The truth is often compelling, sometimes said in jest – maybe speaking in mere sport rather than in earnest – then often rejected out-of-hand by devilish self-delusion. That takes me back to 1956. It became a vexatious year, unflinchingly throwing formidable social and cultural challenges.
As New York suffers through yet another challenging era of ineffective political leadership (thousands sleeping on NYC streets, 80 homeless encampments), my 1956 NYC was safer, much cleaner, removed from the bleeding, burning NYC in the sixties. Columbia University’s journalism ’56 convention served as the magnet. This incongruous merging of NYC ways (smoking allowed in racially integrated movie theaters) with Richmond life, brought uneasiness. I was introduced to a veritable catalog of social challenges – over riding was a visit to the Very Rev. James Albert Pike (Dean) at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine.
Columbia’s journalism meeting concluded with a press conference (all 350 of us) interviewing popular singer, Vic Damone – every bit as talented as Frank Sinatra – accompanied by his then-wife, beautiful actress, Pier Angeli. Damone was riding high with his hit, On the Street Where You Live.
Other opportunities included attending Tonight Show, with Steve Allen, Skitch Henderson, and singing couple – Steve Lawrence and Edie Gorme. Enduring a NYC snow storm on St. Patrick’s Day, we took an early walk to 49th Street’s RCA Exhibition Hall, watching Dave Garroway, Jack Lescoulie, Frank Blair, and mascot, J. Fred Muggs – televising TODAY live.
That Dean Pike counseling session, arranged by The Reverend Albert K. Hayward, Church of the Holy Comforter, followed. We took a cab to St John the Divine Cathedral. Dean Pike, raised Roman Catholic, had converted earlier to the Episcopal Church. My fellow student was confronted with the same question, taking herself very seriously…. This “conversion” was no small beer.
Pike troubled me – a beautifully educated man, nevertheless nervous, incessantly pipe smoking, smelling of liquor. Even in my college bound year, I found him inordinately insecure, strikingly progressive – even mystic. She left Pike’s counseling totally relieved. Me, bewildered – maybe disillusioned.
Sad news appeared as we boarded our train to Richmond – comedian Fred Allen’s death was headlined everywhere. Discordantly, we returned home – less naïve…crashing into an abrupt finis for senior-high school sanctuary, complacency, ever bravado. Flummoxed? You bet.
Early spring would bring three weeks (4/29 – 5 /20) of Billy Graham at City Stadium. The Elvis Presley Concert followed in June. Stirring a cauldron of uncertainty….polluting carefully developed comfort zones.
Consider Elvis – his appearance at the Mosque brought less than full audience. In my mind Presley’s rise should’ve been a mere appetizer, nothing more. Grudgingly, I went to this ‘concert” – June, 1956. A group of cheerleader classmates were hell-bent on attending this Rockabilly. My strenuous efforts at avoiding it did not hold. Mercifully, the show was not particularly long – just four guys including Elvis Presley, scruffily dressed at best – maybe, unwashed at worse.
The girls were screaming all over the place, jumping in the aisles – the guys sat perplexed in quiet amazement. He performed something called, Heart Break Hotel. My reaction: he’d never make it to the big time…no Vaughan Monroe, Crosby, Sinatra, or Como here. How did this pelvis business penetrate our culture anyway….I simply didn’t get it – one of my countless miscues. Ed Sullivan eagerly waited.
About Billy Graham: These were hardly words and sounds associated with City Stadium, Richmond VA: Just as I am – without one plea, But that Thy blood was shed for me, And that Thou bidst me to come to Thee –O Lamb of God, I come. As DSF seniors, we attended out of celebrity, maybe religious curiosity. And yes, the majority of us responded to the altar call with – I come.
Graham’s Crusade earlier collided with push-back over his segregated meetings in Nashville and New Orleans, 1954. Unbeknownst to us, preparations (behind the scenes) dealt with Graham’s Richmond Crusade differently. By 1955, Graham wrote to Richmond minister, James Appleby, “I am assuming that the meeting would be non-segregated”. And it was.
Then, Billy Graham delivered a well-attended convocation address to black Virginia Union University, where he said the race problem lay at, “the heart of man”. Later he would visit the Museum of the Confederacy – proving to the RTD and RNL he wasn’t “a racial ultra liberal.” Graham’s Richmond Crusade enjoyed over750.000 attendee during its sojourn.
What’s going on, wailed Marvin Gaye, decades later: Mother, Mother…There’s too many of you crying…Oh, what’s going on… Had our family of believers lived a collective lie, which endured even after it was denounced? As friend, Don Gehring, recent Anthem retiree, shared recently – there’s a whole bunch of us – within us.