorating experiences in adult community life – the experience of being a Rotarian.