On the road back to 1944

By on July 9, 2014

Brethren Village resident recalls singing controversial song at Lititz Fourth of July

Richard Wenger and  Gladys (Stehman) Hylton.

Richard Wenger and Gladys (Stehman) Hylton.

Richard Wenger was surprised when a friend told him he was mentioned in the Lititz Record Express.

His friend, while checking out some old papers, found a mention of Wenger in the June 28, 2012 edition.

Wenger was even more surprised when he learned of the context. His name was included in the popular “Out of the Past” section under the World War II section regarding local Independence Day celebrations:

“Festivities started at 3 p.m. with a concert by the Lititz High School Band under the direction of Henry Steiner. Richard Wenger sang “On the Road to Madalay” and Thelma Lutz sang “One Alone” and “God Bless America.” The theme for the baby parade was “Pin-up Girls.” Many different ideas were used by the entrants such as victory gardeners, war bond salesmen, pin-up girls, old-fashioned coaches, and many decorated in the national colors.”

Wenger doesn’t particularly recall the exact experience, but he does remember a dressing down he received. His pastor considered the song Wenger performed as inappropriate for the 17-year-old recent high school graduate who intended to be a minister.

“I remember my pastor, Jay M. Moore, didn’t think it was very commendable for me to sing:

‘Ship me somewhere east of Suez

Where the best is like the worst

Where there ain’t no Ten Commandments

And a man can raise a thirst’,” said Wenger, reciting the lyrics to the standard sung by such circa-1940s superstars like Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby.

Wenger did indeed go on to being a pastor. He received his degree from Elizabethtown College, where he met his wife Marjorie, a California girl. The couple just marked their 67th wedding anniversary and have three children and two grandchildren.

He served as a minister for four decades, answering calls in California, Washington, and back east in Blair County, Pa.

While at Clover Creek Church of the Brethren just outside Martinsburg, Blair County, from 1966 through 1973, Wenger joined with three colleagues for a ministers’ quartet. They performed at various functions, donating any honorariums to the local retirement home.

“We sang religious songs and I was the first tenor,” he recalled, “But I liked to joke that we had a first tuna, a second tuna, a barracuda, a bass and a piranha player.”

A Lebanon County native, Wenger and his wife decided in 1999 to move back to Lititz, where he spent his high school years, to enjoy a second phase of retirement. They had initially retired near Sebring, Fla., but remained active throughout their time there in the 1990s. The couple spent one year (1990-91) serving as English teachers in Nanching, China.

They live now at Brethren Village. A fellow resident is Gladys (Stehman) Hylton, who served as his accompanist in their youth.

While Wenger said he has given up singing at age 87, he said Stehman remains an accomplished pianist and composer.

Wenger said he has happy memories of the annual July 4 fire works at Lititz Springs Park which attracted thousands of people. The year 1944 marked the 101st anniversary of the festivities and more than 8,000 where in attendance, according to Record Express archives.

The lyrics of “On the Road to Madalay” nearly rang true to Wenger’s life just a year after his performance when he got a chance to travel far.

Along with four Elizabethtown College classmates, he sailed on a cattle boat to Greece in the summer of 1945 as World War II was drawing to a close.

The students were part of a United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration team delivering livestock to war-torn Greece on the SS Virginia.

“I was one of the guys who took care of the cattle,” he said. “It was an interesting experience.

“We got to see the Acropolis, but we also saw some mines and scuttled boats in the harbor.”

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