The Pope, The Clown and The Cross

skelton_pope

In 1957 comedian Red Skelton was on top of the world.  His weekly comedy show on CBS was doing well.  He had  curtailed the drinking which had almost derailed his career.  Not too shabby for a man who had started out as a circus and rodeo clown and who was now often called the clown prince of American comedy.  He and his wife Georgia had two beautiful kids:  Richard and Valentina Maria.  Then the worst thing in the world for any parent entered into the lives of Red and Georgia Skelton:  Richard was diagnosed with leukemia.  Unlike today, a diagnosis of leukemia in a child in 1957 was tantamount to saying that Richard was going to die soon.  Red immediately took a leave of absence from his show.  CBS was very understanding and a series of guest hosts, including a very young Johnny Carson, filled in for Skelton during the 1957-1958 season.

Red and his wife made two decisions.  First, they decided not to reveal to their son how ill he was;  if  worse came to worst they wanted him to enjoy the time he had left.  The boy’s leukemia was temporarily in remission and outwardly he appeared healthy.    When the boy saw “The Last Days of Pompeii” on TV and was fascinated by it, his mom and dad made their second decision.  They were going to take him and his sister to Europe so the boy could see Pompeii and other parts of Europe and the world, and to allow the parents to consult with foreign physicians and also to conduct a pilgrimage for their son.  The Skeltons were Protestants, indeed, Red was an active Mason, but they had chosen to educate their kids at a Catholic school and Richard was very religious, his room filled with religious pictures and statues.  Like many Christians of whatever denomination, in their hour of utmost need the Skeltons decided to seek aid of the Catholic Church.

The entertainment press was just as aggressive then as it is now.  Skelton informed the press why his family was going on an around the world trip, but asked their assistance in helping keep from his son that he was afflicted with a mortal illness.  Amazingly enough, the American press agreed to help him.  The American ink-stained wretches of the Fourth Estate behaving quite honorably in this instance.

The British press was quite another matter.  While the Skeltons were in England during their trip, the British tabloids, always in a contest to see which paper can be the most vicious and cruel, denounced the trip as a cheap publicity stunt by Red Skelton.  Richard learned of his grave illness by reading one of these disgusting rants.  Only nine years old, however, the boy was a fighter.  “Everybody says I’m going to die but that means everybody but me.”, was his brave reaction to the news.

On July 22, 1957  the Skeltons had a private audience with Pius XII.  There was nothing unusual about this.  Pius considered it as part of his duties to meet with anyone who wished to see him:  rich or poor, Catholic or non-Catholic.   These audiences often had a large impact on the people who saw the Pope.  For instance, while Rome was occupied by Germany during World War II, German troops, Protestant and Catholic alike, flocked to see the Pope, until such visits were forbidden by the Nazis, fearful of the impact of the Pope’s words regarding mercy and Christian charity on the troops.

The Pope spent a great deal of time talking to the Skeltons.  He blessed Richard and the other members of the family and gave them religious medals.  Red would later describe this visit as the high point of his son’s life.  The Pope gave them these words of comfort, which really are the only words of comfort for members of a family when one of them is nearing death.  “Life is eternal because of God. So if life is taken away from one person in a family they are never separated because the family will always live together in eternal life with God.”

The family saw Pompeii which greatly interested Richard.  Arriving in Paris he said, upon being asked by a reporter, that he wanted to see the Eiffel Tower.  When asked as a follow up what else he wanted to see, he showed that perhaps he shared his father’s comedic talent.  “What else is there?”

The family had a great deal of fun, but the European physicians could offer no hope.  In August the Skeltons went to Lourdes.  “God alone can save my boy’s life as science has done all it can.”, was Red Skelton’s comment at the time.

After they returned to the States, the leukemia came out of remission and took its dreadful course.  Richard underwent treatment at the UCLA medical center.  His parents were constant visitors to see him.  Both father and son, as detailed here, did their best to keep up the spirits of the other children undergoing treatment by telling jokes.  On one occasion Red Skelton sat up most of the night with a young girl who was undergoing surgery and kept reassuring her that everything was going to be all right, as it turned out to be in her case.

“The doctor was as gentle as he could be when he told me there was a good chance I had something that would mean amputating my leg. I remember crying for hours that night. The night before surgery I was very scared. My mother was at home with three small children and I had a difficult time falling asleep. When I finally gave in and allowed sleep to take over, it wasn’t for long. I awoke to find my friend Richard’s father asleep in the chair next to my bed. He woke up soon after I did, and in a very gentle voice kept telling me it was going to be ok. I just had to believe. There he stayed for most of the night. I would sleep and waken, and he would sometimes be asleep, other times he’d smile and comfort me.

Surgery went well, and my leg wasn’t amputated, but I was in and out of surgeries, casts, and the hospital for the next two years. Richard passed away from leukemia the second year, but has lived on in my heart and memory. His father became my hero as I watched him on television, then and in later years. For during the time I knew Mr. Skelton and his son Richard, I only saw their courage, compassion, and tender hearts. I saw a man who was “in character” to make the children laugh and forget their illnesses, but I also saw a very gentle man who was not “in character”, as he sat by the bed of a fatherless 11 year old. Setting aside his own fears, or sadness, Red Skelton, the clown who entertained millions during the early days of television, made sure I was able to face a scary situation with the hope it was going to be ok.”

I find this remarkable.  Dealing with the approaching death of his own son, Red Skelton found it within himself to keep up the spirits of other children.  I guess he really meant it when he said, “God’s children and their happiness are my reasons for being”. In the years to come Skelton would become a major donor for charities for sick kids, and would also assist children through his establishment of the Red Skelton Foundation in his hometown of Vincennes, Indiana.

Throughout his treatment at UCLA Richard kept a bag packed near his bed at home just in case the leukemia would go into remission again and his family could go on another trip together.  Heartbreakingly, that was not to be the case.  As his tenth birthday neared, his father brought a catalog to his son so he could pick out what he wanted.  He did so and also picked out a surprise gift for his mother for mother’s day.

The end came for Richard on May 10, 1958, a week before his 10th birthday.  As he lay dying he asked his father to remember to get his mother the red blanket he had picked out since he didn’t think they’d let him out of the hospital so that he could buy it himself.  An hour later his gallant struggle against leukemia ended.  His mother and father wept quietly by his bedside for half an hour.

Shortly after the boy’s death, a package arrived from the Vatican.  It contained a crucifix blessed by Pope Pius XII.  Just before his death the boy had requested the crucifix, and the Pope had immediately sent it.  Richard doubtless realized the great truth that the crucifix is the symbol of Christ’s victory over death, and our victory also.   The mortal remains of Richard Skelton were buried with the crucifix in his hands.  I have absolutely no doubt that the soul of the brave young boy who loved God so much immediately enjoyed the Beatific Vision after his period of travail on Earth.  As Red Skelton said after the death of his son, “I want the thousands of people who have written us that they prayed for Richard during his illness to have faith that God will answer their prayers.”

  1. Thank you John Henry. I was vaguely aware of the death of Skelton’s son, but until I began researching Skelton last week I was unaware of the connection to Pius XII. Courage and grace in the face of death always moves me, and Richard Skelton had those qualities to the full.

  2. Good story. I see Red’s own father died shortly after Red was born. He must have been grounded well in his beliefs. I’m sure there are DVDs of his shows, I think I’ve seen them advertized on TV.

  3. Wikipedia has interesting information, I wonder if they reference his Catholicism.

    I see it says he was a FreeMason and more on the story above,

    “As if the loss of his show was not enough, his ex-wife Georgia committed suicide in 1976, five years after their divorce and on the tenth anniversary of their son’s death years before. That was her second attempt at suicide. Georgia left a note that said, “The reason I chose this day, is so you wouldn’t feel bad twice in one year.” [8]”

    So nix to that about being grounded in Catholicism. If Red were a midwesterner from Indiana, Dean Martin was born in Steubbenville, Ohio of all places, if Ohio is considered Midwestern. Interesting to track down where some of these people hailed from.

  4. An anecdote about Skelton:

    “Funny how you can go to a doctor’s offices and find magazines that are years old in the lobby. I had to go to a dentist two week ago and found a Golf magazine from the 80’s. I also found a magazine that told me the following story:

    Decades ago, a young American was flying across the mountain ranges of Europe on his way to London. Accompanying his friend, a Catholic priest, the two were scheduled to have a meeting with the Pope in England. As the priest talked, the plane suddenly rocked. Then rocked again. Something told the priest the plane was not destined to ever touch
    land again.

    The passengers, busy in their individual conversations, failed to notice, the priest observed, until a flight attendant made an announcement of impending doom. The plane was over a mountain range and losing altitude.

    As expected, panic set in.

    The priest loosened his seat belt, realizing he had but minutes to offer last rites to any who might desire them. His young friend, Richard, sat motionless, staring at the seat before him. The priest went about his duties. Then, all at once, reality hit Richard in the face and he noticed that behind his seat and to the right was a child, two children, several children. If indeed this was to be the last moments of their short lives, Richard determined, he would make sure the children never knew it.

    The young American rose to his feet and started to make faces at the kids. Horrible faces, ugly faces. Most of the youngsters laughed, but one did not. This boy, about the age of 5, became Richard’s focus. Richard stuck his tongue out. So did the boy. Richard did it again, making an awful face. The boy imitated him. As the priest delivered last rites, Richard kept the children amused. None of them knew the earth was rushing up to meet their craft in spikes of ancient stone.

    Meanwhile, the pilot had been amazed that the plane had cleared most of the rough crags that reached for the skies. One lone mountaintop was left to clear; their fate waited on its other side. By inches, the plane cleared that last mountain. What lay on the other side was a large cow pasture with soft, rolling grasses. The craft slid in on a cushion provided by Mother Nature – rough, but not the landing the pilot and most of the passengers had imagined.
    Certainly not what either the priest or Richard had expected.

    Those young children never knew how close they had approached Heaven’s gates, nor did many of them ever know the young, auburn-haired performer who kept that knowledge from them miles above the earth.

    His name was Richard but we knew him as Red Skelton.”

    I can believe the anecdote. Throughout his life Skelton’s motto appears to have been “Kids First”.

    http://finaltaxi.wordpress.com/2007/09/17/has-america-forgotten-its-famous-clown/

  5. i recall Richard’s passing well. Such a tragic loss. Red was never ever the same. what parent is. He was a great clown ,lover of mankind and beautiful human being. thsnks Brad. I know this story for 50 years. may both their gentle souls rest eternally in peace. bless them and you for reminding us how gentle but strng love is between parent and child.

  6. Thank you gentlemen. Tom, your last sentence says it all. I think in the love between parent and child we get a tiny taste of the love God has for each of us.

  7. I have deleted the comments of Crusader. They were off topic and frankly a little strange. I have also placed him on moderation for the time being. I have also deleted my response to Crusader as well as the responses of foxfier and cminor, no offense to either of them intended, especially since they are two of my favorite commenters.

  8. From the little I know about families, it is extremely difficult for a marriage to succeed when a child dies before their parents, especially when they’re still in adolescence.

    I am sure there are marriages that have been able to stay together, though I have yet to hear or see of one.

    Just a side note.

    On the posting…

    Wonderful story, touching and moving.

  9. Tito-
    I know of one, personally, where the child was killed in a farm accident while his mother and brother were near– keeping themselves intact was not easy. I think other children being very young and how sudden the loss is might have a big effect on it.

  10. From the little I know about families, it is extremely difficult for a marriage to succeed when a child dies before their parents, especially when they’re still in adolescence.

    I am sure there are marriages that have been able to stay together, though I have yet to hear or see of one.

    My parents. My dad’s parents. My mom’s parents.

    I’m very much hoping not to have to follow in their footsteps, obviously — but a lot of people do deal with it and stay together.

  11. Also my uncle and aunt, grandparents, and great-grandparents. The latter two couples lived in a different time, of course: losing a child was unfortunately more common and divorce almost unthinkable. Likely that element of unthinkability makes a difference.

  12. In the 1800s, killer diseases of children filled the graveyards. One story in my family that was told by my great-grandmother was the rapid succession of death of her three, beautiful, younger sisters from diphtheria. Her mother dreamed, or had a vision, of an angel who shed three tears, and said, “Bea, Flora, and Ada.” Her three, beautiful daughters soon thereafter contracted this childhood killer disease. From that point on, no one in the family was allowed to relate any mystical experiences or dreams. One can imagine the heartbreak of so many families in this time period and speculate that their wardrobe must have consisted of many black garments. No matter how much a family suffered grief and heartbreak, divorce was a rarity. Families were much, much larger then and perhaps were better able to absorb the loss.

  13. Lack of three generations that have been taught “when the going gets tough, leave”– and a lack of unilateral decision making for said divorces.

    My mom’s dad’s folks were separated– never divorced, just decided they couldn’t stand each other and lived in totally different areas of the country thereafter.

  14. It’s interesting how in the earlier generations families were larger, and by secular standards “to hard” to handle, and were more prone to infant deaths yet they remained in tact and even flourished though today many families divorce after the death of a child.

    Can we say “secularization” or “modernism” has had a net negative effect on the nuclear family?

  15. Oops, forgot another aspect: most folks don’t have a support structure.

    When my mom was a kid her mother lost two children, and suffered from what we’d call post-partum depression; the older boys looked after my mom, neighbors watched the boys and made sure that Granny was functioning, siblings and in-laws picked up the slack, and it was a worry that the grandparents were in another state.

    Now? It’s unusual if you have one sister and one brother, it’s unusual if your parents are near to help, hardly any neighbors would be comfortable laying down the law for someone else’s kids and the only two examples I can think of where kids stayed at a cousin’s house, there were rather dire results because of such different parenting styles. (In English: folks with stressed marriages seem to always have utter _BRATS_ and defend their every misdeed to the death.)

    Random extra thought: those earthquakes that hit China and took down several schools, killing many children, also triggered suicides in the parents of the children– suspected to be a result of the one child policy, which means that many families were absolutely gutted.

  16. Foxfier,

    Excellent point!

    Especially in rural parts of the country, you would have cousins, nephews, and nieces assisting in raising newborns, infants, and children.

    This was their baby-training for when they had families of their own.

    Now, especially secularized couples, have one or no children and they look around and have no cousins or aunts and uncles as well.

  17. Speaking of having a family support structure reminded me of a true story. It’s the story of Charlie.

    Charlie was a momma’s boy. He simply adored his mother. He looked up to his older brother and loved his father but his mother was everything to him.
    When Charlie as 8 yrs. old he came home from school one day only to learn that his mother had taken ill and died while he was in class. He was devastated but took solace in prayer to the Blessed Mother the only other women in his young life.
    In less then 3 years Charlie suffered another loss, that of his big brother he so much looked up to. That left just Charlie to be with his father.
    Charlie grew in the love of his father but in Charlie’s 20th year he was alone in life as his father also died. Even before his 21st birthday Charlie had lost all those he loved in life, his entire family. To make matters worse Charlie got on the wrong side of the authorities in charge. He had to go into hiding after a while and was taken in by the towns man of the cloth for safekeeping.
    Charlie also decided to pursue the religious life and soon the man that had once lost his entire family took the entire world to be his family. He went to those that could not come to him. He traveled his whole life to be with that adopted world family. But Charlie grew old and the travel tired him greatly. Charlie left this life in his old age and know one will ever remember Charlie. Yes that’s right! Charlie will not be remembered at all. At least by that name. For you see Charlie is what his name would be in English. But his given first name in his native language was Karol. Karol Wojtyla…Pope John Paul II

    The man without a family left this world with his entire world family in tears at his passing…John Paul the Great…..

  18. I just happened upon this story. Sincere thanks to the gentleman who posted it.
    I was blessed to meet and become friends with Red Skelton during the last 18 years of his life. As the girl in the article pointed out, Red was just as wonderful a man when out of character as when he was in character. I saw Red in all kinds of situations through the years, but his faith and quiet strength never waivered. Once, he showed me that first Crucifix given him by Pope Pius, and I’ve never forgotten it. Red’s faith and strength of character had a profound effect on my life. I miss him very much; but, as he promised me years ago, “we’ll meet up there someday.” May God rest him, truly one of the finest men I’ve ever known.

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  20. I was so moved by this article. I’d like to post it on my blog, attributing it to you of course, this Christmas eve. Please let me know if I can.

    There are people who face this Christmas without someone they love very much. I believe that Red Skelton’s experience with the pope and his son’s illness affirms the power of Christian love over death and despair. Let me know.