From the Front Porch: A search for lost history, found at IOKDS

Column by John Warren

went looking for my father in Chautauqua the other day.

It was never unusual to go looking for my father in Chautauqua. Mom sent us looking all the time. He was up and dressed first thing. Chautauqua was his playground.

In his teen years, Dad would ride the subway from his home in Westchester County into New York City to listen to the Metropolitan Opera practice. He always accompanied the Bill Gaither Trio too loudly in the car. And so he was made for Chautauqua, with its opera and its Sacred Song Service, it was made for him, and it all started in the summer of 1957.

That summer, as a young man from Bronxville, New York, and a student at Syracuse University, he was accepted into the International Order of the King’s Daughters and Sons scholarship program, a four-week program that continues today. The KDS is a Christian service organization that has its national headquarters in Chautauqua.

I don’t know much beyond that about his summer. But whatever happened that summer held magic for him. During a lakeside service, he answered the call to ministry. And he always returned.

I went looking for my father in Chautauqua the other day, which may sound strange when you know that my father died in 2012. He did not concede until his last day that he would not see another Yankees game, preach another sermon or walk the brick walk again. As I visited Chautauqua this summer — for the first time without him — I regretted never having asked him about his first experience here. One afternoon, I decided to see what evidence might remain of it.

My mother and father met in 1958, and she knows bits and pieces about that summer. She recalled him speaking fondly of the director, a woman named Mildred Winter.  And that there was probably a girlfriend that summer.

Or two.

I started my quest at the Oliver Archives Center, where I came up dry, except for a suggestion to go directly to IOKDS headquarters on Vincent Avenue.

There I found Chris White, who wrinkled her brow when I told her my father had been at Chautauqua with IOKDS in 1957. Chris, who is the manager of the national Kings Daughters and Sons office, told me IOKDS lost its pre-1962 records in a flood, when the IOKDS records were kept in New York City.

End of the road, it seemed. Then she brightened.

“Was he a scholarship student?” I said that he was.

“Then we might have something.”  She led me upstairs, to a wood-paneled room, a sort of IOKDS museum.

She thumbed through a shelf with albums on it until she came to the one that covered 1957. There was a program with the names of the scholarship students. Toward the bottom was my father: “Harry M. Warren, 6 Alden Place, Bronxville, N.Y.” A second address was handwritten: 2 Rivermere, Alger, CT, his parents’ summer home.

There was more, Chris said, and she flipped the page to a large black and white, horizontal picture. There are about 50 college-aged students in the picture, standing by the fountain in Bestor Plaza. The IOKDS Class of 1957. It looks to be twilight in the photograph; the lights were already on in The Refectory. Almost all of the 50 people in the picture were women, many of them wearing strapless white dresses. There were several men, with short-cropped hair and skinny ties. And there, in the middle, in light-colored tortoise-shell–style glasses, a head taller than the others, was my father.

I went looking for my father in Chautauqua the other day, and I found him, in an old photograph album. It gives me some comfort to know that the album, with this picture of my father and his classmates from 1957, will remain on that shelf.

My memories of my father in Chautauqua, progressively, will become bits of film reel. They include him jerking luggage from the cavernous trunk of our old Pontiac, walking down Roberts with a forbidden ice cream cone, in the back row of the Amphitheater singing sacred songs too loudly, and unashamed.

And now, standing by the fountain in Bestor Plaza, a gaggle of pretty girls about him, wearing a crisp suit and a jagged smile that dared the future, whatever it might bring.