Reality Check


One afternoon while sitting at the truck drop, leafing through the pages of the Journal, I spotted a photograph of “Mrs. Charlotte Sperling and her husband, Henry” in formal attire, attending a benefit party for the new Portland Art Museum.


Entering high school, I soon discovered that most of the girls were prettier than I expected—-algebra was more rigorous than I expected—the study of Latin was easier— and the Glee Club music class was a lot of fun.

“Professor” John Muir even recruited me from the Glee Club music class for his new Catholic boys’ choir. Can you believe that? Me? In a Catholic boys’ choir?

No relation to the famed American naturalist, John Muir of Washington High School was a Scotsman with a thunderous voice—a benevolent dictator with piercing gray eyes and kinky, gray hair, stiff as iron mesh.

He was respected throughout the Portland school system as a choral director, voice coach and accomplished organist, devoted to the works of Johann Sebastian Bach.

We called him “the professor.”

As a lucrative sideline, this canny Presbyterian also served as organist and choir master for the Church of the Madeleine, one of Portland’s wealthiest and most beautiful Catholic churches, located near Grant Park. The pious Catholic fathers at the Madeleine were on a mission-—to build the best boys choir in the Portland diocese, bar none. They hired John Muir to do the job.

By the time I showed up, he was well on his way.

He had called me into his office for a conference one day after school. I remember sitting stiff and upright in my chair, not knowing what to expect. To my surprise, he stood over me, shook his finger sternly in my face, and told me that I had a good voice, worth developing. Then he made me an offer. He said he would give me free vocal lessons, if I would sing in the boys choir at the Church of the Madeleine. The following day, with a strong push from my mother, I tenuously accepted his offer.


Throughout that autumn, I practiced John Muir’s crazy breathing exercises daily, projecting my voice up and down the scale. Wednesday nights at the Madeleine, I had a vocal lesson followed by choir rehearsal. Then, Sunday mornings, I sang in the Madeleine boys choir at the eleven o’clock mass.

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