Several Boylan Central Catholic High School alums are seeking “to help a mom know her son.”
After all, Boylan is more than a community. Lynn Perez-Hewitt (class of 1971) says it’s smaller than that.
“It really is a tight connection, a family,” she said.
And families stick together. Families help each other.
In this case, the “mom” they are reaching out to is the woman upon whom the Oscar nominated movie, “Philomena” is based.
The “son” is Michael Hess, Boylan class of 1970.
The idea to reach out to Philomena Lee was hatched long before any of Hess’s former classmates ever heard about a movie. Their goal had everything to do with fond memories of Mike as a good, faithful and talented friend.
The connection begins
About a year ago Lynn Cuppini McConville, Director of Advancement at Boylan High School was asked if she knew about the book, The Lost Child of Philomena Lee by BBC correspondent Martin Sixsmith. It was brought to her attention by Boylan staff member Ingrid Jansen. Jansen’s sister-in-law lives in Ireland, happened to read the book, and was surprised to see Rockford, Illinois, mentioned.
McConville said she checked it out and couldn’t believe that the lost son mentioned in the book was a fellow classmate and friend, Michael Hess who she remembers as being “such a nice and intense young man.” She said she was hesitant at first because the story highlights harsh attitudes and an unattractive chapter in church history. However, it was the fond memories of a “wonderfully talented and kind person” that compelled McConville to email and Facebook several of her fellow alumni about the book and its Boylan connection. And so they began to reminisce as friends often do about days gone by.
The news didn’t go too much further than that at the time, after all, the story surrounding the book wasn’t exactly a happy one. (See story below.)
However, one of those classmates, Jeanne Harris Nutter, Class of 1970, suggested contacting Philomena Lee to “fill in the gaps” of her son’s life. Then when the classmates learned of a movie coming out based on the 2009 book, they began contacting other Boylan graduates that have connections to New York, Washington and even the Vatican.
“Jeanne called me and asked if I heard about the movie Philomena. I said I heard about it but haven’t seen it, Perez- Hewitt said, explaining that in her town it only played for a week or two.
“Well,” Jeanne said, “it’s about our Michael! I couldn’t believe it.”
And that’s when the memories of Michael poured forth between the two. That’s when Harris Nutter suggested the classmates gather their memories and pictures and find a way to reach out to Philomena and help “a mom get to know her son.”
Philomena’s child, Anthony, was adopted and at the age of three along with another child, a girl Mary, by Dr. A. Michael Hess, a successful urologist, and his wife Marjorie Lane Hess, sister of the late Bishop Loras Lane. Anthony was renamed Michael and lived with Dr. and Mrs. Hess and their three biological sons in Iowa, St. Louis, Illinois and then Rockford. After Michael and Mary Hess graduated from Boylan, the Hess’ moved to Florida, where Mary still resides.
“There are just so many connections. My mother’s hometown was Cascade, Iowa and that’s where Bishop Loras Lane and his sister were from, so my mother knew them long before I even knew Michael,” Perez-Hewitt said.
“I just remember Michael being so charismatic and it was just natural for him. And he was kind and so handsome; I had a mad crush on him,” she laughed. “I was running for student council and we had the campaign meetings at his house. He was so engaged in life and was just a kind human being and we want to share that with Philomena,” Perez-Hewitt said.
She has been part of the International Rotary Organization so she made some connections in England and Ireland to contact Philomena.
Harris Nutter’s memories go back even further as she also went to grade school with
“We went to the same church and my older brothers went to school with his brothers. We were always just friends. He was always a really nice kid and got along with everyone…that is how I remember him in grade school. It wasn’t until high school that we became better friends. We were in the same homeroom all four years and we both loved theatre!” she said.
Both women recalled their favorite memory being Prom. “Mike went with Andrea Walter who starred with him in Boylan’s production of Mame,” Perez Hewitt said.
“Lynn Perez and her date Joel Asprooth, Mike and Ande and Mike McDonald and me (went to prom). We had dinner at my house. My mom prepared dinner ahead of time. My friends that were not going to prom prepared the meal and served us. My mom was in the hospital and could not be there. We went to see my mom in the hospital before going to the dance, then off to the dance for a really great time!” Harris Nutter wrote in an email.
She also shared the support Michael provided others. She explained that they talked a lot about politics and why Key Club was just for boys back then. “He would try to explain, but I would argue…he was a good sport and really understood it wasn’t fair, but that was the way things were during that time.” She also talked about his great empathy when she tried out, unsuccessfully, for cheerleading for four years.
“He would cheer me on and give me pep talks. I also wanted to be on the track team, I loved running, but again, no girls. I don’t know where Mike got it, but he gave me a letter “B” like the one you put on a letter jacket. Always thinking of others … always so kind and gentle. He challenged me to do my best and never give up!” she said.
Harris Nutter said she didn’t recall if Mike ever talked about being adopted. “It is strange because I became a social worker, and was one here in Wisconsin for 37 years. All of my work was in child welfare and for the last seven years before retiring, I worked in special needs adoption. I worked with children in foster care…This is what led me to try to reach out to Michael’s birth mother, Philomena. I understand the struggle they both went through in their search for each other…I have experienced this with kids and parents. I understand the pain of giving up a child for adoption, either voluntarily or involuntarily. It is not easy….it is life changing and tragic. Our hope is for openness in the process.
That children will know where they came from and who their birth families are. That birth families will know where their children are and siblings will be connected. We have a long way to go in that area, but things are getting better!” she said.
“I believe we have stories to share with Philomena and photos and maybe other tangible pieces of Michael that she can have to fill the piece of her heart that has been missing for 50 some years. We hope to gather these for her and share them with her…I have a beautiful poem Mike wrote in my senior yearbook, that I would love to share with her…it shows what a wonderful and kind person he was. I am certain there is much more out there for her, maybe she has some of these things. We don’t know. But what we do know is that Mike was very special and loved by many. I hope she knows that.” Harris Nutter continued.
So whether or not the Boylan connection to Philomena Lee gets full circle, the Boylan family as Lynn Perez Hewitt called it, is stronger for the memories.
For a full review of the film “Philomena” visit www.catholicnews.com/movies.htm.