Sesquipedalian circumlocution

I asked my Iolani School colleague, John Alexander, if he wouldn’t mind sharing his brilliant eulogy for John McCreary, and he was happy to oblige. So here it is in its entirety:

A painting by Leohone Magno of John McCreary was displayed in the front of the Cathedral.

A painting by Leohone Magno of John McCreary was displayed in the front of the Cathedral.

HENH!!!  That’s one of the things I’m going to miss most about John:  that quirky way he had of greeting those he knew well.  HENH!!!  I was never really exactly sure what it meant, but I did learn eventually that the proper response to ‘HENH’ is… HENH!!  Sometimes if he were in a less-characteristically subdued and relaxed mood, it would come out more like “henh.”  But typically, John was a very exuberant, upbeat fellow who loved and embraced life, and his idiosyncratic greeting seemed to sum up his philosophy.  I took it to mean, “Hi!  How are you?!  What’s new?  Got any new jokes?  I’m spectacular—but improving!!  Nice to see you!”
You’re no doubt aware of John’s amazing musical legacy as a world-class organist, choral director, composer, arranger, music educator, mentor and role model.  He gave freely of himself always, and was one of the most charitable men I’ve ever known.  So many of us here today are the beneficiaries of his generosity of spirit!  Just think of all the lives he touched, all of the thousands of people he has known who are better for having known him!  But hey—I’m preaching to the choir here:  LITERALLY!

John was a man of many striking talents and admirable habits.  What I’m going to miss most about him, however, is his incredible sense of humor.  I’ll never forget the laughter that was a main component of choir rehearsals here at St. Andrew’s and at ‘Iolani School, where John and I taught together for 10 years.  The walls of the Cathedral echoed with as much laughter as music during those glorious years.  His humor ran the gamut from salacious to kooky to just plain goofy.  He never passed up an opportunity to make a witty observation, to say something punny, or to mix a metaphor as only he could do.  Deliberately, mind you—he reveled in others’ unfortunate slips of the tongue.  One of his favorites was, “When parents see a spark of genius within their child, they need to water it to make it grow.”  Another belonged to me, actually…  Here’s that story:  I was so ecstatic that the Cathedral had decided after years of agonizing deliberation to begin hosting Japanese weddings – or “reenactments,” as we Episcopalians call them – that I exclaimed, “Hooray!  I’m so glad we finally jumped on that bandwagon!!  Now I hope we milk it for all its worth!!!”  John laughed so hard at that “mad mental picture,” that I thought he was going to get a hernia – or as John used to call it, a “himia.”  According to him, while a woman can get a hernia, when a man suffers the same fate, it’s a himia.
Here’s something else I’m going to miss:  John’s penchant for giving out nicknames.  I don’t have to tell you that John wasn’t very good with names.  OK, that’s putting it very mildly.  Let’s face it:  He was terrible with names!  Honestly.  The worst!  He could remember the nicknames he gave people, however, so once you were dubbed Alfonso or Esmerelda or Bernadette, it stuck.  Likewise, Paul-Doll, Cherubic Charlie, Audacious Anna, Dirty Dave, and my personal favorite, Wicked Wanda of the West and her Woefully Warbling Wenches.  My name he could always remember…  Whenever he announced that he was going to take a potty break, he would always say, “I’m going to the room that bears our name!”  The worst instance of John’s inability to remember names occurred one day in the Chorus Room at ‘Iolani.  He was about halfway through a paragraph when he started fumbling for the name of one of our students who was standing right there with us.  I jumped in to help him out:  “Do you mean KENDALL, your only-begotten son?!”  True story!  Poor Kendall!  aka “Bam-Bam.”

One of John’s favorite sayings had to do with composers.  “Always steal from the best!” he would exhort me.  I’ve really taken that to heart, and not just with regard to composition.  Whenever I come across a wonderful warm-up exercise or teaching technique, I immediately make it my own.  I’ve stolen liberally from John McCreary, and I don’t think he would mind at all.  See if any of these sound familiar to you:  [chant]  When you encounter a 5th leap downward, what do you sing??  “Flint… stones, meet the perfect 5th!”  That’s right!  Very good!  Here’s another one:  [Grab ear and “tune” the note]  “Get that third in tuuuuuuune.”  Since John retired from teaching at ‘Iolani 21 years ago, I have probably quoted him at least once every single day, and intend to do so for a long time to come.  I’m not exaggerating.  His wisdom, his musical gifts, and his love for all humankind will live on for many generations, I have no doubt!  Here’s something else I’m going to miss:

John’s proclivity for using big words is legendary.  Here’s another of my favorite John McCreary quotes:  “Why use a little word when a great big one will do almost as well??”  This using large words to talk your way around something is what he christened “sesquipedalian circumlocution,” and it was a way of life for him.  Another of his favorite expressions was ironic:  “One must perennially endeavor to eschew obfuscation!”  For years he had a Word Of The Day calendar, and he’d try to incorporate each word into his daily conversations to see if he could stump people.  And oh, did he ever!  But as a result, all of his students now know which measure is the penultimate, and which is the antepenultimate.  Do you?  How about the one before the antepenultimate measure?? …  That’s right, it’s the pre-antepenultimate.  And the one before that?  Antepenultimate-but-one.  Very good!

Every quarter, we’d have to write a comment and give a grade for each student.  John embraced this mission with a vengeance.  We proofread each other’s comments, so I’m intimately familiar with what he wrote.  Sometimes he offered a perfunctory “Fine lad, sterling character,” or “Making progress.”  However, sometimes I’d feel sorry for the parents and I’d ask John why he’d employed such extreme sesquipedalian circumlocution.  His gleeful reply was that he LOVED the thought of sending parents SCRAMBLING for their dictionaries to figure out what he’d written!  I really loved that!

John was always writing and arranging music during his spare time, and that inspired me to do likewise.  During our numerous and interminable grade level meetings, John would be scribbling furiously away, seemingly oblivious to the goings-on.  Somehow he managed to keep tabs on the conversation, however, and every once in a while, he’d chime in with one of his favorite lines:  “Hang him!!”  Boy, did THAT break up the monotony!

As you may recall, John LOVED his gadgets.  Whenever the magnificent Aeolian-Skinner pipe organ would get a new stop, that immediately became his new toy, and he’d use it endlessly.  Those of you who sang for him in the Cathedral Choir will no doubt remember the acquisition of the Zimbelstern, the two-octave set of handbells, and the dreaded tuba ultima, which caused the choir to fear the retiring processional.  [And by the way, please note that it is NOT a “recessional.”  According to John, it’s a “retiring processional.”  Only if the clergy, crucifer, acolytes and choir were to walk out BACKWARDS would it be a “recessional.”]  But I digress…  Originally the tuba ultima pipes were mounted just above the great doors at the main entrance, and aimed at a 45-degree angle.  If we choir members could scurry out before the last verse of the hymn, no problem.  However, Heaven help you if you were still in transit by the last verse, because it was a sure bet that John would crank up the mightily Wurlitzer and let loose the dreaded “tour bus from Hell,” as we called it.  From the organ console, it sounded great, but from the narthex, it MADE YOUR EARS BLEED.

I’d like to share one of my favorite John McCreary stories with you.  It involves a gadget, and probably not many of you have heard this one.  Once upon a time, ‘Iolani School received a lovely new Allen organ, which was the state-of-the-art technology at the time.  On this impressive contraption was an ELECTRONIC TRANPOSER KNOB!  Ooooooooh!!!!  Previously, if you wanted to play something in a different key, you’d have to transpose everything manually.  All organists were trained to be able to play hymns in a variety of keys by transposing manually.  However, with the advent of the Electronic Transposer Knob, all you had to do was decide how many half-steps up or down you’d like to transpose something, and with a simple twist of the knob, voilà!  You’d be playing in any of a multitude of keys, without ever having to change any of the notes.  Needless to say, this gadget became John’s newest favorite toy, and he transposed EVERYTHING.  For MONTHS.

One day, as it would happen, there was a small instrumental ensemble present to accompany the Lower School Chapel Choir.  Unbeknownst to anyone, our boss, Wayne DeMello, Director of the Performing Arts Department at ‘Iolani School, had taken it upon himself to write out parts for the various instruments.  True to form, John had cranked up the transposer knob, and we belted out “Hail Thee, Festival Day” in the God-awful key of G Major.  On the penultimate verse, Wayne noticed that John was not playing in the key of F, and in a few short measures, a group of honkers and tweeters was about to chime in in the key of F Major!  He motioned frantically for me to approach.  “Tell John he’s got to get back to F Major for the last verse!  We’re all about to play!!”  I ran as fast as my chubby legs could carry me to the organ bench.  “John!  The instrumentalists are about to join in in the key of F!  You’ve got to get back to F Major!!”  Well, the timing was atrocious.  As the words were leaving my lips, the congregation was singing “…day whereon Christ arose, breaking the kingdom of death.”  There was no time for a dignified transition from one key to the next.  John lurched forward, grabbed the knob, and this is how it sounded:

“…breaking the kingdom of death…”  [Sing, grab the invisible knob, and on the last note, change the pitch wildly down then up then down again by ½ steps]

Well, it wasn’t pretty – or dignified – but we got there.  F Major!  Poor John!!  I’d never seen a look of such absolute terror on his face.  I cast a glance into the pews, and could see that the congregation was dumbfounded, perplexed and absolutely thunderstruck.  The last verse started, but no one sang…  The instrumentalists tried to play, but they were laughing too hard.  Ever the pro, John alone carried on.  I don’t know if you’ve ever heard anyone laugh into a trombone, but there’s really nothing pretty or dignified about that, either.  It took John YEARS to live this one down, but he always had a very healthy sense of humor about himself – God bless his peppermint-striped heart, as he was fond of saying.

I could go on and on with oodles of wonderful John stories, but it’s time to move on.  I’d like to close with something Archbishop Desmond Tutu said when he visited here for the first time years ago.  We used John’s immortal Tu Es Sacerdos as the processional.  When Archbishop Tutu finally got up to speak later in the service, the first thing he said was, “My goodness!  That Tu Es Sacerdos by John McCreary is a HUMDINGER!!!”  And that’s really the best way to describe John:  He was a HUMDINGER!

John McCreary's gravesite

John McCreary’s gravesite

If you would like to see a copy of the service bulletin, you can click here: Requiem Mass program

About Katherine Crosier

In addition to playing the organ I am interested in documenting life's special moments through journaling, scrapbooking, photography and slideshow production. My family just groans.
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