We’ve all met unforgettable people in our lives. Some were great in their fields. Some were just people we loved or who had a certain something that drew us to them. This is about one of the unforgettable people in my life
Thousands of men and women who grew up in Fort Worth are familiar with the name Stephen Seleny. But that wasn’t his name when he arrived here.
Sometime near the Christmas season of 1956, the Denton Civic Boy Choir sang the world premier of Ernst von Dohnanyi’s Stabat Mater, accompanied by the Wichita Falls Symphony under the direction of Erno Daniel. Dohnanyi was a cousin of Mr. Daniel, and they had another cousin fleeing the Russian occupation of Hungary named Istvan Szelenyi.
Hungary had been undergoing a terrific war as the Soviet Union attacked to enforce its rule over this nation, and Szelenyi and his wife Kato and their daughter Ani fled to the West. As I recall, it was around the time of this performance in Wichita Falls that George Bragg told us about them. Mr. Szelenyi, fondly called Pista (pronounced Pish-tuh) by his wife, and soon the rest of us, would be arriving in Denton soon to become the pianist and assistant director of the choir.
They arrived around February of 1957 with little more than the clothes on their backs, moving into the choir house where George Bragg lived. Kato spoke a heavily-accented but easily understood English, but Pista spoke almost none at all.
Over the next few months, Pista spent hundreds of hours watching television so he could associate the actions he saw with the words he heard. I had good teachers with orderly presentations teaching me Spanish and French, and I’m still not fluent in either language. I can’t imagine learning a foreign language as he did.
As mentioned in my earlier piece about George Bragg, the choir moved from Denton to Fort Worth and became the Texas Boys Choir that spring. The choir rented a house in the west side of Fort Worth where both George and the Szelenyis lived. I don’t recall how long that living arrangement lasted, but I can’t imagine that it was very comfortable for a young family to share a house with a confirmed bachelor—especially with choirboys traipsing in and out from time to time.
My voice was changing, and I left the choir after that spring, but I still had a lot of contact with the Szelenyis. My mother had taken Kato under her wing, so to speak. She was trying to plant roots in a foreign country, her only contacts with a bunch of young boys, and she needed female companionship. Mother was the first to step up and provide that companionship, and until Mother left Fort Worth in 1965 they were the best of friends, and I had a good bit of contact with them through that friendship.
In my piece on George Bragg, I alluded to the fact he dreamed of starting a school for the choirboys to attend. That fall of 1957, George, Pista and my father got it kicked off with classes held in some of the rooms of the house where they lived.
Although it was started as a choir school, it soon became clear that George and Pista needed to go in different directions. Obviously, as a kid, I was not privy to the meetings that went on to accomplish this, but ultimately the choir became solely George’s province and the school, Pista’s. At that point it was renamed Trinity Valley School.
It met for some years in an old building on Hemphill in the near Southside Fort Worth, before moving into a new campus on McCart, farther south. A few years ago it moved once more to a huge campus in Southwest Fort Worth.
I don’t remember when Pista Anglicized his name to Stephen Seleny, but that’s the name all the TVS students and graduates know him by—or more familiarly, Pista. He no longer runs the school, having retired several years ago, but as headmaster for over 40 years, he took a raw idea and built it into one of the premier private schools in Texas. Quite an accomplishment for a man who arrived penniless and unable to speak our language.
Ø Who are some of your unforgettable characters?
Ø How have some or all of these people affected your life?
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