Moving from seventh grade at North Shore Elementary School to eighth grade at the larger, much more “cosmopolitan” Kirby-Smith Junior High School was stressful, what with the older, larger, tougher kids from other parts of Jacksonville, Florida.
That transition from bush league to big time was made much easier for me by a big fella I came to know in my first few daze at Kirby—Ernie Craun.
At that time I fancied myself as a bass, or at least a baritone. Therefore, I self-selected that section when we showed up for our first “chorus” class.
While I struggled to find myself—and my still changing voice in the bass-baritone section–I quickly came to know and like a handsome, gregarious (as none I’ve met then or since in my life), and talented resonant baritone. His name was Ernest Craun, but to all of us he was just “Ernie.”
When my voice settled down and I could get my vibratos and glissandos under control, I realized I was a tenor, not a baritone. But Ernie and I sang together the remainder of that year, the next and in fact, for the next four years in the Kirby-Smith and then Andrew Jackson Choruses.
Ernie not only “owned” the baritone section, his incredible personality made being in and of any group he was in that much more fun. He was gifted not only with looks, mind and voice, but with an intuitive knowledge of people that set him apart from the rest of us. Eventually, those of us who went into the military would study leadership–to Ernie it was one of God’s gifts.
When Ernie was in a group, it was to him they looked for guidance and direction. When we arrived at Andrew Jackson, we were together again not only in the senior chorus, but also in the “AJ Quartet,” a sub-set of the Senior Chorus that sang at virtually every school function (and there were many), plus frequent dates in the community for Lions, Rotary, Civitans and numerous churches.
I liked the Quartet so much, because of the gospel music we mostly sang and the fun of being around Ernie and Charlene Sult (our talented accompanist), J.E. McGowan and Bill Brannen, that I would have paid good money just to sing with them. Rehearsing with that bunch of “live wires” was a hoot.
One time a prankster called me to line up a singing engagement at a Lions Club in St. Augustine, a bit further than we normally traveled for a singing date. We scrounged up a car, piled us all in and took off for the Oldest City. When we arrived at location, we were told, with great embarrassment that they did not call us and that they already had entertainment lined up.
Not to worry, Ernie began talking to him and soon we were headed over to another civic club that met at the same time.
We arrived at the new “date” and let Ernie do the talking. In less than five minutes we were being fed a whopping lunch by the Rotary Club, and became their instant entertainment for that day. We gave them the best show we possibly could for their understanding and generosity to this wayward Jacksonville singing group.
The mid-1950’s were still the early years of television. When the magic box finally arrived, the first station on the air in Jacksonville did not even have programming. So, it simply broadcast a “test pattern.”
People would ride the buses from all over Jacksonville, get off in Hemming Park and stand outside one of the windows at Cohen Bros. Department Store (now Jacksonville’s City Hall), to stand and watch the tiny, flickering screen. Soon, the test pattern was replaced by Kukla, Fran and Ollie…now that was worth the nickel bus ride on the old “26 North Shore” bus to see.
In 1956 the Quartet was invited to sing with (as in back up) Virginia Adder (Keyes), a very popular local television personality. It was live television. When the little light on the bulky old camera turned red, you were on live television.
We were late leaving North Jacksonville. I believe Bill Brannen was driving—fast—south on Main Street headed for the Main Street (Acosta) Bridge.
When it was seen to be in the down position, we cheered as we went hurtling over the bridge. We had forgotten that the access to the television station required a long detour and loop back to reach the entrance. Balls ‘o fire, times a wastin’.
Looking around for any police patrols, Bill eased the car over several curbs and medians en route to the parking lot–taking, shall we say, a more direct route.
I think we had about thirty seconds to air time as we adjusted our straw hats and put on a big smile—Ernie’s the biggest, of course—for the camera. Later, after the first number and the program broke for a commercial, we heard from the director—a lot—in fortissimo.
When Ernie graduated in the January class of 1957, those of us left behind found that school was significantly less fun because he was not there.
Two years later, when I joined the University of Florida Men’s Glee Club I was just about ecstatic to see Ernie there, as well. Although he eventually transferred to another university, we had another memorable year together in the UF Men’s Glee.
Military duties, family and careers took us in greatly different directions over the years, but we would catch up at various reunions.
Several years ago, Ernie led the planning for the AJHS 50th Reunion, as he had done for many previous reunions. Once again, all of us looked forward to the planning committee meetings for the camaraderie that was highlighted by Ernie (with his lovely wife, June) being in his appointed chair to lead the meeting.
Last week those of us who loved Ernie Craun gathered together one last time to remember his life, his many accomplishments and his remarkable influence on those around him. It took two ministers–including our high school classmate, Rev. Larry Paulk–and a full church to do his life justice. Through the tears we hung on every word, because they brought back such warm memories of that remarkable man.
Our husband, father, friend and classmate is gone and can never be replaced–he was truly one of a kind.
We will miss him dearly. Ernie will be remembered by all who knew him as an exceptional human being who lived a full, honorable and exemplary life.
Our great friend, Ernie Craun. Rest in peace.