John Wells remembers the cold, snowy mornings, the empty, ice-slick roads. He remembers pleading with his mother to stay indoors and let someone else sit in the radio studio. But Pauline Wells Lewis, "Aunt Pauline" to generations of Baltimoreans, wouldn't hear of such talk.
"She'd say, 'We better try to make it. I know I got people listening and waiting for me. We better go,' " he says. "I'd be scared to death, and she'd say, 'Pray, son. We'll make it.' "
Nothing kept "Aunt Pauline" from the audience she built through years of good works and Christian charity. Her name was synonymous with gospel music. For more than 40 years her deep, fluid voice came through radios in thousands of homes, black and white.
She brought James Cleveland, Mahalia Jackson, Aretha Franklin and others to town before they became household names. Out-of-town performers asked her to emcee their programs in Richmond, Va., Philadelphia and elsewhere. At home, no gospel program was complete without her. She brought her own crowd.
"You could't do anything without Aunt Pauline," says Roland "Joe" Smith. "She was, as the young folks say, 'The Bomb.'"
Tomorrow, her rich legacy goes on display at the Enoch Pratt Free Library's main branch in downtown Baltimore. There will be traditional and contemporary gospel performances and discussions built around Pauline Wells Lewis and her dedication to black America's unique contribution to religious music.
The evening wouldn't be possible if a group of friends and gospel devotees had not claimed the papers and other memorabilia Aunt Pauline left behind. Their effort started one night a little over two years ago.
That night's idle conversation turned to Aunt Pauline. They knew she was ill. They wanted to get her on tape talking about her career. They wanted to preserve her priceless collection of items accumulated over a decades-long involvement in gospel music. In the fall of 1997, they formed the American Gospel Music Heritage Foundation.
They're hoping to find a building to house the collection, which includes trophies, plaques, unsold tickets, photographs, church fans, pieces of Aunt Pauline's extensive wardrobe. There are hundreds, perhaps thousands of recordings, solid, 50-year-old 78 rpm platters, albums from the 1960s and '70s, 45 rpm singles still in the sleeves of once-popular labels such as Savoy, Richburg and Peacock. Every gospel performer sent music, hoping she'd promote their songs on "Inspiration Time." She also kept correspondence, "thank you" letters, the play list of certain programs -- everything, it seems.
"She's the glue that holds all this together. If it wasn't for her, we wouldn't pursue a foundation," says Thomas R. Roberts Sr., its president.
Gospel music was in its infancy when Pauline Lewis arrived in Baltimore in the late 1930s. She was a single mother, with two children in tow. She worked at the Empire and Legal laundries to pay her bills. Young John sold The Sun at Wilkens Avenue and Monroe Street. Every penny went into maintaining the house.
After first joining Pennsylvania Avenue Zion Church, Lewis found her way to Gillis Memorial Christian Community Church, then on Stockton Street in West Baltimore. It was small. Maybe 35 people, most of them older, showed up for Sunday worship. For Lewis, it became a home.
She and the Rev. Theodore Jackson Sr. started building the church. She organized choirs in church, and among children in the neighborhood. She called one children's choir "The Do What You Can Choir." She joined with Caleb Davis, another Gillis member, and became emcee for programs featuring groups such as the Dixie Hummingbirds.
The Rev. Agnes Alston remembers Lewis from those early days. The older woman encouraged her, supported her. Lewis ironed Alston's name into her linen before the younger woman set off for Queens College in Flushing, N.Y. Lewis, who was always stylishly dressed, helped transform Alston from an 18-year-old girl who wore ankle socks into a young woman in silk stockings.
"She made me sit down and put them on. She said, 'It's time for you to wear stockings,' " says Alston.
By 1942, Lewis and her sister, Sylvia, were featured performers on "The Open Heart Hour," a gospel program then on WANN in Annapolis. Soon, she was traveling around the region, meeting gospel singers and bringing them to Gillis. This was new for what was then a Methodist church.
"A lot of churches were not ready for gospel singers. They were still in the hymns and old Negro spirituals," says Alston. Churches open to visiting performers preferred gospel quartets. "They were men. Simple as that."
Lewis helped change that. She brought in Sister Rosetta Tharpe and the Clara Ward Singers. It wasn't long before Gillis was known as the singing church. There was always someone singing on a Sunday afternoon. And Lewis was always there.
"She was a people person, and I shared her with the whole world," says Wells. "I never felt selfish about my mother, or saying I needed her more. She devoted enough time to her family. We knew she had to do what she was doing, and we respected that. Anything that made her happy made us happy."
By the late 1950s, Lewis was given a regular show. "Inspiration Time" premiered on WSID-AM the morning of Sept. 12, 1959. Later, "Chapel of the Air" could be heard on the station's FM affiliate. "Aunt" Pauline's message was now beamed throughout Baltimore and beyond. Her popularity grew.
"She would call me at 4 o'clock in the morning, 'You up?' " says Aurelia White, Aunt Pauline's studio partner for nearly 30 years.
By 5 a.m., her theme song, performed by the Caravans, was on the air: "Lord, keep me day by day in a pure and spiritual way." Lewis had her "Sunshine Club," listeners who, at her request, wrote or visited people who were sick, hospitalized, lonely. White answered the phones, took down requests and maintained "the birthday corner." Together, they formed a radio ministry built around the voice and spirit of Aunt Pauline.
During the 1960s, her anniversary concerts became legendary. She started at Gillis, but the crowds outgrew the church. She moved to the old coliseum on Monroe Street. The crowds got bigger. She booked the Lyric.
Aunt Pauline, who stood not even 5 feet in high heels, would arrive at the concerts in furs, or a gown from the French Shop on Charles Street. People would wonder who would get to pin the corsage on her or walk her down the aisle. The latter privilege often fell to Roland "Joe" Smith, a keyboardist who looked to Aunt Pauline for inspiration.
"She'd say, 'Come here, Joe.'
" 'Ma'am?' I'd reply.
"And we'd walk down the aisle and I'd be grinning and nervous, but grinning because that was an honor for me."
Lewis retired from WSID in 1983 but was soon back on the radio, with "For Seniors," on WGBR. In late 1997 illness forced her from the air.
Lewis, 86, died Aug. 11, 1998, at Mercy Medical Center.
An entire community turned out for her funeral on Aug. 17, 1998. Police blocked off Park Heights Avenue around Gillis Memorial. Politicians tried to grab a minute or two at the microphone. There were so many people, the viewing had to be cut short.
Lewis would probably prefer tomorrow night's celebration be in honor of someone else, someone more deserving.
"You know what she would say? 'I'm just doing what the Lord would have me to do,' " says her daughter, Margaret Harris. "The Lord will reward me, not man."
Yet, there are times when people have to pause to honor a life well-lived, a life given in service.
"She didn't do things for you to have you do things for her. She did things because of the Christ that was in her, that forced her to do these things," says the Rev. Agnes Alston. "If you were looking to see Christ in a person, you could see Christ in Pauline Lewis."
Honoring a legacy
What: "Lord Keep Me Day By Day"
Where: Enoch Pratt Free Library, 400 Cathedral St.
When: 6 p.m. to 8 p.m., tomorrow
Admission: Free Call: 410-396-5494