“Man does not live alone."
We had spent short vacations in Ireland, never long enough. The family was doing well, the station was making good progress, and we were about to buy another one, the FM station that was licensed to Woodstock. FM was just beginning to become a factor in broadcasting.
Just before Christmas of 1973 I was heading out the front door of the station when I met Jo coming in. She said, “We have a problem." Indeed we did. In January Jo had surgery for breast cancer. It came suddenly and violently. It was a total mastectomy, and when the surgeon came out to see me, he reported that it was all through her body and she had about a year, no chance for more, but they would begin radiation as soon as possible and chemotherapy after that.
It was a very hard year. We all just kept going. Jo never complained. She fought it as hard as she could. She kept on at the station because she said it helped her. We did buy the new station. Our family held together. We suffered but kept going. We even went back to Ireland in the summer of 1974. She wanted to go. The hardest part was watching her quietly touching and loving every inch of Liscrona. She knew that her share of the dream was ending. We knew how she hurt. There was nothing to say. In early ’75 John Lynch’s Annie died quickly from a massive stroke. With all the pressure and work and her constant smoking, it was inevitable.
In August of ’75, actually August 22 at 7:40am at Lutheran General Hospital, Jo left us. I thanked God that she had been able to meet her roots on her terms. She was a splendid wife, mother and partner.
I suppose we all experience tragedy in a similar way, at least to some extent. For me, the night hours were the worst. I dreaded the silent, dark from about 2:00 till 4:00am. I would pay bills, write commercials for the station, then take a shower and get breakfast for the kids, get them off to school and go to work on the air for 3 or 4 hours. Throughout this time there was one very consoling thought. Thank God we had plunged ahead and bought Liscrona. Of course we should have waited till we were in a better financial position and could afford it. But, if we had been sensible, Jo would never have been able to be a part of Ireland. The “Bolthole" would never have happened for either of us. She got to experience the Irish life. She baked her own Irish soda bread, loved the aroma of the turf fires, the pure music of the Irish speech, the sparkling, invigorating breeze that swept over us every day. The dream that we fashioned in 1965 actually became reality for a few years. Nothing could take that away from us.
I was left with a major career problem. After the death of a loved one, most people can do a pretty good job of going ahead with life. If you are a teacher you can teach. If you are a fireman you put out fires. My dilemma in my profession was that I opened a microphone everyday and my very soul, my mind and everything about me went out into the space occupied by listeners. I was professional enough to realize that while most everyone listening knew Jo and me and our family and they had sympathy for us, a radio performer’s job comes down to a personal relationship,“What have you done for me lately?" They do not care to hear you moan and cry over your problems and pain. They have plenty of their own.
During some of those long nights I shared with myself alone, I had the chance to work on my own head. The history of my life began to play a part. As a child I had undergone some severe family problems. As a boy in school I had, without ever being counseled, discovered the truth, “You must go on. Things happen. You have to look at life as a long corridor with many doors. You walk along and when you reach each door, you open it, walk through and close it. Don’t look back. There is no alternative. Keep going." It worked for me then. Now it had to work again.
I would not suggest to any of you that this a perfect way to face life. I have never gone back to a high school reunion. I never have returned to a Pasadena Playhouse theater get together. I didn’t retain the army buddy friendships from W.W.II. The old days were remembered, some lovingly and some with a shudder. I just gently closed doors and moved on. I know I have missed a lot, but for me it was a matter of survival. My deepest regret is that I wish I could have helped my children more during this time. In the movies dear old Dad always comes up with just the right words that help. I did the best I could. It was not enough. Their grief went on a long time. I know I was inadequate in that instance, and it still bothers me.
Later that fall, the three youngest, Chris, Jeff and Rick, and I took a camper down to the Smokies. We camped in the park behind Gatlinburg, hiked the trails, cooked over our own fire, and watched the leaves changing color and falling. I felt just being together would be good. We were plugging along a day at a time.
We were becoming a genuine family radio empire. Pat, Kim and Rick were all on the air with me, and our next to oldest son Jerry soon joined us. Our staff was growing and we were making steady progress.
I will not attempt to conceal the fact that when Jo died a very large part of my love for the stations went too. Together we were a team. She was the business head. I was the show biz-sales partner. After Jo, it was much more difficult because I never liked counting dollars or doing awful paperwork things like FCC reports and taxes.
It really was, and I will do my best to fill in the details. Every year Jo and I would go to a Notre Dame football game, usually with David and Adelaide Meskill and Gwen and John Miller, long time friends dating back to 1950. We would drive down, do the tour of the campus, stop at the Grotto, have our tailgate picnic and attend the game. It was a fond memory of an idyllic time. The trouble is, I did not yet realize how "fond" it really was.
One day, I took a call from a Woodstock neighbor, John Strohm. He and his wife Lillian had invited Tom and Ginny Byrnes to go to a Notre Dame game and stay overnight in South Bend. Would I like to join? I said yes.
I did not realize what would happen to me when we reached the campus. I saw Jo everywhere. When we reached the Grotto, I thought I would die. I was frightful company at a social outing. I cannot remember who the team was, the score or anything about it except that it became a dark, dismal afternoon. We had dinner and afterwards both couples went to their rooms and I to mine. This was the first time I had been alone in a hotel room since 1941 and the loneliness just poured over me. Was I ever feeling sorry for me!
I sat down on the edge of the bed and looked out into the misty night. How could I possibly go on without the most important part of my life, Jo!
I was thinking of her when it happened. I suddenly recalled something she said some weeks after her surgery when we were driving down the road to the station. Out of the blue she quietly said, “I don’t have to worry about you. You’re a man who likes sharing life. You’ll be married in six months."
It was the only time she ever mentioned to me that our partnership was ending. We both knew it but did not discuss it.
I had the strangest feeling that night in South Bend. It was as if she were there talking to me, telling me to get off my rear end and get on with life. In the past we had talked about my belief in “closing the doors" and I felt she was telling me to close her door and realize I had a family and friends and a whole life in front of me still to be lived, and that was what she expected of me, nothing less. She really let me have it.
This happened. I cannot explain it, but every word is true. I think there are some things we do not completely understand, like love and faith. Jo talked to me. She brought me out of despair.
Please understand. She did not actually talk words to me that I heard. She planted ideas and thoughts in my mind, and she was not finished so I paid attention.
“You are simply not a loner. You need a partner, a person to bounce ideas on, a woman to share your life. As a widower, you’re a lonely mess. Now go and find her. If you really enjoyed our years together, realize there is someone out there. I’m going to point you toward her. I’m not jealous. I want you to start again and create o new team Perhaps I’ll even give you a clue."
I went to bed and had my first night’s deep sleep in months.
We were driving back from South Bend that Sunday. My mind was going over the event of the preceding evening.
It came to me — the clue was Maria Henslee.
Now I need to back up a little. Maria was a widow. Her husband Ned, one of the partners in the law firm of Henslee, Monek and Henslee, had died a few years back, about the time we moved to Woodstock. My son Rick and her son Mark were at Woodstock High School and were good friends, and both were music nuts. We had worked out a number of live music concerts that were held at the Woodstock Opera House. Rick and Mark acted as the producers. Maria’s daughter Sue was quite musical, folk songs were her specialty, so she and a partner, Jeff Biel, were also involved in concerts. All this tended to bring our families together.
In about 1972 or 73 Sue and her husband had gone to Europe on a cross country back packing trip and had gone broke. Maria knew that we were going to be in Ireland, so came to visit us with a check to be given to Sue. I picked up both of them later in Kilrush, wet and bedraggled, and we dried them out at Liscrona, and fed them up. So Sue met Liscrona way back in the early days of our stewardship. While Sue was visiting us she mentioned that her mother, along with a man named Cliff Ganshaw, was about to invest in the Old Courthouse on the square in Woodstock. The idea was to create a nice restaurant with shops on the upper floors. At that time we were negotiating to buy the FM station, and I was nosing about for a visible studio location.
When we returned to this country, I met with Cliff and worked out the space. It was on the 3rd floor and was just what we wanted. Also, since we were good friends of Louis and Sada Szathmary of the Bakery, I was able to introduce Cliff to Louis, who subsequently became the Courthouse Inn Restaurant consultant. The deal was done and Maria invested in the restaurant. If this had not happened, I am sure the historic building would have been razed and turned into a parking lot.
I have gone into some detail here to show you how our two families were drawn together. After several of the music concerts, Jo and I joined the Henslee family at their home to celebrate the affairs.
I had the clue — Maria Henslee. She was a very nice person and I liked her. She was the opposite of Jo in appearance as well as personality. Jo was tall and dark. Maria was quite petite and blonde. Maria was quiet and reserved where Jo was much more the one who could take on wild tigers.
The return trip was over. We were back in Woodstock. Look what one weekend at Notre Dame had done for me! Jo had sat beside me on the bed in that South Bend hotel and given me the shove I needed.
On Monday night I called Maria. I have never been one to dawdle. I knew that the Northern Illinois Jazz Band was coming to Woodstock High to perform on Wednesday evening. In a dazed and slightly confused voice she agreed to go with me.
There was a real buzz when Maria and I walked in. The matchmakers and all of Maria’s friends had a juicy one to chew on.
Over the next few days, we did things together, dinners and shows. I met her other children, Ann who worked in Chicago, and Edward, a lawyer with the Henslee firm. I felt a sense of peace returning. I am sure my on the air work improved.
I have no intention of going into a detailed accounting of “our romance" but later on — a lot sooner than some people thought was “proper," I bought a bottle of champagne, sat Maria down on her couch and told her what I had in mind. I remember saying, “Maria, what are you planning to do with the rest of your life? I can promise you this. With me it will never be dull. How about it?"
Result — we were married at St. Anne’s Episcopal Church, Maria’s church, and then again at St. Mary’s, my church.
“You’ve got a whole life to live. Don’t spoil it for yourself and everybody else. Get on with it! Close the door behind you and walk on down the hall."