Something Better Than Fame
AS TOLD BY CHARLES SINUTKO
In 1957, I was offered a 13-week contract to sing in Las Vegas, Nevada, U.S.A., for a thousand dollars a week, with an option of 50 more weeks if performances went well. That would be an additional $50,000—big money at the time. Let me explain what led up to this lucrative offer and what made the decision about accepting it or not such a difficult one.
FATHER, a Ukrainian, was born in eastern Europe in 1910. In 1913 his mother brought him to the United States, where she rejoined her husband. Father married in 1935, and I was born a year later in Ambridge, Pennsylvania. About that time two of Father’s older brothers became Jehovah’s Witnesses.
When my three brothers and I were young and our family was living near New Castle, Pennsylvania, our mother studied the Bible briefly with the Witnesses. Neither of my parents became Witnesses at that time, but Father believed that his brothers had the right to believe as they wished. Although Dad had raised us to be patriotic, he always stood up for the right of others to worship as they pleased.
A Singing Career
My parents believed I had a natural singing voice, so they did all they could to promote me. When I was six or seven, Dad would stand me up on the bar at a nightclub to sing and play my guitar. I sang the song “Mother.” The lyrics featured words that began with the letters of the word “mother.” Each word was emphasized as it was used in the description of a quality of a loving mother. The song ended with the crescendo “Put them all together they spell M-O-T-H-E-R, a word that means the world to me.” The men at the bar, who had often had more than enough to drink, would cry and put money into Dad’s hat.
I had my first radio program in New Castle on WKST in 1945, singing country music. Later I branched out into singing popular songs from the Hit Parade, which was a weekly network radio program featuring the week’s top ten songs. My first appearance on television was in 1950 on Paul Whiteman’s show. His arrangement of George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” is still famous. Soon afterward Dad sold our home in Pennsylvania, and we moved to the Los Angeles area of California in the hope of expanding my career.
Thanks to Father’s persistence, I soon got my own weekly radio program in Pasadena and a weekly half-hour TV show in Hollywood. I did recordings at Capitol Records with the hundred-piece orchestra of Ted Dale and also became a singer on the CBS radio network. In 1955, I took a musical revue to Lake Tahoe in northern California. While there, my priorities in life changed dramatically.
Developing New Priorities
About that time, Uncle John—Dad’s older brother who had also moved from Pennsylvania to California—gave me the book “Let God Be True.”** I took it with me to Lake Tahoe. After our last show, which ended well after midnight, I began reading the book to unwind before going to bed. I was thrilled with finding Bible answers to questions I had long wondered about.
Soon I was sitting around the nightclub after work talking to fellow entertainers, often into the wee hours of the morning. We discussed such topics as life after death, why God allows wickedness, and whether man will eventually destroy himself and the earth. A couple of months later, on July 9, 1955, at a district convention of Jehovah’s Witnesses held at Wrigley Field in Los Angeles, I was baptized in symbol of my dedication to serve Jehovah God.
Less than six months later, Christmas morning 1955, I was invited by a fellow Witness, Henry Russell, to go with him to visit Jack McCoy, who was in the entertainment business. Henry himself was the musical director for NBC. Well, when we arrived, Jack had his three children and his wife sit down and listen to us, even though they had just been opening their Christmas presents. He and his family soon became Witnesses.
About this time I studied with Mother, and she really took hold of Bible truth. She eventually became one of Jehovah’s Witnesses and a pioneer, a full-time evangelizer. In time, my three brothers were also baptized and shared in the pioneer ministry for a while. In September 1956, at the age of 20, I became a pioneer.
Decisions Regarding Employment
About this time my agent’s personal friend George Murphy took an interest in promoting me. George had appeared in numerous films during the 1930’s and 1940’s. In December 1956, as a result of Murphy’s connections, I appeared on the Jackie Gleason show in New York City on CBS-TV. This was a great impetus for my career, since the show had a viewing audience of an estimated 20,000,000. While in New York, I visited the world headquarters of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Brooklyn for the first time.
After appearing on the Gleason show, I signed a seven-year movie contract with MGM studios. I was offered a part as a regular on a TV Western. After a while, though, my conscience began to bother me, since I would have to assume the role of a gambler and gunslinger—parts that romanticized immorality and other unchristian behavior. So I quit. Those in the entertainment business thought that I had lost my mind.
This brings us up to the lucrative offer to perform in Las Vegas, referred to at the outset. I was to begin work during the week of our traveling overseer’s visit. If I did not take the job then, I would miss out altogether. I had such mixed feelings, since Dad had looked forward to my making some big money! I felt he deserved compensation for all that he had done to promote my career.
So I approached our presiding overseer, Carl Park, who was himself a musician and had been a violinist on New York’s radio station WBBR in the 1920’s. I explained that if I took this contract, I could pioneer all my life without financial worry. “I can’t tell you what to do,” he said, “but I can help you reach a conclusion.” He asked, “Would you leave if the apostle Paul were visiting our congregation this week?” He added, “What do you think Jesus would have you do?”
That was so clear, I thought. When I told Dad that I had decided not to take the job in Las Vegas, he said I was ruining his life. That night he waited up for me with his .38-caliber handgun. He intended to kill me, but he fell asleep—apparently from drinking too much. Then he tried to kill himself in the garage with automobile exhaust. I called the rescue squad, and they were able to revive him.
Knowing of Dad’s temper tantrums, many in our congregation feared him, but our circuit overseer, Roy Dowell, did not. When Roy went to see him, Dad happened to mention to him that when I was born, there had been a strong possibility I would not survive. Dad had promised God that if I lived, he would dedicate me to His service. Roy asked if he had ever thought that God might be taking him up on his promise. That astounded Dad. Then Roy asked, “If the full-time service was good enough for God’s Son, why isn’t it good enough for yours?” With that, Dad seemed to resign himself to my choice.
In the meantime, in January 1957, Shirley Large came from Canada with her pioneer partner to visit some friends. Shirley and I became acquainted when I went in the house-to-house ministry with her and her partner. Shortly afterward, Shirley accompanied me to the Hollywood Bowl, where I sang with Pearl Bailey.
Following Through on a Decision
In September 1957, I received an appointment to serve as a special pioneer in the state of Iowa. When I told Dad that I had decided to take the assignment, he just sobbed. He could not understand my new sense of what was really valuable. I drove into Hollywood and backed out of all my contracts. The famous orchestra and choral leader Fred Waring was among those with whom I was under contract. He told me that I would not work again as a singer if I did not fulfill my agreement. So I explained that I was leaving my singing career to expand my ministry in the service of Jehovah God.
Mr. Waring listened respectfully as I spoke at length, and then he surprised me by his gentle reply: “Son, I’m sorry about your giving up such a fine career, but I have been in music all my life and have learned that there is more to living than just music. May God bless what you do.” I still remember driving home with tears of joy in my eyes, realizing that I was now free to spend my life in Jehovah’s service.
“Where Is Your Faith?”
I began serving in Strawberry Point, Iowa, a town of about 1,200, with my partner, Joe Triff. Shirley came out for a visit, and we discussed marriage. I had no savings, nor did she. The money I had made was all controlled by my father. So I explained: “I want to marry you, but how would we live? All I have is my special pioneer allowance of $40 a month.” In her usual calm, direct, matter-of-fact manner, she said: “But, Charles, where is your faith? Jesus said that if we seek first the Kingdom and his righteousness, he’ll add to us all we need.” (Matthew 6:33) That settled it. We were married on November 16, 1957.
I had a Bible study with a farmer outside Strawberry Point who had a 12-foot-by-12-foot log cabin in the woods on his property. It had no electricity or running water and no bathroom. But if we wanted to, we could stay there free of charge. It was primitive, but we figured we were in the ministry all day and only needed a place to sleep.
I drew water from a nearby spring. We heated the cabin with a wood stove and read by kerosene light; Shirley cooked on a kerosene stove. For bathing we used an old washtub. We listened to the wolves at night and felt so fortunate to have each other and to be serving Jehovah together where the need for Christian ministers was greater. Bill Malenfant and his wife, Sandra, who now serve at the world headquarters in Brooklyn, were special pioneers about 60 miles [100 km] away, in Decorah, Iowa. Now and then, they came and spent a day in field service with us. In time, there was a little congregation of about 25 in Strawberry Point.
Into the Traveling Work
In May 1960 we were invited into the circuit work, the traveling ministry. Our first circuit was in North Carolina, and it included the cities of Raleigh, Greensboro, and Durham, as well as many little rural towns. Our living conditions improved, as we stayed with many families who had electricity and even indoor toilets. Not comforting, however, were warnings from those who had outdoor toilets. They cautioned us to watch out for the copperheads and rattlesnakes on the path!
Early in 1963 we were transferred to a circuit in Florida, where I contracted a severe case of pericarditis and almost died. I probably would have were it not for Bob and Ginny Mackey of Tampa.* They took me to their doctor and even paid all our bills.
My Early Training Utilized
In the summer of 1963, I was invited to work in New York in connection with a large convention of Jehovah’s Witnesses that was to be held there. I accompanied Milton Henschel, a spokesperson for Jehovah’s Witnesses, to a radio talk show hosted by Larry King. Mr. King is still a prominent television talk-show host. He was very respectful and for about an hour after the show asked a lot of questions about our work.
That same summer Harold King, a missionary who had just been released from a prison in Communist China, was a guest at the Witnesses’ world headquarters. One evening he spoke to an audience of about 700, relating some of his experiences and explaining how his more than four years in solitary confinement had strengthened his faith. While in prison he had written songs on themes related to the Bible and the Christian ministry.
That memorable evening I accompanied Audrey Knorr, Karl Klein, and Fred Franz—a long-time Witness with a trained tenor voice—in singing “From House to House,” a song later incorporated in the songbook used by Jehovah’s Witnesses. Nathan Knorr, who then took the lead in the work of the Witnesses, asked me to sing it at the following week’s “Everlasting Good News” Assembly at Yankee Stadium, which I did.
Experiences in the Traveling Work
While we were serving in Chicago, Illinois, two memorable things occurred. First, at a circuit assembly, Shirley spotted Vera Stewart, who had witnessed to her and her mother in Canada in the mid-1940’s. Shirley, who was 11 years of age at the time, was thrilled to hear about God’s promises in the Bible. She asked Vera, “Do you think I could live in that new world?” Vera replied, “I don’t see why not, Shirley.” Neither of them forgot those exact words. From that first encounter with Vera, Shirley knew that serving Jehovah was what she wanted to do.
Second, a Witness asked if I remembered finding a 50-pound sack of potatoes on our porch during the winter of 1958. Indeed, I did. We found it after fighting our way home through a snowstorm one evening! Although we did not know where it came from, of course we credited Jehovah for the provision. We were snowed in for five days but had the joy of eating potato pancakes, baked potatoes, fried potatoes, mashed potatoes, and potato soup! We had no other food. The Witness had not known us or where we lived, but he had heard that some pioneers nearby were having a hard time. Something, he said, moved him to start inquiring about where this young couple lived. Farmers know everything about their neighbors, so he was soon directed to our cabin and carried the potatoes through the snow.
Grateful for Choices Made
By 1993, after 33 years in the traveling work, my health had deteriorated to such an extent that I had to leave that privilege of service. Shirley and I became infirm special pioneers, which we remain until today. While I regret that I no longer have the energy to do traveling work, I am glad that I spent my energy the way I did.
My three brothers made different choices. Each eventually determined to pursue material riches, and not one of them is presently serving Jehovah. In 1958, Dad got baptized. He and Mother helped scores of people come to know Jehovah, dedicate their lives to Him, and get baptized. Both of them died in 1999. Thus, my decision to turn down worldly fame and riches likely meant life for my father as well as for many with whom he and my mother shared Bible truth. I often wonder, ‘Would I have continued to serve Jehovah had I not made the choices I did?’
Some five years after leaving the circuit work, my health improved, and I was able to expand my ministry. I now serve as presiding overseer of a congregation in Desert Hot Springs, California. I also have the privilege of substituting in the circuit work, serving on special committees and, on occasion, teaching the Pioneer Service School.
To this day Shirley remains my best friend. There is no one whose company I prefer. We regularly have stimulating spiritual conversations, both of us being excited over Bible truths we discuss together. I still remember with appreciation her calm inquiry over 47 years ago, “But, Charles, where is your faith?” If young Christian couples would just ask such a question of each other, I wonder how many of them might also have the joy and blessings we have had in the full-time ministry.
John Sinutko remained a faithful Witness of Jehovah until his death in 1996 at the age of 92.
Published by Jehovah’s Witnesses but now out of print.
The Awake! issue of February 22, 1975, pages 12-16, has the first-person story of Bob Mackey’s battle with paralysis.
[Picture on page 20]
Uncle John in 1935, the year he was baptized
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Our log cabin
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A 1975 photo of my parents, who remained faithful till death
[Picture on page 23]
With Shirley today