The Piano Story Every Parishioner Should Hear
The piano was made and sold to a dealer in Cincinnati, OH in 1936. That dealer sold the piano to a woman named Gladys Gollahon in 1938. Gladys was a pianist who could neither read nor write music. She played by sound. This piano was sold to her, a baby grand piano, and was placed in her home in a suburb of Cincinnati.
Fast forward to 1949, and Gladys is a lounge pianist playing at the Sinton Hotel. Her husband, a bus driver for the Cincinnati City Transit Authority, was transferred to Chicago – we speculate to take part in the ‘Bus Driver Rodeo’ – but that’s just a guess. In any event, they were in a hotel in Chicago, and Mrs. Gollahon could not sleep. Words were dancing in her head, and they would not subside. She finally just got up, sat down at a desk and wrote out the lyrics to a song we would know today as Dear Lady of Fatima. She put the paper in her purse and went back to bed, and slept soundly.
Listen to the MP3 of the interview here.
A month or so later, back home in Cincinnati, the same thing happened – but this time, it was a tune, not lyrics, and so she awoke, sat at her piano and played it. As she played it, she realized that the lyrics she’d written in the hotel in Chicago went with this tune. She got them from her purse, she played them, and sings. They did go together! As she looked up from her keys, before her laid blank, lined music paper – and for the first time in her life, she sat there and wrote the lyrics and music to the song that would later become a radio sensation (unheard of at the time for religious music). She went back to bed.
The next morning there was a knock at her door. She answered it, and there stood a man dressed in all white, with 2 dozen roses. He hands her the roses – no card, no anything – and simply says ‘thank you’. She took the roses, put them in a vase, and placed them on her piano. As she did so, she looked down and saw the music she’d written in the middle of the night. Startled, she called her best friend, Helen Hackett Rothley. Helen was my wife’s mother, and she was an accomplished pianist. She’d studied music at Wittenberg University in Sprinfield, OH. She came over to check out the sheet music. She could read and play the music that Gladys had somehow written. These two Irish ladies, sitting there, listening to this music, were convinced the Blessed Mother had written this song through Gladys.
The song would not stop there. Gladys decided to record the song herself. She gathered some neighbor girls to her home, played the song while they sang, and recorded it on a tape. She took it to a disc jockey downtown Cincinnati named Bill Dawes. He had a show from noon to 6PM every day, but he refused to play her song – even though they were friends – he refused to play it. He said the low quality tape and the genre (religious) was not in line with his standards. He said no at 1:00. He said no at 2:00. He said no at 3:00. He said no at 4:00. Finally, at 5:00, she had convinced him to play it. He played it with a disclaimer, apologizing to his audience for the quality of the recording, etc.
The story goes, after he played it, the switchboard at WSAI lit up like a Christmas Tree. Overburdened with calls, no one was against hearing it. People demanded it over and over again.
On one of these days, the president of the Robbins Music Company happened to be in town. In those days, Cincinnati was like Nashville. There was a just a lot of music happening and stars originating from the city – Patty Page, Doris Day.. it was like the music capital of the world. He’d heard about this song and heard about the commotion.
He talked to Bill Dawes, found out who Gladys was, went out to her house and signed her to a contract. He agreed to publish the song, promote and get different people to record it. And he did. He got: Tony Bennett, Andy Williams, Kitty Callan, The Four Lads, and many others. I actually have a disc of Gladys commenting on their recording of her songs!
The song, in 1950, rose to #6 on the Hit Parade. A song – about Our Lady of Fatima, at #6 on the Hit Parade! This caused some degree of interest around the country. Mrs. Gollahon was written up in Time Magazine – the same story I’m telling you now – was written in Time. She was invited to New York to appear on “Toast of the Town’ with a guy named Ed Sullivan.
She became a little bit famous in Cincinnati and so she, her husband and son, moved out of their house to the outskirts of town. (Sidenote: Gladys’ son was the first person to be shot down in the Vietnam War.) When they moved, they did so without a lot of thought, and discovered their piano – The Blessed Mother’s Piano – wouldn’t fit up the elevator to their new quarters! So she gave the piano to my wife’s mother. This would have been in the 50’s. Once per week, Mrs. Rothley would have people over to pray the Rosary, and never did they leave without singing the song to the tune of that piano.
In 1963, Margie and I got married, and in 1964 we moved back to Ohio from St. Louis. One day we were visiting Mrs. Rothley and the subject of the piano came up. She’d mentioned that it was grossly out of tune, and how she’d been unable to find anyone who could tune it. Being the new son-in-law and wanting to know everything, I said I knew a guy who could do it. His name was Frank Hennessy, and he lived in Springfield where he worked for the Morelli Music Company. I grew up with him and knew there wasn’t a piano he couldn’t tune.
So he went to the house in Cincinnati and tuned it up. Frank relayed to us how valuable this Vose piano was, and how if it ever needed tuning in the future, he wanted to be the one to do it. This was 1964, and it was the first time I’d ever heard this story. Mrs. Rothley told it to Frank, and that was part of the reason he insisted on being the one to tune it. Well, my kids came into the world and they would go bang on it like kids do, and it came into a state of disrepair.
Time passed, and Mrs. Rothley eventually had to be admitted to an Alzheimer’s unit when her health began to fail. And so her house and most everything in it became my wife and her sister’s property through a trust we’d established. So the piano became part of our existence. This was right around the time that this parish was being established.
One night I had a dream, and in it I received the message that this piano was supposed to be at our Church. I told Father Sullivan about this, and after relaying the story to him – he thought about it for about 5 seconds – he said ‘bring it down’. My brother-in-law, an accomplished pianist, gave me the name of a shipping company that eventually got it here. The parish administrator at the time, through no fault of her own, had a bunch of people look at it over the course of a month with the purpose of getting it restored and tuned. Every one of them said it was as piece of junk and needed to be thrown out. None of them knew how to tune it anyhow, as it was a Vose piano. I told her I might know someone.
I don’t know why, but I couldn’t think of how to find Frank Hennessy. There was probably an easy way – call his old high school or something – but it didn’t come to me. Again, one night in a dream, I got a message that I should call Jim Paxson – another guy I grew up with – and he would know. The next day I called him and asked him if he knew where Hennessy was, and he replied “Oh, well, he’s probably in Terre Haute, IN by now.” I asked why that would be, and he told me that Hennessy was on his way over to play golf with Jim.
I asked where he lived and what he did. He said, “He lived in Columbia, MO and owns the Hennessy Music Company, which restores old pianos.” I laughed and told Jim to have Frank call me.
When Frank called, I told him about the mass consensus calling our piano a piece of junk and he immediately replied “Not that piano. They just don’t know how to tune it. Ship it to me.” I explained to him how I’d just spent $5,000 shipping to Florida and wasn’t about to spend that much to ship it up there only to hear how he couldn’t make it happen. He said he would send his truck to get it – and he did!
He looked at it and said it could be tuned, but that the wood was in really bad shape. At the time, there were only two places in the world where the wood could be restored. One was a city in – at the time – Czechoslovakia, and the other was in Juarez, Mexico. He told me he’d ship it to Juarez, have it back in 3-4 weeks, tune it up and ship it back to Florida. He told me he’d do it at cost for the Blessed Mother. So I said okay.
Four weeks went by, no news about the piano. Eight weeks went by, still no news. Finally I called him and asked what was going on. He said, “Tom, they won’t answer my calls. They won’t respond to my letters. I just can’t get a hold of them!” I asked him if he knew anything about what was going on. He knew nothing. They responded to nothing.
Long story short, 18 months later Hennessy gets a call telling him the piano would be returned to him the next day. When the truck driver got to Frank’s place, he asked him what the deal was – why so long? The driver explained that Hurricane Katrina had sent an undetermined number of pianos to this company, and his had been set aside while they all dried out and waited to be restored.
So Frank put the harp back in it, tuned it and shipped it back. Some more time passed and after short deliberation, Father Sullivan picked August 6, 2006. At the time, I had no idea that that date was Father Sullivan’s birthday, but he told me he wanted more of the history of the piano, and that’s when the parish administrator at the time called Frank Hennessy to get the full story.
This is when we found out the harp (inside the piano) was poured and cast in December of 1935 in Springfield, OH – the same month, year and city of my birth! It was poured at the Wickam Piano Company. In that year, 1935, Wickam was located one and a half blocks from where I was born and raised. The piano also had a serial number attached to it from Worchester, MA, dated August 6, 1936 – the same EXACT date, year and city in which Father Sullivan was born!
There is just too much coincidence here. I believe that this piano was picked by the Blessed Mother to be at this Church…. And that’s the story.