Westminster Youth Choir

My mother’s best friend Mary Beth lived across the street from us on Mt. Pleasant St. in Oak Cliff, Dallas, Texas. Our families were good friends, and I played often with their son Andy when I was a little girl. Andy and his family eventually moved away from Mt. Pleasant; and later in 1962 we did, also. Both families still lived in Oak Cliff; but, except for occasionally bumping into Andy at school ball games, I had very little contact with him for several years. Our moms, on the other hand, spoke to each other and saw each other regularly.

Andy was a member of the Westminster Youth Choir at Oak Cliff Presbyterian Church. One day he called me to talk about the choir. He invited me to visit one of their rehearsals and asked me to consider joining. I accepted his invitation to visit and quickly became a member of this warm and inviting group of teens.

The choir’s beloved director was William C. Everitt, a.k.a. “Mr. E.”  We sang regularly for the congregation at the church and occasionally on the radio, and we recorded long-playing albums. Each summer the group also made an annual two-week tour around the U.S. and Canada. It took three Greyhound buses to accommodate our group of approximately 70 teens and its sponsors/chaperones. The choir raised money for tour expenses by holding paper drives. Then each traveling member contributed toward the amount that was still needed to cover remaining expenses. Normally, while I was a member in 1966-68, each tour participant paid about $70 a trip, some of which was returned to us a few dollars at a time for miscellaneous expenses.

Each traveling member chose or was assigned a tour partner. Carolyn, who was a current member when I joined, asked me to be hers. She and I went to different high schools and did not know each other before I joined. I said yes, and we were tour buddies until we graduated from high school.

Through at least 1968, the same three bus drivers drove us around the country: Charlie, Smitty, and Shorty. They were virtually one and were very kind and patient with all of us loud and rambunctious teens. We were good kids, though, as far as I know.

During my three summers with the choir, we traveled across the United States and into Canada. Some of the places we were privileged to see were: Niagara Falls, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Washington’s Mt. Vernon plantation home, the Washington Monument, Pikes Peak, Yellowstone National Park, Disneyland, the San Diego Zoo, the Expo ’67 World’s Fair, and more.

At Expo ’67  World’s Fair in Montreal, I remember a 360° cinema exhibit called “Canada 67.”  Spectators walked into a large round room and stood in the middle surrounded by  projection or TV screens. I watched as horses galloped toward me and around me, then disappeared behind me. It was much like an Omni Theater experience today but a marvel in 1967.

The choir only stayed in hotels when necessary. In cities where we performed, we stayed with church members in their homes. I believe it was in Montreal where Carolyn and I stayed with a family in an old three-story brick row house. The home and neighborhood fascinated me, and the huge ranch style breakfast they served was memorable – cereal, fruit, biscuits, toast, bacon, sausage, eggs, potatoes, waffles, pancakes, freshly squeezed orange juice…you name it! This is where I discovered how scrumptious real cream on cereal was! I had never tasted anything so divine. Also, I never forgot the old bathtub on the top floor. As I eased back in the bathtub that night, I saw the starry night sky through a large clear skylight high above the tub. A skylight directly over the bathtub was something new to me, and I was a little uncomfortable.

Our trip through Virginia and Washington D.C. in 1966 took us to Arlington National Cemetery and John F. Kennedy’s gravesite. This was my first visit there, and I was a bit overwhelmed. I was in Dealey Plaza in Dallas in 1963 when President Kennedy was assassinated just a few years earlier, but it felt like decades ago at the time.

We passed through Las Vegas in 1968 and spent one night at the Sands, I believe. Mr. E allowed choir members to break up into small groups that evening and walk around unchaperoned until our 10 p.m. curfew. My group started our night of excitement by going to the hotel café where each of us dared to order a soft drink garnished with an umbrella! Next, we tried to get a peek into a small showroom in one of the hotels, but the doorman closed the dark curtains and shooed us away every time we giggling troublemakers walked by. We had an early curfew that night and an early departure the next morning. To get to our rooms from the front of the hotel, we walked through an area right next to and open to poker tables in the smoke-filled casino. When we left the next morning around 7:00 a.m., the same guys were still dealing and smoking at the same table. I didn’t know people did that!

At the time, I was not able to appreciate how much work went into planning and executing a trip like these choir tours for 70 teenagers. We kids just showed up with our suitcases, ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on the bus (or in my case, jelly sandwiches), went where we were told to go when we were told to, and sang and prayed our merry way across the continent. What fun it was for us and what a huge undertaking and responsibility for all of the adults who planned and/or participated in these trips.

I am guessing that Andy was an innocent accomplice to a plan hatched by our mothers to coax me out of my comfort zone, and I am grateful he made that phone call to me that day. As a member of the Westminster Youth Choir I got to see breathtaking sights, meet many wonderful people across the U.S., and sing in beautiful and historic churches. Again, I find myself wishing I had taken more photographs and kept travel logs.

Being part of the Westminster Youth Choir changed my life forever. I made many good friends and had many rich, rewarding, and spiritual experiences. Our performances were conversations with God.

 

CHOIR 1966 TinaMamaPat CarolynMamaDoris BridewellMamaSidney
Back L to R: Me, Carolyn, Cathy’s and Linda’s mom, Cathy; Front: Carolyn’s mom, my mom, Linda; church parking lot; 1966?
CHOIR 1967 tour Niagara Falls
Niagara Falls, 1966
CHOIR 1967 Tina Mt. Rushmore
Mt. Rushmore

 

CHOIR 1966 MrEveritt handing out money
Mr. E, handing out cash, Mt. Vernon, 1966

 

CHOIR 1966 Linda Carolyn Iwo Jima Monument
Iwo Jima Memorial, 1966
CHOIR 1966 MarkWilhelm LindaBarton PatFitzgerald SteveKemp CongressmanJoePool Bobby Caldwell DMcCammon MarkFinley
On the steps of the U.S. Capitol with Congressman Joe Pool, Washington D.C., 1966

 

CHOIR 1968 CathyB Orange CA
Cathy, lost in a sea of luggage
CHOIR Las Vegas1
Las Vegas, 1968
CHOIR Disneyland2 singing 1968
Singing at Disneyland, 1968
CHOIR Carolyn Andy Azetc Ruins
Andy (ctr), Carolyn (far R); San Diego Zoo; 1968
CHOIR LasVegas
Las Vegas, 1968
CHOIR Kids on bus
Kids on the bus

 

CHOIR 1966 June1
Me, looking at the camera; church parking lot, 1966

 

The Towner Family Christmases

The Towner Christmases were always special. One of my favorite stories is from about 1955. It was Christmas Eve, we were living on Mt. Pleasant, and Mother asked my sister Nancy (six years older than I) to take me into another room and entertain me for a while. (Mother had some last-minute gifts to wrap which she did not want me to know about.) Nancy and I disappeared into the bedroom and closed the door. She took out a deck of cards, and we sat on the floor where she dealt herself a hand of solitaire. I’m on the floor in front of her, looking her in the eyes and probably jabbering away. She looks down at her cards and nonchalantly says something along the line of “You know there’s no Santa Clause, don’t you? Mother’s out there right now wrapping your gifts from Santa Clause. Look under the door.” I did look under the door, and I could see Mother’s hands wrapping a box with Christmas paper…and that’s how I learned about Santa Clause. Please don’t misunderstand how I feel about this or how I feel about my sweet sister Nancy. I remember this vividly, but I wasn’t shocked, sad, or surprised. I just remember it today as a funny anecdote, which I love to tell.

Towner tradition was: every year the family would go pick out a tree. Each year we went to a different place. Sometimes it was a local grocery store which brought in trees for the season. In the ’60s, I believe there was a nursery in the area that had trees, too. It seems like we usually bought green trees, but every now and then we took home a flocked tree, which I loved. At least once after we moved to our house on Ovid Avenue in 1962, Mom and Dad put one of those fake silver tinsel trees in the front window with a rainbow strobe spotlight on it – trendy. We opened presents Christmas morning and enjoyed a big traditional Christmas meal on Christmas Day.

Our house on Ovid had two huge picture windows with window seats on the front. The living room window was a perfect place for a Christmas tree! I liked to see how long I could stand without moving next to the tree in the front window, so people driving by would think I was a big doll. It’s odd that with all of the photos Daddy took, especially in the 1960s and ‘70s, I don’t seem to have any photographs of Christmases at our home on Ovid.

Meanwhile, back on Mt. Pleasant…

Unlike the house on Ovid, our small house on Mt. Pleasant actually did not have a perfect place for a Christmas tree, but Mother made one. My favorite thing to do was set up my Lionel train set under the tree. I can still smell the odor of that transformer mingling with the scent of the tree. I don’t remember when we got the trainset. I don’t even know if it was really mine or not, but it always felt like mine. During the year, Daddy stored the trainset in an antique wooden box which Daddy’s Uncle Jim handmade for him when he was living in Dwight, Kansas. (I am happy to say that I still have the box.) Decorating our Christmas tree was always a family affair, with glass Christmas balls, the ever-stubborn strings of lights, and usually silver tinsel icicles.

Christmas morning was a thrill for me, and we always had a lot of gifts under the tree. I specifically remember only a few of the gifts from my youngest years: a Patti Playpal doll, a white rabbit stole with hat, and a wooden highway set. In my pre-teens or teens Mom and Dad gave me at least one Beatles album; a green portable stereo for the Beatles album; a set of Lincoln Logs, and a spotted rabbit parka with hood, which I loved and wore way into my adulthood, even though the sleeves were slightly too short.

My most meaningful Christmases of the 1950s and 1960s involved my three years with the Westminster Youth Choir of Oak Cliff Presbyterian Church. In 1966, at the invitation of a childhood neighbor friend Andy, I reluctantly joined the choir. It was difficult for me to step out of my comfort zone of sticking close to Mom and Dad, but I never regretted it. Besides all of the other choir activities and fellowship, every year the large youth choir presented Handel’s Messiah on Christmas Eve. We rehearsed for months before the concert and performed for congregation, friends, and family. Our concert began at just the right time so that it ended at midnight with our singing the Hallelujah Chorus. Being a member of the choir in general was a very moving experience for me, and performing Handel’s Messiah with the choir, even more so. My parents were always there, and I think my sisters were probably able to come at least once. This made for a very late Christmas Eve for us but was something I looked forward to every year. I miss it.

This brings my childhood Christmas musings to an abrupt close, and I want to take this opportunity to wish everyone a very Blessed Christmas.

Peace on Earth.