As We Conclude Black History Month 2014, A Personal Memoir

Today, 28 February, marks the conclusion of Black History Month. I have been remiss by not explicitly recognizing this worthwhile observance. So, as we come to this conclusion, I would like to offer a very personal “history” for this occasion. This may be presumptuous of me, a White Male, to tell the story of a Black Female from a completely different background, but I feel it is suitable. History is composed of far more than the mighty and well known, and the “every-day” folk who make up history have stories worth telling. My subject was never a “mover and shaker,” nor a possessor of any great power. My subject contributed no famous inventions, nor led any potent movements. Yet for all her seeming lack of great distinction, she made a positive impact upon a great many lives, and, in her own way, she achieved a small measure of local fame. However, foremost, I choose to tell her story because I believe it serves as an important lesson in the larger picture of history as well.

I choose to write about Myrtle Davis of Berkeley, California. I first met Myrtle when I was a new freshman at The University of California, Berkeley in the Fall of 1977. We remained in regular contact from that time until her death in 1999. I came to know Myrtle in her capacity as cook for Tellefsen Hall, a residence for, at that time, male members of the University of California Marching Band. The house board had hired Myrtle the previous Spring. Myrtle had worked for almost twenty years previously at the campus’ ΑΟΠ sorority, and she had worked at other sororities prior to that position. When asked why she decided to take the job at Tellefsen Hall, she once observed that she had grown, “tired of dealing with the girls,” and wanted “to find out what dealing with the boys would be like.”

As cook for TH, as Tellefsen Hall is often known, Myrtle became a well known and well loved figure for several generations of Tellefsen Hall residents and Cal Band members in general. Myrtle served as cook for TH from the Fall of 1977 until her retirement in 1986. Myrtle was one of those cooks who may rightly be described as “a treasure.” She was a wonderfully talented cook. Her meals ranged from the plain and penny-wise to the festive and fancy. While it is a common stereotype that students hate the food at school, Tellefsen Hall residents enjoyed meals of remarkable quality and variety.

From a management perspective, Myrtle was a skilled kitchen administrator who ran a tight ship and consistently stayed within her allotted budget. I always marveled at the fact that Myrtle rarely wrote down her expenses. She kept all the kitchen receipts in a drawer. She would evaluate each receipt and invoice as it came in – and she would instantly spot any error or discrepancy – and then put it in the drawer. She simply kept a running total and budget in her head. In my time at Tellefsen Hall, she never once ran over budget and never had any errors in the accounts.

Myrtle was a tough negotiator, too. She maintained good relationships with all her suppliers, many of whom she had been dealing with for decades, but she never eased up if she felt they were delivering less than their best. Once when the butcher’s assistant delived some roasting beef that Myrtle found unacceptable, the owner himself showed up with the replacement order and apologized profusely.

“It was a mistake, Myrtle,” he insisted, “You know I’d never expect you to accept that.”

On another occasion, the bakery had sent French bread that had been labelled “Dark Bake.” Frankly the loaves appeared to be overdone and slightly burnt. I shall never forget Myrtle getting on the telephone and chewing out her route manager:

“Dark Bake? Dark bake?!?! You burnt a batch of bread and try to pass it off by slipping it into wrappers that say ‘Dark bake!?!?'”

Once again, replacements were rapidly forthcoming. Suppliers disappointed Myrtle at their peril.

Myrtle had a truly impressive memory. She retained perhaps several hundred recipes in her head, only rarely consulting her notes when preparing meals. For frequently made items, such as pie crusts or dinner rolls, she used no notes at all. Yet her output was consistent time after time, year after year.

Myrtle was keenly interested in current events, and on the break between breakfast and lunch, or between lunch and dinner, she would listen to her radio in the pantry – later a small television provided the news – and she would read the San Francsco Chronicle cover to cover. I never ceased to be amazed at the volume of information she digested daily, and how many news stories she kept abreast of. And I was always impressed at her ability to hold her own in discussions of current events. She once observed that because of these discussions, she had “been studying at Berkeley for years!”

After she retired, Myrtle took great pride in the fact that she had become a part of Cal Band history. In the 1993 publication The Pride Of California: A Cal Band Centennial Celebration, Myrtle is mentioned in Chapter 5: “Residents of the late ’70s and early ’80s have fond memories of Myrtle Davis, who was considered not only the best cook on campus but the de facto “house mother” as well.”

This was indeed the case. Many almuni of TH recall Myrtle acting as a confidant, dispensing advice as wished and admonishments as needed, as well as offering a shoulder to cry on when called for.

Myrtle could also be strict and stern with misbehavior. One June weekend in 1980, three of us celebrated a birthday with a late morning outing to the the pinnacle of Grizzly Peak in the Berkeley Hills. Once we arrived at this incredible vista point, from which one can view essentially the entire Bay Area, we unpacked a picnic lunch of Tillamook cheddar cheese, fresh sourdough bread, tart green apples, pickled onions, and Ranier Ale. Lots of Ranier Ale. The ale being consumed, and lunch being finished, we considered driving home. Thankfully a degree of prudence caused us to rethink the idea, and it was not until nearly six more hours had passed that we actually set out for TH. I took the wheel and safely navigated the twisted and torturous route back.

We arrived home so late that we had missed dinner, and we pulled up just as Myrtle was leaving. When she spotted us, Myrtle got out of her car to dress us down. I have rarely felt so small and guilty as when she scolded me for driving after having been drinking. “I don’t care if you waited six hours! That’s just plain dangerous! And stupid! If you’re going to go out and drink, walk!” (And she revisited the topic with me the following Monday morning. She was serious!)

On at least one occasion, during a Saturday after Finals Week in early Spring of 1979, Myrtle came to the “defense” of TH when a war party of band members who were not TH residents decided to storm the house, assaulting the building by using giant slingshots to launch unripe plums from the local suburban forest at the front of the building. Myrtle was working in the kitchen when she heard the first salvo strike the house, making a distinctive “thud-th-th-th-thud-thwap!” sound. When she stepped out to investigate, she saw the assault team and artillery; without hesitation, she began sounding the Tellefsen Hall dinner bell as an alarm.

“We’re being attacked!” she explained to everyone who responded. And so the battle was joined.

(I cannot recall every detail of that epic struggle, but I do recall that stains from semi-ripe plums speckled the house front for several weeks thereafter.)

I could fill pages and pages with further memories of Myrtle from my time in school, and perhaps I shall one of these days. But it is necessary that I move on from my own memories and relate Myrtle’s story as best I can, for it is in this story that the lesson lies.

Myrtle was born on 17 December 1916 in Houston, Texas. Her mother was a house cleaner and maid who worked for a well-to-do Jewish family in the River Oaks neighborhood of Houston. River Oaks was an exclusive enclave of Houston’s very wealthy, and by a combination of deed restrictions and a “gentlemen’s agreement,” excluded minorities from being residents, including Blacks and Hispanics. It is also said that Jewish families were originally excluded as well, which would be consistent with the mores of that age, yet as Myrtle related her story, the family was Jewish. Any Blacks or Hispanics seen in River Oaks in that era were working as domestics, landscape workers, or laborers. It was a time when segregation and discrimination were openly and often unquestioningly accepted.

When Myrtle was 9, she began accompanying her mother to work, helping out in the kitchen. The family who employed Myrtle’s mother was wealthy enough to have a full-time maid and a cook. Myrtle showed early aptitude for cooking, and for some years worked as an unpaid assistant in the kitchen as well as a helper for her mother. The key thing was that it meant that Myrtle had meals during the day as well as leftovers to take home. As the Great Depression settled in and jobs became scarce and incomes shrank, payment in kind such as meals and leftovers became crucial to getting by.

Myrtle attended school until she completed 8th grade. At that time, it was considered unneccessary for females to pursue further education, and this was particularly true for female minorties. In a later age, who knows what Myrtle might have accomplished with a more extensive education? In her school days, Myrtle recalled, she excelled at both math and spelling. Her math skills and prodigious memory may be inferred from the fact that she maintained so much kitchen budget and bookkeeping data in her head. Her spelling expertise is attested by her annual appearance in a county-wide spelling bee every year from 4th grade to 7th grade. In her 5th grade year, Myrtle advanced to the final round, only to be eliminated on the word “deaf.” She asked them to repeat the word. Because she lived in an environment where that word was pronounced “deef,” she spelled out D-E-A-T-H, and lost the competition. I could detect that, even more than five decades after, she felt keenly that this was unfair.

In Texas of the late 1920s, educational opportunities for Black females were limited indeed, as were employment opportunities. If one’s mother worked as a domestic, it was all but a certainty that that is the path one would follow.

When Myrtle was 15 or 16, right about the very deepest period of the Great Depression, she was hired as the full-time cook for the family. Though the family was Jewish, they were not strictly observant. Myrtle recalled cooking breakfasts which included bacon and/or ham, along side Southern staples such as grits and cornbread. She remembered with evident pride that her cakes were a particular favorite of the head of the household.

Myrtle managed the kitchen budget and dealt with suppliers efficiently and effectively. She told of being praised by her employers for consistently managing to stay within or under budget while producing outstanding meals.

The family had a daughter just about Myrtle’s age. The two played together when they were small, but as they grew up, that was no longer acceptable. Nevertheless, Myrtle recalled that the daughter was always kind to her.

In the later 1930s, the family no longer employed full-time staff, and Myrtle took a job cooking in a small restaurant in addition to cooking breakfast and weekend dinners for the family.

Though the Great Depression was easing, times were still quite hard. Houston was less severely hit than Northern manufacturing centers, because demand for oil remained reasonably steady. But large numbers of unemployed people came to Houston from Louisiana and this influx made service jobs hard to find as well as further depressed wages.

At some point during her teen years, Myrtle “took up” with a young man who had no steady employment. I am not surprised that I have never learned details of this relationship, though Myrtle did reveal that the fellow once tried to beat her in a drunken rage when she refused his demand of cash to buy booze. She apparently had the better of the altercation and whupped him.

At some point peripheral to the Second World War, Myrtle met and later married Andrew Davis. I have attempted to find the specific date for the marriage, but have so far come up blank. I know that during her time at Tellefsen Hall, Myrtle and Andrew were celebrating anniversaries numbered into the 40s. Andrew Davis was trained as a chef, so perhaps they met because of some job in common.

During World War Two, Andrew served in the United states Navy aboard troop transports in the Pacific theater, so the couple relocated to Oakland, california for the duration. As a Black man, Andrew was limited to serving as a steward aboard the ships. Though he was a trained chef, his duties were limited to serving food and to making coffee and other menial chores.

Andrew once told of the time when he and some of his fellow stewards grew weary of continually making coffee in the immense, industrial sized pots. The troops aboard ship drank coffee almost continuously. After one complaint session among the stewards, Andrew announced that he’d slow down the coffee consumption. Taking a large scoop of plain white sugar in hand, Andrew, as he liked to recall with a chuckle, opened the lid of one of the huge coffee brewers and hollered back to a fellow steward, “Hey, you forgot to add the saltpeter!” and dumped the sugar in the vessel. Thus coffee consumption declined precipitously!

By the end of the war, Myrtle and Andrew decided to remain in California. Myrtle had begun working as a cook at a women’s dormitory on the Berkeley campus, and Andrew found work at Larry Blake’s Restaurant on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley. In 1946, using money that they had saved during the war years, augmented by a considerable nest egg which Andrew had garnered aboard the troopships by playing craps among his fellow stewards and troops aboard, they purchased a small, neat house in South Berkeley at 1401 Alcatraz Avenue. They would remain in this house until their respective deaths almost 53 years later.

Andrew and Myrtle Davis in the kitchen of Tellefsen Hall, June 1982.

Andrew and Myrtle Davis in the kitchen of Tellefsen Hall, June 1982.

Myrtle continued to work as a cook on and around the Berkeley campus until she retired from Tellefsen Hall. Andrew remained at Larry Blake’s until he retired as head chef in the Spring of 1979. Although this represented his formal retirement, Andrew could not stay idle long. He began accompanying Myrtle to Tellefsen Hall on the weekends, “just to keep her company,” and quickly returned to cooking, making onion rings and barbecued ribs and all manner of delicious food, especially his soups. Andrew loved to tell how Larry Blake himself had once praised his soups, proclaiming, “Andrew, your soups are better than sex!” Though he was never an official employee of Tellefsen Hall, Andrew became a more and more frequent presence at TH, and no holiday or special occasion passed without his culinary contribution.

Myrtle and Andrew never had any children of their own, so they took especial pleasure in following the lives of the many young men and women they had come to know. They attended many weddings and other celebrations, and on at least one occasion provided the rehearsal dinner at Tellefsen Hall for a wedding between two Cal Band members. Occasionally, they would host Sunday afternoon dinner at their home on Alcatraz Avenue, inviting their “alumni.” They touched many lives.

Me, Myrtle, and Andrew Davis, just before my brother's wedding, 23 June 1984.

Me, Myrtle, and Andrew Davis, just before my brother’s wedding, 23 June 1984.

It goes without saying that they both were and remain important in my life. Barely a day goes by that I do not think of them, especially as I love to cook and I owe them so much for what they taught me, both in the kitchen and beyond. It is rare for a person to know me for more than a day or two without hearing some tale about Myrtle and Andrew.

Myrtle Davis was an uncommonly bright and capable person. Her management skills were such that she could have easily been a success running far larger enterprises than rooming house kitchens. Her unusal memory, her ability to consume and retain information, and her practical mathematical skills all indicate that she could have achieved greatly in a wide range of fields.

Unfortunately, Myrtle was born into an age which elevated and enshrined racial discrimination and segregation, and barred even the talented and promising from educational and employment opportunities “above their station.” A Black woman born in Houston, Texas in 1916 simply was not offered the opportunity to develop her abilities to their fullest. While we who knew Myrtle greatly appreciate her mastry of the kitchen, it has always seemed clear to me that in a later day and age, she would have had a very different career path, and would have been able to positively impact even more lives.

I earlier mentioned that I take a lesson from Myrtle’s story, a lesson that makes this memoir a fitting piece for inclusion in Black History Month. It is simply this: both individuals and the greater society as a whole are ill-served when discrimination is accepted policy. Even when determined individuals succeed in such an environment, full potential is generally sacrificed.

I am pleased that in the United States in 2014, racial discrimination is no longer approved of in law, and rarely openly approved of in any context. I know that there is still a long road ahead; we are far from free of this pernicious heritage. But we have improved, and that is all to the good.

Jamie Rawson
Flower Mound, Texas

All of us do not have equal talent, but all of us should have an equal opportunity to develop our talents. — John F. Kennedy

34 Years Ago In Dallas, Texas

It was the evening of 19 February 1980 that 38 men gathered for the first rehearsal of the newly formed Turtle Creek Chorale in Dallas Texas. At the time, the idea of having a men’s chorus which drew membership from and which would serve Dallas’ large, but not highly visible, gay community was a bold and daring notion, and far braver than one may readily conceive today. In the thirty-four years which have passed since that day in 1980, so much has changed so dramatically that it is difficult to realize the very potent courage and powerful conviction that those 38 singers expressed by daring to take part in that first rehearsal.

The idea to form a gay men’s chorus for Dallas was famously born as three friends chatted over cocktails one Sunday afternoon in Dallas. The San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus had been founded less than two years before as the world’s first musical organization specifically serving the gay community, and its initial successes and setbacks were much discussed in gay communities across North America. It had been more than a decade since the watershed Stonewall Riots, and the gay community was finding more acceptance than ever before. People wanted more social outlets than gay bars could provide, and many wanted to be a part of something which could provide both a creative outlet and a channel for community service. Musical organizations filled this need wonderfully, and many long-established gay and lesbian choruses and bands were formed in this era

Since the social and political climate in Dallas of 1980 was far from progressive, it was decided that the name of the chorus should reflect the area of the city from which much of its membership would be drawn, but would not include the word “gay.” For some years, this led folks in choruses who were more politically active to infer that the TCC was “in the closet,” yet this was never the case. The very first flyer promoting the first rehearsal of 19 February makes it quite clear; it proclaims the chorus to be created for gay men who would like to sing and work with other gay men, and it notes that the first public performance had been planned for Gay Pride Week. The poster also emphasizes that “our purpose is good music,” and the chorus would be “an organization dedicated to enjoying and performing the finest four-part male choral music.”


It is not possible in this short narrative to give the history of the Turtle Creek Chorale the treatment it is fully due. But the highpoints can be noted.

The Turtle Creek Chorale (“TCC”) gave its first public performance in April of 1980 after just 8 weeks of rehearsal, and its first formal concert was in June of that year. As is often the case with community arts groups, the TCC had its early struggles as it strove to develop its identity and to find the needed funding to keep the organization alive. Members who sang during the chorus’ first decade recall car washes and bake sales and other typical fund-raising efforts that kept the organization afloat.

The early years of the Chorale coincided with the most devastating period of the AIDS crisis. The impact upon the chorus was huge, both emotionally and pyschologically, and practically. Yet the organization persevered. The membership worked hard to support one another during a time when memorial services and funerals far outnumbered concerts. The impact of AIDS upon the Turtle Creek Chorale and the chorus’ response is memorably and movingly documented in the PBS feature After Goodbye, which first aired in 1993.

The organization also worked hard to find leadership with the right combination of musical creativity, and experience, mixed with vision and energy. The chorus needed someone who could embrace and embody its core values of making beautiful music and building bridges among people of all walks of life. The quest was somewhat constrained by the simple fact that the Chorale had a miniscule budget from which to pay for the talent they needed! Yet, as some sage once observed, “The Universe provides,” and so it did in this case. Doctor Timothy Seelig, who had been dismissed from a church position in Houston when he “came out” in early 1987, decided that the Turtle Creek Chorale was an opportunity he wanted to pursue, despite the rather uncertain finances of the organization.

Dr. Seelig brought both outstanding musical credentials and remarkable vision to the TCC. For the next two decades, Dr. Seelig would direct the chorus as it attained one milestone after another. The chorus rose to international stature, its joint recording of John Rutter’s Requiem with the Women’s Chorus of Dallas reached the top of Billboard magazine’s classical charts, and by the mid-1990s the TCC was recognized by Grammy Magazine as the most recorded men’s chorus in the world. The chorus performed for Queen Elizabeth II’s visit to Dallas, and for the Inaugurals of Texas Governor Anne Richards and Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk. The chorus frequently joined forces with other North Texas musical groups and consistently reached out to an ever-broadening definition of “community.” The Turtle Creek Chorale was invited to perform for both regional and national conventions of the American Choral Directors Association and performed concert tours across the US and abroad. The TCC was also featured in two award winning PBS documentaries in 1993 and 2005. On top of all these achievements, the chorus continued to devote thousands of man-hours every year to community service, and to remain a valuable asset for the city of Dallas.

In 2007, after 20 years of service embracing fully 2/3 of the history of the chorus, Dr. Seelig stepped down as artistic director. It would be easy to understand if he simply chose to “rest of his laurels” and to bask in his two decades of landmark accomplishment, but, characteristically, he has thrown himself into new projects and today, as Artistic Director of the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus, continues to provide leadership and service to his many communities.

Following Dr. Seelig’s tenure, an extensive nationwide search in 2006-2007 found Dr. Jonathan Palant, who served as the TCC’s Artistic Director through the 2011 season. Dr. Palant brought impeccable musical credentials and energetic embrace of the chorus’ mission to his role as artistic director, the chrous continued to accumulate accolades and to achieve notable milestones, including a concert tour of Spain in July of 2010. Significantly, community service remained a core value for Dr. Palant and the chorus, as exampled by 2010’s “Voices For Haiti,” a fund-raising concert for Hatian Earthquake Relief. Doctor Palant felt that the TCC simply had to find a way to help and he worked with many organizations and artists to make this happen in an astonishingly short time. This concert was a 6-hour “marathon” featuring several musical groups and performers from North Texas, and was hosted by Dallas’ Cathedral of Hope.

After Dr. Palant’s departure in July of 2011, then Assistant Professor and Director of Choral Activities of Eastern Michigan University, Trey Jacobs was selected to serve as “Interim Artistic Director of the Chorale. Though the job was originally conceived of as “interim,” it became immediately apparent upon his taking the podium that his position should become permanent, and in March of 2012, Trey Jacobs was named Artistic Director.

Under Trey Jacobs, the TCC had remained a key element of Dallas’ artistic culture. In July of 2012, the Chorale delivered a highly acclaimed performance at the GALA Choruses Festival in Denver, Colorado, and in December of that year, the TCC broke new ground with a holiday concert series that featured two complete and completely different concert offerings. In March of 2013, the chorus was honored to take part in choral Clinics for the American Choral Directors Association convention in Dallas.

As I say, it is impossible in one essay to adequately cover 34 years in the history of such a vital and vibrant organization. Suffice it to say: Happy Birthday, Turtle Creek Chorale! Here’s to many, many more!

Jamie Rawson
Flower Mound, Texas


Faithful Fidel?

It was on this day, 16 February 1959, that Fidel Castro was sworn in as Prime Minister of Cuba’s newly created provisional government. He formally retained power until he resigned as head of state in February of 2008, making him by far the longest-ruling leader in the Western Hemisphere, and one of the most “successful” dictators of all time. He still holds the post of First Secretary of The Cuban Communist Party, which means his influence on Cuban affairs is still quite powerful. His 49 year reign saw events ranging from the nuclear brinksmanship of The Cuban Missile Crisis to the collapse of Soviet Communism. And still he hangs on.

Two stories are often repeated about Castro’s life before his revolutionary days. One purports that Castro was scouted by an American major league baseball team. This is usually framed as being a find of Joe Cambria, the Washington Senators’ famous eye for Cuban talent, who in fact did bring many Cubanos into major league ball. This tale further has Casto’s bitterness at being rejected growing into a general hatred of all things American.

Unfortunately, there is not a shred of evidence to support this claim, and Yale professor Roberto Gonzalez Echevarria, in his history of Cuban baseball, notes that the only link between Castro and baseball that has been discovered is a 1946 box score from a Havana University game which list the pitcher as “F Castro.” Oh well, it makes a great story even if it is not so.

The other anecdote about Castro and the United States tells of a 12 year old Fidel writing a letter to President Franklin Roosevelt asking for money: in the letter dated November 6, 1940, Castro asked the President, “If you like, give me a ten dollars bill green american … because never, I have not seen a ten dollars bill green american and I would like to have one of them.” (He also stated “I don’t know very English …”) He signed the letter, “Your Good Friend, Fidel Castro.”

In addition to being a nifty little tale, this historical Footnote has the advantage of being authentic: the actual letter is preserved in the United States National Archives. Apparently Roosevelt did not send the requested sawbuck to young Fidel; if he had, who knows how differently things might have turned out?

Jamie Rawson
Flower Mound, Texas