“THE REAL BRAIN IN OUR FAMILY”
John Haskell Wilson
(With John’s permission & help)
My first cousin, John Haskell Wilson is, as my twin sister Mercy and I used to refer to him, ‘The real brain in our family.’ We remember his walking around reading the Bible as a teenager. We admired him—and also had fun together.
A graduate of Exeter, Yale, and General Theology Seminary, John has spent much of his life reaching out and helping people, mostly in New York City at the Chelsea house he bought years ago. John is godfather to our adult children, Jan and Steve Morgan, and a great friend of Pat’s and mine.
John was born in Muskegon, Michigan in 1932 and lived there for his first 12 years. His mother, Lois, died giving birth to his brother William when John was four years old. His father,Ted, died in a hunting accident two years later. My parents told me there was a threat of a lawsuit when John and William became orphans over who they should live with.
Lois was my father’s younger sister. She graduated from Smith, where she excelled. She also introduced her roommate to her brother, and that woman became Dad’s first wife.
The Wilson boys grew up with their father’s mother in Michigan, Florida, and later Vermont. He also spent a lot of time with his mother’s father in Brunswick, Maine. “I think I came to identify with Maine because Grandpa Haskell at least lived in one permanent place, while Grandma Wilson lived in a variety of places, sometimes in houses, sometimes owned, sometimes rented, and in hotels,” John says.
I grew up with John’s visiting once in a while in Moosup, Connecticut when we were young. I’m sure my parents didn’t think we’d amount to much later in life when we moved the garbage in my wagon to their front lawn, ‘playing garbage men.’ We went to Camp Winona in Maine, where John was a super swimmer and diving champion. I was a nerd at that camp, and John became a good friend, inspiring me to get over my homesickness and have fun. I still didn’t learn how to swim in the chilly Maine water. William and I were students at Cardigan Mountain School in New Hampshire.
In a recent interview between John and his close friend Pascal Chmelar’s daughter, Sophie, John said, "The grand daughter of the friends with whom I shared the Chelsea house once was asked to do a report on a person she admired and she chose to write about me!. Here are parts of a statement she wrote to answer her questions:
It was my roommate at Exeter, who had the funny name Simpson Bobo Dean and was always called Bobo, who introduced me to the Episcopal Church. (all students at Exeter were required to go to some church on Sundays) it was then that I started to get religious. In college at Yale New Haven, I and my friends went to a church called Christ Church on Broadway. You may know it. What appealed to me about the church were the ceremonies – the ritual and the music – but I think that really people in the church were nice to me, and I felt at home with them. So religion gave me a place to belong. I don't know if my parents were religious, and I do not remember that my grandparents were religious, either. But, as I said before, I found a place for myself in the church, and that made me want to be a priest, for myself and for others.
I was a priest for about 10 years. I studied for the ministry at the Seminary in Chelsea, right across the street from where I live now and where your father grew up. I was ordained in 1958. I worked first at a church in West Harlem on W. 126th St. and later at a church on W. 20th St., in the next block over. As a priest I did many of the things that ministers do, conducting services, (Holy Communion being the most important one), preaching sermons (sometimes in Spanish because we had some Spanish-speaking members), conducting classes, visiting members of the church, but I must say the most interesting thing I did was working with teenagers.
John talked about his wish to help people out, including a lot of blacks and Latinos. “I will always remember a boy named Benji Walker. He and some friends stole a car to go joy riding. The cops chased them and shot at them and Benji was killed. He was a sweet kid, not bad at all, but he was killed for doing something stupid.”
Now to tell you about other things I have done in my life. First of all one of the great things I did was to buy a house with your grandparents, the house at 410 W. 20th St., where your father was born and raised. We all worked to fix the place up and became the dearest of friends. I had never been handy before, but together we all learned how to do many things. Your grandmother and Susan Shriver and I all went to a night class in carpentry at a public school uptown. It was great to have a permanent place of my own, after having as a child lived in so many houses in so many places – Michigan, Florida, Maine, Vermont, then school in New Hampshire and college in Connecticut. We – your grandparents and I – moved into the place while it was still being renovated, camping out in the empty rooms. I took the apartment on the second floor in 1963 and have been there ever since.
I still live in the same apartment at 410, and for pleasure I read a lot – books and magazines, mostly having to do with history and politics. I am always wondering what is going on in the world and why is it happening. These are big questions, and I enjoy thinking about them even though I don't always have answers. Like everyone else, I watch TV, where I think I like English detective dramas. Because I have something called COPD, which means my lungs are a mess and I get out of breath easily, I do not get out as often as I would like. I get my breath back when I rest but I find to be out of breath very irritating. I used to ski quite a bit and loved it but quit because I was afraid I would do something stupid and injure myself. I have always loved swimming and body surfing, which I learned as a kid in Florida, but since I had to sell the house on Shelter Island I don't get to swim as much as I once did. Or maybe I should call it floating since I have enough fat that I don't sink but just float. In my spare time I always go to the gym to use the cardio machines and workout. Actually I do not always enjoy that – in part because I get out of breath – and I'm supposed to do that to keep my lungs working.
Finally I have to admit that I really enjoy going out to eat in restaurants. I cook for myself and eat at home a lot, and I'm not a bad cook, but I just enjoy eating out with friends.
I remember when John told us he was gay. Pat and I were visiting John at his Shelter Island home. He’d cooked a wonderful chicken dinner, and we were having drinks in his living room when he told us. We immediately replied, “So what, John, that really makes no difference to us!” I think John was relieved knowing his cousin Hank, a bit of a stuffed shirt at times, would not be the least bit surprised nor concerned. In our family, this made no difference whatsoever. In John’s own words to me:
“As for being gay, I think that most of my life I felt ‘different,’ maybe because of my curious family situation, but it took me a long time to admit even to myself that I was actually gay, that is, attracted to men. AS a result I missed out on a lot of physical intimacy for much of my life. I guess I missed out on AIDs, too. Who knows why anyone is gay, and I don’t know why I am gay, but being “ out “ has given me a fuller life. I am now lucky to have a boyfriend of 15 years or so, Shawn Garcia, who was born in Brooklyn and lived in Lewiston and Topsham Maine for a number of years. Jan and Joss and their kids have met him. He is black — or Latino. I think I am attracted to blacks because my first year in Junior High School (then 7th grade) when we move to Ft. Lauderdale from Vermont (where my grandmother had moved) we lived in a hotel. I was lonely and unhappy, but the bellboys, who were black, were friendly, and taught me how to operate the elevator and the switchboard. In a sense they took care of me.
I think that no one was surprised when I announced that I was gay —— the problem was in my head (or in society). So everyone said that’s great or something like that.”
At one point John led tours of New York City. Pat and I took one of John’s tours and were fascinated at his knowledge of his hometown and the interesting way he presented it.
Among John’s many friends are Burton and Blanche Copper. ‘I met them at the late 1950s when I worked at that Church in West Harlem. Burton was studying at Union Seminary and Blanche was much into politics, and they and their kids lived in the projects. We have remained close since then as they moved around the country and ultimately retired in Vermont.
John has a great heart, and we’ve enjoyed his many visits to Maine, Hilton Head, Moosup, and Pickens etc. He shows up at all our weddings and always adds class to our family gatherings. He’s a wonderful conversationalist.
We’ve also visited him in NYC and remember the morning he skied up 6th Avenue to our hotel to tell us all flights had been cancelled because of the snowstorm. An avid reader of the N. Y. Times and books, John is fun to be with, lives an interesting life, and has a great sense of humor.
I am proud to be John’s cousin, admirer, and good friend.