He had a voice that charmed an Irish girl and turned a bishop's head

Last Updated by Kevin Woster on

One of the things I miss most about my dad, 50 years after his death, is his voice.

Sadly, I can’t remember it very well, at least not as it sounded in simple conversation. A word or two here, a familiar-sounding phrase there, mostly just snippets of tone and cadence.

But I have clearer, more enduring recollections of his voice at its most powerful — in song. Songs, actually, in particular Ave Maria sung in Latin, which is the only way I ever heard my dad sing it, of course.

“Ave Maria” is latin for “Hail Mary.” The song itself was composed by Franz Schubert based on a poem by Sir Walter Scott that repeated Ave Maria throughout. But it was incorporated into an existing -- for several hundred years -- Roman Catholic prayer honoring the Virgin Mary as the mother of God and seeking her prayerful intercession.

The prayer is a fundamental Catholic invocation that seems to transcend even itself when sung well, in Latin. And, oh my, my dad could sing it well. He had a sweet, strong tenor voice that carried throughout St. James Catholic Church in Chamberlain and absolutely filled the much-smaller St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Reliance.

It was there at St. Mary’s, as family lore goes, that Dad’s voice in song caused a bishop who was there for a special Mass to turn and look back and up at the small choir loft with wonder.

My cousin, Leo Woster, is the keeper of many family stories, including that one, which was passed on by his dad, my Uncle Frank, who farmed in partnership with my dad.

“None of our generation would remember it, as it was before any of us was born. I think it happened maybe in the later ‘30s,” Leo says. “The bishop was at Reliance probably for confirmation. During Mass he kind of peeked over his shoulder a time or two, looking up at the choir while they were all singing, but went back to saying Mass.”

You might note Leo’s reference to the bishop’s “peek-over-the-shoulder” during Mass. That was long before the Second Vatican Council reforms of the early 1960s, which included moving the altar from the back of the sanctuary to to the middle, and having the priest celebrate Mass while facing the congregation rather than celebrating with his back turned.

Inspiring a priest or bishop to do more than peek over his shoulder was a big deal. But Dad pulled it off.

“Then your dad did a solo and the bishop just totally ground to a halt, turned around and just listened until he was done singing,” Leo says. “Then he commented that it was the most beautiful singing he had ever heard in a church.”
Woster family
Chances are good that my mom was playing the piano or organ that day. It was music, after all, that brought them together: a precocious piano-playing Irish girl from a farm south of Lyman and an accordion-playing Bohemian boy with a lovely voice from a farm over northeast of Reliance.

They came together at St. Mary’s for Mass and song and fellowship and prayer and eventually for a life and a family.



Going Back to Consecrated Ground

 

The St. Mary’s Church they knew in those days is gone now, replaced by a newer version. But the steeple was salvaged and preserved at St. Mary’s Cemetery north of Reliance, where my dad, mom and other kin lie buried.

There on that consecrated ground last Sunday afternoon, I sat alone and out of the weather in a tiny chapel that my cousin, Red McManus, and other committed parishioners built to hold plot records and obituaries, and for people to sit and pray and remember.

Which is just what I was doing there, during a soaking rain whipped up by gusty winds, on the 50th anniversary of my father’s death. I had driven my old white pickup out from Rapid City through muscular gusts and sometimes dense downpours, hoping there would be a break in the weather around Reliance.

Hope faded just east of Kennebec, as a small opening in the clouds closed quickly. And it rained and blew during the hour or so I spent at the cemetery, and cut short plans I had to wander a bit on familiar ground.

Sometimes I huddled under an umbrella near the gravesite of my parents, Henry James Woster and his wife, Marie Hazel (McManus) Woster. I also strolled a bit with stops near the headstones of my grandparents, John and Frances Woster and George and Grace McManus.

I also prayed over the grave of my cousin, Ronald “Red” McManus, who died five years ago, come Sept. 5. I have plans to go back for that anniversary, too.

Red was just 68 when he died. But he got a lot done before that, even beyond the 50-year marriage to his high-school sweetheart, Ruth Ann, and the kids and the grandkids and the great-grandkids. He was mayor of Reliance for 43 years, for Pete’s sake, and had his hand and head and heart in just about any club or program or proposal that would make Reliance and Lyman County an even better place to live.

Oh, and did I mention cemetery caretaker? Yeah, that too. And that little cemetery is the better for it. Red worked tirelessly for decades in the care and improvements of the Reliance Cemetery overall and the St. Mary’s Catholic portion — yeah, one of those South Dakota cemeteries where the Catholics and protestants lie in peace, but separately — in the northern section. For Red, it was a labor of love the endures, for the living and the dead.

So it was in love and, given the conditions, also with gratitude for that cozy little chapel, that I prayed there in the rain at my cousin’s grave. I spent most of my 50th-anniversary trip back home at the cemetery, in fact, mostly recalling what I could of my father, a man I still love and miss every day  but  sometimes struggle to remember clearly.

We have a few pictures, of course, of Dad and his farm-partner brother, Frank, wearing well-worn coveralls and standing in front of the Hereford cattle they raised with pride. And also of Dad holding a baby grandchild, posing with my Mom for a 25th anniversary celebration, lounging in the living room of our home in Chamberlain with his youngest son. Woster and boys

We have a few clips of him in 8-millimeter black-and-white movies. But he was usually behind the movie camera, which didn’t have sound anyway. And he lived and died before recording devices were popular and affordable. So while we have later recordings of my mom, who died in 2004, playing the piano, we have none of my Dad’s voice, in conversation or in song.

What I wouldn’t give for such a recording, to play for myself and my kids and my grandkids.

Instead, I look to the Ave Maria and other song recollections  to connect with that voice. I get help from my older siblings, Jim, Jeanne, Terry and Mary Alice, who have their own remembrances. And being older, their recollections tend to be better than mine.

 Mary Alice tells the story of another song that lives on beyond my dad, in fragments of memory of a voice she remembers as “powerful, with a terrific range.”

“I do remember mostly his singing ‘Oh Holy Night' on Christmas Eve,” she says. “The year he died someone sang it at St. James and I remember Mother kneeling next to me and slumping in the pew when she heard the opening measure of ‘His’ song.”

I have known that slumping feeling when listening to a powerful version of songs my Dad sang. Ten years after he died, I was married to Jaciel Keltgen at Saint Aloysius Catholic Church in Olivia, Minn. And Keltgen family friend Pete Mack, himself a man of powerful lungs, sang songs my father sang, including How Great Thou Art.

And I’ll admit, when Pete went up the escalator of range to hit the high ground with  “then sings my soul, my savior God to thee, how great Thou art, how great Thou art” I sat in an ornate wood chair near the altar next to Jaciel and wept, because of Pete’s beautiful voice, the song, and the father I so badly wished was there to sing it himself.

Later, it occurred to me that my dad was there, in that song, just as he lives in all those songs he used to sing so well.



A Voice That Carried out into the World

 

And not just in church. Leo also tells of another story, this time passed on to him by a family friend, of how Dad would use his voice as a gift — literally a gift — to friends and relatives during the hard times of the 1930s.

“Your dad would show up at friends’ houses on Christmas Eve,” Leo says. “He would apologize for not having any money to get them a gift but would sing for them. It meant a lot to them.”

Then there were the field songs for which my dad was known, throughout our township and beyond. He loved to sing during certain parts of the work he loved, and often did just that while driving tractors or other machinery.

My favorite story there comes, as you might expect, from the able keeper of family lore, Leo. It happened when Leo was a teenager helping with summer small-grain harvest, Dad was running the tractor-combine combination and Leo was driving the grain truck, waiting for the combine’s hopper to fill and for a sign from my dad that it was time to unload.

Tough conditions they were back then, long before air-conditioned cabs and other comforts.

“It was hot, dry, wind all day — miserable, dirty, tired,” Leo recalls. “But then the sun would get low, the wind would drop to a breeze and the day would head into a beautiful sunset.”

Then, Leo says, when dad turned the tractor and combine into the wind so he was at least for a time out of the cloud of dust and chaff that rose up when the wind was at his back, something magical happened.

“Above the clatter of the tractor and humming of the combine I would hear the most beautiful sounds imaginable —your dad singing,” Leo says. “And I can’t imagine the angels singing any prettier than your dad could, and made special by the circumstances.”

There was a lot more to my dad than his singing voice, of course, beautiful as that was.

Like his farm-partner brother, Frank, Dad was a tree planter and a soil conservationist. They had both lived and worked through the Dirty Thirties, and believed in the soil-conservation techniques that evolved because of it.

They believed in wildlife, too, and loved the process of shaping their land — built around two farms two miles apart — into a consortium of shared pastures and grain fields, shelter belts and cover strips, in ways that produced a good income but left room for wild things.

Both strong Catholics, they also believed in placing faith at the center of their lives, and as the foundation of their families. I still remember the sight of my father, a glimpse through the open doorway of my parents' bedroom, kneeling with his hands clasped beneath his chin and his face almost touching the bed spread, as he said his nightly prayers.

Dad was a pretty good second baseman, too, old timers have told me. That was back in the days of traveling independent ball teams that often played on pasture grass. And he had a nice, looping curve ball that he taught me to throw out in the gravel Main Street of Reliance, while we waited for an engine repair at the Co-op, or outside the Shanard Elevator as we waited in line to dump a load of wheat.

He was as good a wing shot as I’ve known, especially when swinging that hefty old 12 gauge Model 11 Remington semi-auto that I still use once or twice each fall. It was dad’s first nice shotgun. And he was proud of it.

It had its own reputation, too. The military version of the Model 11 was widely used in World War II, in front-line combat, guard duty and even to help train airplane gunners in leading a moving target. But that’s not what stood out most about the Model 11 in our family story.

 The big headline came on the morning of Nov. 3, 1951. Dad was lying alone with his Model 11 in a snowy fence line somewhere between our farmstead and the Missouri River when three greater Canada geese broke away from a flock as the birds pounded their way through the wind toward harvested grain fields to feed.

Dad fired three three times in succession and killed all three geese. Then he hustled back to our farmstead, hung the geese in the garage and went inside to learn from my mom that yes, it absolutely was time to head for the hospital in Chamberlain. Later that day I was born.

That made good material for a joke among Dad’s group of friends, usually told something like this: “That Nov. 3, 1951 was a big day for Hank Woster.  He shot three geese with three shots! (Oh, and Kevin was born, too…)”

I love that joke. And that story.

 

Why Doesnt Henry Woster Have Power Steering?



I’m pretty fond of this one, too, told by a family friend, journalism colleague and former neighbor just down the draw a mile and a half or so at the Sunny Slope Stock Farm: Noel Hamiel.

Noel’s dad, Don, and my dad were great friends. They worked together, hunted together, told stories together. And they had a great sense of mutual admiration. Kevin's Dad

Dad was tall and lean but strong, a point that came up once when Noel and Don observed Dad bucking hay with an old IH Farmall tractor rigged with a Farmhand hay loader. Power steering was available then, and Don already had it. We didn’t have it on any of our tractors, although we did have steering-wheel knobs to make it easier to crank with one hand. (Easier for Dad, at least. I can’t speak for my brothers, but I couldn’t quite manage it myself.)

Watching Dad crank that wheel as he bucked hay for a stack, Noel wondered: “Why doesn’t Henry Woster have power steering?”

Don answered: “Because Henry Woster doesn’t need power steering.”

Eventually Dad and Frank got power steering. But that didn’t change the beauty of the story, or of the friendship between Dad and Don, and how that affection and respect was passed on to their children.

There were other stories, too, of course, and some not so beautiful. The cancer story was the worst.

After a year of stomach trouble and treatment for a suspected ulcer, Dad ended up in surgery at a hospital in Minneapolis late in the spring of 1968. There doctors discovered that he had stomach and liver cancer that was inoperable, and unsurvivable.  They sutured him up and sent him home, after he rejected the notion of radiation treatments that, at that time in medical technology, were more barbaric than meaningful in extending life.

We got that hard news in early June, the week my sister, Mary Alice, was preparing to be married at St. James in Chamberlain to Ken Haug, a kind-hearted guy who planned to stay a while. They've been married 50 years, and counting.

It was a brutal convergence of events. But Ken and Alice slogged through it as well as they could and still managed moments of joy, amid all the sorrow, on the day they were married.

But  there was more sorrow to come. Plenty of it.

It was a joyless summer after the wedding. My older siblings were off into their own lives, with their own families. They were pretty good at it, too, as it turned out. The four of them have been married more than 200 years total, and counting. But it was mostly my mom and me at home in Chamberlain that summer, trying to support dad as he spent most of two months dying -- day by day, pound my pound.

There was no real hospice then. And palliative care was limited. Most everything fell on my mom, who was on a crash course in end-of-life resposibilities. Near that end, with the farmer who once didn’t need power steering withered and suffering beyond anything I'd witnessed, I stood with him at the south door as he prepared to leave our house for the last time.

They were taking him to the hospital, where he would die. He knew it, and said so. And he knew it wouldn't be easy. But he also put his arm around me and whispered:

“Maybe if I go through this, you’ll never have to.”

I didn't know what to say, so I cried. He squeezed my shoulder, then was helped down the south steps, by whom I can’t remember. Nor do I remember seeing him get in a vehicle, or what it was. Or what the day was like. It’s blurry, that day, and the days that followed.

But things clarified when Dad died in the hospital about two weeks later.



It's a "Never" That Won't Go Away

 

I never saw him during those last two weeks. I never found the courage to walk through those hospital doors. I hid out, mostly, spending days alone along the river or out at our farm across the river in Lyman County, sometimes falling asleep in the easy chair in the living room where Dad used to fall asleep at night, after watching the weather on KELO.

 I got reports on Dad’s decline in the hospital each day from my mom and siblings and avoided seeing anyone else when I could. Sometimes I’d drive slowly past the hospital at night, thinking I knew which room he was in, stopping my old ’57 Chevy sometimes as if I might get out and go in. But I never did. And it’s a “never” that haunts me, still.

I understand who I was then: a troubled teenager who had dropped out of school and dropped out of society in many ways, due to a variety of neurotic ailments. And that was before Dad was dying of cancer, and all my psychological unrest magnified.

So by Aug. 19th of 1968 I was a frantically bewildered, angry, frightened 16-year-old, terrified for some reason of stepping through that hospital door and walking to the room where my father lay dying, to give him a hug and tell him I loved him. At least once more.

As a more stable, 52-year-old man many years later, I spent the last days of my mother’s life with her in hospice in Sioux Falls, along with other family members. I was there when she died. And only then did I really understand not only what I failed to give to my dad at the end of his life, but what he might have given me in those final days, and the final moments, had I had the courage to show up.

All I can do about that now is to continue to pray that someday I will forgive myself. I believe everyone else has, long ago — including my Dad.

But he wasn’t alone in his hospital room that summer. Family and friends came regularly. And none came more regularly than Ab Vehle, manager of the elevator in Reliance and one of Dad’s closest friends. Ab came every day, and most days he didn’t just sit next to the bed. He shaved my dad, with tenderness and care.

“Yeah, he'd come in with shaving cream and a straight edge,” my brother Jim recalls. “And he’d shave him. Then when he was done shaving him, Ab would put a little slash of aftershave on Dad's face. The nurses mentioned that, especially the aftershave. They said it was so nice, as if Ab were getting him ready to go to a dance.”

Dad didn’t say much in those last days. And what he said was usually short and sometimes surly. He was often overwhelmed not just by the physical misery but also by the unfairness of it all, and all he wouldn't live to do and see and know. But he did say this to Jim, after one of Ab’s visits:

“Never underestimate the value of a true friend.”

Dad was lucky to have them, one in particular, until the very end.

But he parted from friends and family on Aug. 19, 1968. The funeral followed on Aug. 22.  Dad was buried, the first time, at the Riverview Cemetery on a ridge above the Missouri River near Chamberlain.  And music was part of the reason for that location, too.

About the time I was born, Mom and Dad decided to buy a house in Chamberlain. The school in Reliance was struggling and there were more offerings in the Chamberlain school system, including a very solid music and band program. And that meant a lot to my mom and my dad.
 
But they didn’t want their kids driving 16 miles of winding, undulating gravel each way to and from school. So we moved into Chamberlain for the school year and back to the farm northeast of Reliance during the summer. And Uncle Frank and his family did the same.

So during the school year, Dad and Frank would go to 7 a.m. daily Mass at St. James, which Father McPhillips could knock out in about 25 minutes. After Mass, the brothers would ride together in one pickup out to work on the two farms that were really one, returning most nights to their homes in Chamberlain, usually in time for supper.

We never lost the Reliance connections. But it seemed to make sense when Dad died to bury him in Riverview. That changed, though, over the years.

My mom never remarried. But she had a large group of friends in Chamberlain, and stayed busy playing piano or organ for weddings and funerals, community club banquets and meetings, and even — though a devout teetotaler herself — a little ragtime and other requests for hunters at Chamberlain lounges during the busy pheasant seasons.

She was comfortable in our home a block from the east bank of the Missouri River. Still, as the years passed she was drawn more and more back to her roots in Lyman County, and to her McManus kin, who treated her like the family gem she was.

More and more, she attended Mass back at St. Mary’s in Reliance, and made it to gatherings there outside of church. More and more, she felt herself returning to her home ground — which she did for good after her death on July 17, 2004.

At that time, we also moved dad’s mortal remains to be next to hers there in St. Mary’s, where they lie in perpetuity among the remains of family and friends in the Lyman County ground they all loved.

I covered some of that ground in the rain on Sunday, driving the seven miles on gravel from the cemetery east and north to our old farmstead, on the edge of the Lower Brule Reservation. I got out and walked around under my umbrella, snapping a few cell phone pictures and remembering a thing or two.

It’s a sad place now, on the surface at least. The house is gone, along with the old wood garage and bunkhouse and adjoining shed. What was left of those buildings and the above-ground entrance to the storm-root cellar has been bulldozed into a mound. A couple of metal pole barns still stand, along with the feedlot fencing and the old windmill, which once creaked in a breeze to pump up artesian water for the cows.

But I wasn’t as sad as you might think on such a day, in such a place. Because what I thought about most standing alone among the disappearing remnants of our farmstead was how happy we were there, and how lucky I was to have been born into a farm family of love and laughter, and songs.

Especially those special ones my father sang, with a voice I’ll never forget.






 

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of SDPB, Friends of South Dakota Public Broadcasting, or the State of South Dakota.