I Didn’t Mean to do it!
“Every great mistake has a halfway moment, a split second when it can be recalled and perhaps remedied.”--- Pearl Buck
This morning the phone rang before seven. “Who can that be?”, I thought. Our children and friends had been informed to not call me before at least eight since I was on air until midnight the night before. It had become part of our routine after only a few weeks.
I learned early on, some people can be very mean to others, especially those with whom they have a political disagreement. Add to that as a public person, I became fair game.
In those days prior to caller ID you had only limited choices to deal with crank callers. Don’t answer the phone, get an unlisted number, or put up with the nastiness.
My wife of many decades was a school teacher. Our children had many friends who called, we had ageing relatives who relied on us, so not answering was not an option. Since many of our friends were from outside the Fall River area we needed to keep our phone number listed. So we always answered the phone and hoped for the best.
“Maurice, this is Sister Marie Celine,” the voice on the other end of the line said.
“Lady this is mean, go to hell!” was my retort as I slammed the receiver down.
My Dad was an undertaker and as I prepared for the show the night before, I did what everyone who grew up in the funeral business did. I read the obituaries religiously. That night was no different, except I read it during the news just before I went on air. It was then I noticed an obituary for a wonderful woman who had been principal at St. Mathieu’s Parochial School in the north end Fall River for all but one of my nine years there.
Sister Marie Celine was a real sweetheart. She was a native of the agricultural region of Quebec, Canada, way up north along the Saint Laurence River on the Gaspe Peninsula. Though that part of Canada is among its most beautiful it is a brutally cold area and survival is very difficult. Many of the Sisters of Saint Joseph who were of French Canadian ancestry came from Quebec, especially far to the north.
Sister Marie Celine once compared her moving to New England to me moving to Florida. It’s much warmer and more hospitable here. This fine lady was fluent in both French and English. Add to that a wonderful violinist. And she could hit a baseball with the best of them.
She was both loved and feared by her students as she was a no nonsense type who would not flinch at using her little strap on either the back side or hands of the recalcitrant.
Sister had all but given up on me. She loved my spirit but thought from time to time it needed to be reigned in. Many a good sister had tried, all failed. I was incorrigible.
I did have some qualities she admired. I was an altar boy who served for many years (we didn’t have altar girls in the Catholic Church then only boys, so we hadn’t yet coined the PC term altar server). As a matter of fact I remained an altar boy when I graduated from St. Mathieu's and was in high school because I thought Father Arthur Levesque was a pretty cool guy. He could walk on the roof of the church to repair a leak, spar with us in the makeshift boxing ring he built in the church cellar, hit a baseball even better than Sister Marie Celine. Yet he was always there when a boy needed some comfort while trying to grow up.
My most memorable Mass service was on Thanksgiving Day 1958 just hours before our annual Durfee High/New Bedford High tussle. The Whalers were a powerful team led by a man who would later become a federal judge and take part in the trial of a man (Buddy Cianci) you’ll hear about later in the book.
During the special request portion of the Mass (it was in Latin then) Father Levesque requested special Blessings for our Durfee High team and Sister followed up with a loud "Bravo" which all could hear.
All these wonderful memories came flashing across my mind only moments before broadcast time.
Then a mild depression set in. No, make it a deep depression.
I had learned from a friend Sister had retired and was living at the convent at Blessed Sacrament in the South End of Fall River. I had mentioned it to Helen and she thought visiting Sister would be a very nice thing to do. If I’ve learned nothing else in life it’s that when your wife says something is a very nice thing to do, you do it.
Well, we never did visit one of the most wonderful people in my life and now she was dead.
The guilt I felt as my program began that night was not unlike the guilt Jewish mothers are famous for putting on their husbands and children.
There is nothing else in the world like a guilt trip.
As I turned on my microphone my eyes swelled with tears. I could barely see the switch and Vu meter. Words were difficult to come by as I choked back crying. It was no use. I was a wreck.
Please keep in mind Sister Marie Celine had been a teacher and principal for over fifty years and had hundreds, no make that thousands, of students over that time. When I mentioned the Fall River Herald News obituary the phone lines lit up like never before. One after another a former student of Sister Marie Celine called. I received a couple of calls from Florida from retired folks who were called about the passing of Sister by their children. The show became one huge tear fest.
One after the other the callers gave testimony to the greatness of this simple woman of the cloth. All admired her. A couple of retired priests who had known her over the years chimed in.
Hell, I was ready to recommend her to the Pope for canonization (sainthood in the Roman Church). Dozens of witnesses told of the wonderful things the lady in black robes had done. I remember one caller who couldn’t finish her first sentence because of her emotions.
So when an "impostor" called the next morning I could only believe it was nothing more than a cruel hoax and I would have none of it.
Within seconds of my slamming the receiver down the phone rang again. And again the voice said she was Sister Marie Celine. And again I became infuriated.
On the third call I was down right blasphemous. “Listen you blankety blank, get off the bleeping phone”! Slam!
Finally on the fourth call the voice on the other end of the line told me in French “disparaissent l'agenouillement devant le Sacré Coeur et demandent la rémission de Dieu employer une telle langue” (“go kneel in front of the Sacred Heart and ask God’s forgiveness for using such language.”)
I broke into a cold sweat and my mouth went dry. There was only one person in this whole wide world who would know the words Sister Marie Celine would speak to me when I managed to completely exasperate her. Silence on both ends.
Finally the voice on the other end began to laugh. She was no doubt aware of my discomfort.
The Fall River Herald News made a mistake. The Sister who had died was Marie Cecil and whoever wrote the obituary confused the two names. A correction was made the next day but that couldn’t straighten out what had been said.
Finally Sister Marie Celine spoke and explained what had happened. She had tried to call the program but couldn’t get through because the lines were “wall to wall” until midnight.
Her next comment was, “Did you really mean all the nice things you said last night?”
After a deep breath I could only stammer out, “yes”.
My ears were burning by then. You know, how the blood rushes to your ears when you’re in a tough spot. I was both happy that Sister Marie Celine was still among us and at the same time sad because I had known Sister Marie Cecil for a couple of years as well. She too was a lovely lady.
A few years earlier many of the retired Sisters of Saint Joseph opened a child care center in the Blessed Sacrament Convent in the south end of Fall River. They took in only toddlers who were toilet trained. One was our fourth daughter Helene. Sister Marie Celine helped out in the endeavor. It was their way of raising money to maintain the convent and help in the upkeep of some of the elderly sisters who had no resources of their own. Shortly afterward one of the sisters who had been trained in the Montessori method of learning began teaching children as young as two or three how to read and handle some pretty fancy math. Parents were both astonished and impressed.
A number of the Sisters returned to school that summer to become certified in the Montessori method of teaching.
By the time our son Arthur reached pre-school age St. Joseph’s Montessori School was in operation. Later, when the convent closed and the remaining sisters were assigned to their Mother House in Holyoke, Massachusetts, a couple of lay teachers took over the running the school.
The Montessori School of the Angels was born then and graduated its first class consisting of three students five years ago (2001). Sister Marie Celine unfortunately could not be there because she died a few years earlier, well into her eighties.
Little did I know this event with Sister Marie Celine would only be the first of many events in talk radio which would become engraved in my mind.
You see talk radio has an effect on people and events. While this one is a little different from the others, there are dozens of examples of the power shift to talk radio.
Fabled talk host, Jerry Williams, once described talk radio as a new form of a Town Meeting. Every town in New England at one time had them. Very few towns still do but the whole country now has them because talk radio reaches the grass roots of America.
Consider the impact of Fox Network News. It bills itself as a 24/7 news network. That’s not correct. It is a radio talk show network. It does no more news than a talk radio station. The only thing it does little of is take phone calls. The rest of the format is almost identical which probably explains at least part of its success.
“Hi, you’re next on the air. What’s on your mind?”