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Personal Legends: Formation


Chapter 8


A personal legend is a story attached to an individual and believed to be true. The more prominent the person, the more stories are likely to be told about him or her. For instance, in the United States, more legends are told about Abraham Lincoln than about anyone else.

Because the person named in the legend is historical, the hearer initially is disposed to believe in the historical truth of the story. But the relationship of personal legend to personal history is a complex, and often dubious one, thanks to the tendencies in oral storytelling by which personal legends are passed on and sustained over time. This chapter will examine the relationship between the legend transmission process and history, in order to prepare the reader to be a better audience for the Mennonite personal legends that will appear in the final two chapters.

Variant Forms

Even if the origin of a story can be traced to a historical time and place, the oral transmission of a story over time will have created narrative versions that vary in small or large details. Even when people who "were there and saw it" tell the same story, it will vary in details from teller to teller.

Two personal legends about Mennonite relief efforts in Europe following World War 2 will illustrate this tendency. Although they are very modest stories, their variants arouse heated discussions about historicity among people who worked in Europe and knew the people involved. The legends may be of marginal interest to other people, but they illustrate the key folklore principle of "multiple and variant forms" and reveal some interesting things about the obsessions of the very human relief workers who nurtured the legends.

One of the stories concerns Harold S. Bender (1897-1962), a sometimes intimidating mover and shaker in Mennonite domestic and foreign circles following the war. Atlee (1915-2001) and Winifred Nelson (1915-2001) Beechy were life-long peace activists in the Mennonite Church, beginning with their service in Basel, Switzerland, following the end of World War 2.

*After World War 2, Atlee Beechys were at the [Mennonite Central Committee] unit house and the evening meal was always very formal. Napkins and all. And H. S. Bender came through one time and ate with us that evening—eating and talking. And as soon as he finished the plate, he just reached over and got a piece of pie and put it on his plate and started eating. Karen, the oldest daughter, was sitting there, and she looked over at him and she said, "Here we wait until we are all finished."

But another person who was also there says, "We were there! And it wasn't pie! The punch line that Karen said, because her mother was out in the kitchen doing a few things yet, was, "We always wait till Winnie comes back."

In his journal entry that describes the event, Atlee Beechy—feeling no obligation to tell a good story--vindicates the former version and adds elements of his own:

*April 8, 1948. Karen seems to have special respect for two MCC workers, H. S. Bender and C. F. Klassen [1894-1954]. She always uses Brother Bender or Brother Klassen when addressing them. The rest of the large MCC family are called by their first names. Karen's special respect was tested this evening when she noticed that Bender started eating his dessert as soon as it was served to him. Karen, uninhibited and unafraid as three and a half-year olds are, called down the long table, "Brother Bender, we wait until everyone is served before eating our dessert." Winifred's face reflected a mixture of surprise and shock as probably mine did too. Before we could say anything Brother Bender replied, "You are so right, Karen. I'm sorry, and I thank you for reminding me." It was good to see this human side of Harold. I wish more people could see this side of him. Seeking Peace: My Journey [2001], p. 33

The first two tellings of this event, by relief workers, stop short with Karen's blunt admonition to the revered Brother Bender, creating a punch-line that is a kind of proverbial reprimand for him. Atlee's version goes one step farther by quoting Bender's response and illustrating his graciousness. Atlee sees the "human side" of Bender; the relief workers emphasize his more commonly perceived colder side and satirize it. The retelling of the story has shaped it into a narrative with a punchline climax, as opposed to Atlee’s more diffused version.

The Bender story bears an uncanny resemblance to a similar one told about Orie O. Miller (1892-1977), another prominent leader in Mennonite relief circles in Europe immediately following World War 2. The story also concerns his table manners at dessert time.

*Orie Miller was visiting somewhere among the Dutch Mennonites in the early days of MCC in Europe. It was in the time immediately after the war—reconstruction—and so sugar was in short supply--desserts were in short supply and sweets were in short supply. Orie and some MCC people were being entertained, and the Dutch hostess had very carefully counted out the exact number of cookies, so that there would be one cookie for everyone who was there. And then when it came around to Orie, Orie said, "I'll take two now, so it doesn't have to be passed a second time." And then the story that circulated among some of the PAX men after that was: "Take two. Orie does."

The punch line, "Take two. Orie does," became a proverb that Mennonite relief workers in Europe loved to use: "Our unit picked this up, and used it as a general saying at any or all occasions when something relatively scarce was being passed around."

However, another version of the story says that it happened not in Holland but in Basel, Switzerland—around the dinner table of Atlee and Winifred Beechy. In that variant, the first person to utter "Take two. Orie does" was their oldest daughter Karen. The Beechy family has no recollection of O. O. Miller taking two cookies. The cookie story must have happened elsewhere—perhaps in Holland—but the dominant position of the Beechy family in Basel and the familiarity of the pie (was it?) story has apparently attracted the Miller story to the Bender story's milieu.

Why did such little, homey stories became so compelling for Mennonite relief workers engaged in heroic efforts in difficult situations? Both stories bring down to a more human level O. O. Miller and H. S. Bender, who were revered, towering presences and the relief workers' superiors. Both stories also reveal the relief workers' reverent—even obsessive--attitudes toward food (in scarce postwar supply), and especially toward desserts, which were luxuries because they required sugar. Both also show an understandable human anxiety about maintaining ordinary social decorum in the midst of the chaos of postwar reconstruction.

The facts of these personal legends may be in dispute, but the truth that radiates from the narratives makes them socially valuable—and therefore believable.

Migratory Legends

In the cookies legend, the subject moves from someone in Holland to Atlee and Winifred Beechy in Switzerland. Such movement of a story from one person to another illustrates the migratory nature of many legends. They can be attached to different people or places depending on the narrator's memory—or purpose. Thus do legends become fictionalized versions of presumed history.

Legends of the underground railroad or of haunted houses, for instance, tend to cluster around the most imposing old houses in a community. And stories about people tend to migrate to the most prominent people on the historical or current social horizon. As mentioned earlier, in mainstream American culture, the best example in personal legends is Abraham Lincoln, who is probably the best-known historical figure for Americans. Although Lincoln led a rich life, it could not possibly embrace all of the varied incidents and statements attributed to him in the folk tradition.

This principle of prominence is illustrated in the cookie legend, where the subject migrates to a family that was very prominent in the lives of Mennonite relief workers in Europe. In American Mennonite culture at large, the most personal legends are told about prominent leaders like J. C. Wenger, John Howard Yoder (1928-1998), H. S. Bender and Orie O. Miller, although many obviously come from other sources and have merely become attached—that is, have migrated--to these Mennonites.

A good illustration of this folklore principle is a story told about C. F. Derstine (1891-1967) of Kitchener, Ontario, who was a popular evangelist and preached in many Mennonite communities in the U.S. and Canada.

*C. F. Derstine always would tell the story about when he held meetings down in the hillbilly country of Kentucky. And he looked out in the kitchen and he saw the woman of the house getting the dinner and she was lifting the stove lid and spitting in this fire, and she picked up a piece of wood out of the woodbox and was mashing the potatoes. He saw all this going on and by that time his stomach was getting sort of queasy. And so when it came time to go to the table, he asked the lady of the house whether she'd make him a soft-boiled egg. (variant in Barrick 32-33)

Because the narrator had heard Derstine tell this story about himself "for gospel truth," she was surprised and disappointed when she read a similar anecdote in Reader's Digest and realized that the evangelist was using a traditional story and applying it to himself. Other versions circulating in the U.S. might have the cook spitting into the soup instead of the fire, as well as include a third disgusting culinary offense to add to the other two.

Mennonites, who treasure truth-telling as implied by Matthew 5:37ff, might indeed be shocked by such casual disregard for truth. But another anecdote shows another Mennonite leader giving himself aesthetic and moral leeway in fictionalizing his own experience.

John C. Wenger (1910-1995), as mentioned before, was a conservative historian, theologian and preacher who always wore the plain coat, long after it was no longer required for ordained men. In a series of special meetings that he conducted at the New Paris, Indiana, Church of the Brethren, he told a story of how he was stopped for speeding on the turnpike and mistaken for a Catholic priest by the patrolman, who forgave him and waved him on. (See Chapter 3, "More Trickster Tales.") Although he must have given some hedged comments regarding the truth of the story, he was asked following the meeting whether it really happened. J. C. replied, "I'll never tell you."

The shifty nature of legends, as illustrated by variants and migration, undermines their authority only insofar as actual history is concerned. If an audience can tolerate ambiguity in the amount of belief to give a legend, they will find other values that are just as important. All personal legends are "true" insofar as they communicate ideas about their subjects that ring "true" to their character or mission, or that reflect what their audience perceived to be "true" about them.

Legend Formation

The way that historical experience becomes transformed and fictionalized into legend in the Mennonite community can be illustrated by a story that I was able to trace from its beginning through a number of levels of transmission, including the original narrator. We might regard these as "degrees of separation" in the grapevine. Folklorists call it the folklore conduit.

Although, for a time, this personal legend was a compelling narrative in oral circulation, it has not remained in the repertoire of Mennonite storytellers through the years. That is a bit surprising since the hero of the story remains prominent in Mennonite circles and the story itself embodies the glamorous allure of a Mennonite coming into contact with a "star" from mainstream culture—a motif that frequently captivates Mennonite narrators and audiences.

The story unfolding below is about an actual experience by June Alliman Yoder of Goshen, Indiana, and her friends in 1987. I will give her version of it—presumably the authoritative one—in full, but then only parts of re-tellings of the event by (1) another person who was there and saw and heard it, (2) two persons who heard the story from someone who was there, (3) someone who heard the story third-hand and (4) a narrator yet farther removed from the original telling. June Yoder is a colorful, well known Mennonite preacher and public speaker, now retired from teaching homiletics at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Indiana.

First step in conduit: June Yoder's Version

*There were eight of us (four couples) traveling to Chicago from Goshen in a van. We were on our way for an evening out—dinner and the theater. On the [Indiana] toll road we stopped at the last rest plaza before you leave Indiana and go into Illinois. The men went to their restroom and we four women went to ours.

When we got inside the restroom, it appeared we were the only ones there, so we continued our lighthearted, jovial banter while each one found a stall. As I went into my stall I noticed that in the stall next to mine there was a large black woman. The stall door was open and she was standing there, facing the toilet. I saw only her back, but noticed that she had on blue jeans, a sweatshirt and a baseball cap. The door open, facing the toilet, dressed like that—I assumed she must be cleaning or working in there.

As I sat down, my ear noticed that the woman was humming. Still feeling playful, I decided, "Heck, if she can hum, I can sing!" So I broke out in a loud, robust "Somewhere over the Rainbow . . .." The hard tile walls of the restroom gave it the full vibration of a shower stall virtuoso.

Soon one of my friends finished and left her stall. She was immediately encountered by the woman asking, "Are you the person with the full, rich, soprano voice?"

"No," she said, and went to wash her hands.

A second friend came out and again she was approached: "Was that you with the beautiful, rich, soprano voice?"

"No, it wasn't me," she also replied.

As I sat in my seclusion I thought to myself, "What kind of kook do we have on our hands?" But I decided to go out and "face the music"! So I emerged from my stall to be met with the same energized "Was that you with the beautiful, rich, soprano voice?"

Being scared and embarrassed and proud all at the same time, I mumbled, "Yes, that was me doing the singing, but I didn't mean to disturb anyone. Please excuse me. My friends and I are on our way to a show in Chicago and I was just feeling light and happy."

"Oh, so you are with a choir," she replied.

"No, we're just friends going to Chicago to see a show."

"Oh, but you must be singers. I know good voices when I hear them. My friend Leontyne Price and I know good soprano voices."

While this conversation was happening, we were all washing and drying our hands--no one knowing what to do or who was in charge. But at that moment one person's eyes lit up. She had been watching [The Phil] Donahue [Show] that week and Leontyne Price was the guest. She spoke of things she liked to do with her friend Pearl Bailey.

So my friend says cautiously, "Are you Pearl Bailey?"

"Yes, I am."

She was on her way to Chicago for preparation work for a performance she had scheduled there. We visited briefly. She gave us all signed pictures of herself and we left the rest room together. As we left the rest room, our husbands were waiting for us. Seeing the men, she said, "You are with a choir?" (It's a shame we didn't try to sing "606" for her!)

We introduced her to our husbands and she introduced us to her chauffeur.

June Alliman Yoder is a fine story-teller, so her account is detailed and coherent. One might suspect some doctoring of the event, already, since the sequence of women being interrogated by Pearl Bailey is three-fold, which is a classic convention in folk narrative performance.

First step in conduit

The account by a second woman in the rest room confirms everything in June Yoder's account. It omits some of the details, but remembers a number of other striking elements that June omitted:

*. . . on our way to Chicago to see a play or the Bolshoi Ballet. . . .We three women (Was there a fourth? I can't recall.) . . .a black woman wearing a baseball hat—Georgetown U. Hoyas. . . . Maybe we started singing along [with June]. . . . The woman added, "Leontyne Price is my friend." . . . As we were about to leave the bathroom, Libby blurted out: "Are you Pearl Bailey?" . . . There ensued a 5-10 minute conversation, including the men. . . . She said she hates to fly. . . . when we were in line to buy tickets at the theater I saw a poster announcing her show. We passed her Cadillac and tooted once or twice. They waved back. We laughed all the way to Chicago and back.

Second step in conduit

One narrator tells a version based on what she heard from June Yoder herself:

* . . June assumed she was the cleaning lady. . . .At this point in the story, June says, she realizes it is Pearl Bailey. She had a hat on like P. B. wears.. . . the women introduced Pearl Bailey to their husbands. There may have been others there with them, too. I don't remember that part. After Pearl Bailey saw the group she said, "See, you are with a choir!" . . . Together they all waited. I don't remember what for.

This is a very condensed and hesitant re-telling of the story. It makes only a few changes—June, not Libby, first recognizes Pearl Bailey—and adds no truly new details.

Third step in conduit – Variant A

A retelling of the event in a third step of the conduit—heard from the second-step narrator cited above—is interesting enough to be quoted in full, since it shows many variances from the original narrated version. Some additions and changes are underlined in order to highlight variant elements.

*Oh, did you hear the experience June Yoder had? She and Shirley Showalter and Judith Davis were attending a meeting in Washington, D. C. and after lunch they went to use the rest room. Judith went into the first empty stall and Shirley went into the next one she found empty and June walked on down toward the end and went into the next to last one.

In the very last one (the stall for the handicapped) the door was open and a rather large lady was moving around in there, humming and sort of clanging—possibly changing clothes, June wasn't sure—but just humming all the while.

Well, June recognized the hymn she was humming and, in typical June fashion, began singing right along, singing quite heartily as she took care of her business.

While the women were washing their hands, the large lady finally finished whatever she was doing and came on out of her stall. She asked Shirley if she had been singing, then asked Judith if she was the one with the good voice. When she found out it was June, she asked her if she had ever auditioned. June laughingly thanked her but indicated modestly that she'd grown up in a tradition of singing and just loved to sing.

Well, the lady insisted her voice had potential and that she wanted her good friend Leontyne Price—who was waiting outside the door—to hear her sing.

The large lady was Pearl Bailey.

Although most of the additions and changes in this version do not affect the story, three of them do. One interesting change in content is that Leontyne Price is present and not merely referred to by Pearl Bailey. Also June's "Singing in the Rain" is replaced with a hymn tune, which the Mennonite context—especially the many references to "singing in a choir"—would naturally lead to. The major change in form is that the story ends with a punch line—"The large lady was Pearl Bailey."—for a dramatic climax, as one would expect from a fictional as opposed to a historical account.

Third step in conduit: Variant B

Another person in the third step of the conduit heard his version from the same source as the second-step narrator. Only the significant phrases are retained.

*. . . (The third [woman] might have been Judith Davis instead) were at some unidentified conference . . . So when June comes out, she is vigorously accosted and praised for her wonderful voice. Woman identifies herself as either Pearl Bailey or Leontyne Price and invites her to go out and see the other one of the two named, and their husbands. They do, have an exchange of addresses, etc.

This extremely condensed version is interesting mainly because of what it does with Leontyne Price, who was mentioned in the original encounter and then became present in the third-step version cited above. Here the narrator's uncertainty over which of the two was in the restroom considerably weakens the impact and meaning of the story. But it shows the legend beginning to migrate in the direction of making Leontyne Price the main character, rather than Pearl Bailey.

Fourth (or more) step in conduit

One more conduit step and several years removed from the event, a third very young narrator learned her version from a different, also very young, second-step source.

*I heard that maybe four or five years ago. June Yoder was traveling with her family to Chicago. . . . June was in one of the stalls, humming. She then started singing "606." A voice from the woman in the stall next to her called, "Who is that singing?"

June stopped singing and didn't respond, as she was embarrassed—or so I am told. June is actually not one to get embarrassed easily. Anyway, June waited a little longer in the stall until she thought the woman might be gone. She was washing her hands when the black woman next to her at the sink asked . . .The other women complimented her, saying she had a lovely voice. They chatted a little bit and June introduced herself.

As it turned out, the other woman was Pearl Bailey! Pearl went with June to meet June's family. Then Pearl got back into her limousine . . .and June got back into their small car . . .Pearl had given them some autographed pictures before parting. On the highway they passed each other a couple of times and waved back and forth each time.

Jerk-Over Temple
Image: Don Swartzentruber

Jerk-Over Temple

June is much more passive in this account, and, for the first time, we learn that Pearl Bailey traveled in a limousine and June (with family, not friends) drove a "small car." Most surprising, is what has happened to June's "Singing in the Rain." It not only becomes a hymn here, as it did in the 3.A variant, but it becomes "606"—which June referred to in passing in her first-hand account. "606" is playfully known by Mennonites as "the Mennonite national anthem." Published in 1830 by the Boston Handel and Haydn Society, it is an anthemic version of the doxology, "Praise God from Whom All Blessings Flow." It first appeared in Mennonite circles as hymn number 606 in The Mennonite Hymnal (1969). It is very difficult to sing, but many Mennonite congregations sing it in unaccompanied four-part harmony from memory. It is the hymn that Mennonites will most likely sing during a large assembly, or as a communal greeting or farewell for a special guest (e.g., Garrison Keillor at Goshen College in 2015)—as June herself alludes to in her first-hand account. In Hymnal: A Worship Book (1992), which succeeded The Mennonite Hymnal, the hymn has become number 118. But it is still referred to more often as "606" than by either its title or its new number—which shows its full integration into Mennonite folk culture.

If a Mennonite did not know the people involved, the "Mennonite" content of the legend would be clear from June's family name, Yoder. But the even more esoteric knowledge is of "606," which only Mennonites would recognize. So this last variant becomes the first version of the legend to carry an unambiguously “Mennonite” tribal meaning.

About the Author

Ervin Beck

Ervin Beck, Emeritus Professor of English at Goshen College, is co-editor of The Journal of the Center for Mennonite Writing, author of many publications on Mennonite literature and folk culture, including MennoFolk and MennoFolk2, published by Herald Press, and compiler of the three Mennonite bibliographies linked on the CMW homepage. From 2006-07 he taught English and dramatic literature at LCC International University in Klaipeda, Lithuania. He was on the planning committee for the two Mennonite/s Writing conferences held at Goshen College in 1997 and 2002. He lives in Goshen, Indiana.