Unholy Union: The Preacher And The Choir Director Seemed To Have A Perfect Marriage. Until All Hell Broke Loose — (The Washington Post)

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The Washington Post

December 22, 1994

Author: Tamara Jones; Washington Post Staff Writer

It was 2 in the morning when Fran McDaniel left her minister husband, slipping out the front door while Bill slept, taking nothing with her but her pocketbook, a flashlight and a can of Mace. She hadn’t planned this.

Fran ran through the eerie, empty streets of Richmond that night and arrived breathless on the doorstep of a friend from the church choir Fran directed. Her mind was made up. She was 52 years old and she was starting over.

The sudden separation of the McDaniels would shock even their closest confidants, and leave their only child bewildered. Fran and Bill had planted flowers together. They had filled their big brick house with the antiques they collected on long drives in the country. They were kind and compassionate.

“They just seemed like the perfect, ideal couple,” recalls a longtime friend.

There were no clandestine lovers, no public quarrels, no hidden welts or bruises. But there were wounds of another sort. They festered in the months following the separation, when what had been a suffocating love turned into a dark obsession.

It ended one morning three weeks ago when the Rev. William D. McDaniel left a half-eaten box of doughnuts on the back seat of his old Mercedes and approached his wife in a busy parking lot. He had a gun in each hand. If he said anything, no one heard him. He shot Fran four times, took off his hat, pressed a revolver to his forehead and pulled the trigger.

Fran McDaniel was a pretty woman, petite, with large dark eyes and a musician’s fine-boned hands.

Bill McDaniel was altogether unprepossessing, a bit rotund, self-conscious about his thinning hair.  Medication left his face flushed. He had grown up with five siblings in rural Hurt, Va., the shoeless son of an impoverished railroad worker.

Fran was a Richmond girl, an only child raised in a prim, white-gloves-on-Sunday Presbyterian home. She played the piano and organ, and sang so beautifully that people in church would twist around in their pews to see where this voice was coming from. She was 22 when they married; Bill was five years older. Their only child, Berkley, 24, is so shaken by what happened that he no longer recalls the story of how his parents met.

For years, the McDaniels bounced around from parish to parish as Bill built his reputation as a Methodist minister. He taught school as well, and spent 15 years in a tough inner-city junior high in Richmond. The students from his English classes would often turn up at the McDaniel home on weekends, eager to talk or just be around Bill, Fran and Berkley. Bill had a way with kids, and at his wake, strangers came up to Berkley again and again to tell him, “Your father changed my life.”

Berkley is pale with large blue eyes like his father’s, a wispy goatee and close-shaven blond hair. Tiny silver rings dangle from his pierced ears. Growing up in mostly blue-collar neighborhoods, Berkley remembers resenting how different his father was. “Dad loved classical music, antiques, fine art. He despised sports. He enjoyed flowers. Everybody else’s dad drank beer and watched football; Dad would drink a glass of white wine and watch PBS.”

As her husband worked at his two full-time jobs, Fran kept busy too. She gave piano lessons and played the organ at area churches. When St. Paul’s Catholic Church needed a music director 18 years ago, Fran got the job. Up in the drafty choir loft, she found a second family.

“We were a motley crew,” laughs Duncan Bevan, who with his wife, Pattie, has been at St. Paul’s for 37 years now. Few of the choir members could read music. Not many could even stay in key, actually. The basses often sang an octave too low. The sopranos slid all over the scale. The tenors liked to improvise. The altos played pranks.

“She called us her better-than-average choir, and we were anything but,” says Jackie McAllister, a soprano for more than 20 years.

Anyone was welcome to join the choir at St. Paul’s. They practiced each Wednesday night at 7:30. They sang at High Mass every Sunday and spent months working on their Christmas and Easter programs. Sometimes, a professional singer the choir knew only as Fernando loaned his perfect tenor for a Mass or two.

Fran would play the organ with one hand and direct with the other. And when they were done, without fail, Fran would smile proudly and give the choir two thumbs up.

“She accepted the imperfections, and if we made a joyful noise, she was happy about it,” Duncan Bevan recalls.

Over the years, the choir would shrink and grow, but the core remained the same. They watched each other’s hair turn gray. They fretted together over Father Fred’s stomach troubles and celebrated birthdays with homemade cakes. They comforted Paul Fitzpatrick when he lost his wife, and Jackie McAllister when she went through her ugly divorce and sometimes could only stand there and cry while the others sang. They saw how Fran made young Claire Dixon forget her deafness and throw her heart into each hymn. They worried through the difficult start of Gina Brown’s pregnancy and rejoiced when doctors said the twins growing inside her were fine. They watched Berkley McDaniel grow up and walk down the aisle of St. Paul’s last summer to marry a beautiful young woman who promised to play her flute with them on Christmas Eve.

“If I went up there to visit,” Berkley recalls, “they’d grab me and hand me music and make me sing … .”

“There were times when they weren’t very good at all, but it’s the best damn church choir I ever heard,” he adds. “It wasn’t about performing. It was about love.”

The Getaway

The choir was a natural place for Fran to seek sanctuary when she ran away from her seemingly perfect marriage. Jackie McAllister’s phone rang at 1:30 that August morning. It was Fran. She and Bill had argued. She had had enough. She wanted to leave. Now. It had to be now or she would never do it. Could Jackie come pick her up at the corner a block from her house? She didn’t want Bill to hear her leaving. He had dozed off on the back patio. He was mixing wine with his medications.

Before McAllister could answer, Fran cut her off. “He’s coming back upstairs, I’ll call you back.”

Twenty minutes later, the doorbell rang. It was Fran, in a pair of summer shorts, out of breath from running the six long blocks to McAllister’s house.

Sitting in Jackie’s living room, Fran revealed the emotional abuse she said she had endured for 30 years, telling how Bill resented every minute not spent with him, how he berated her, told her she was a nothing, that she was crazy, that she was stupid and couldn’t even think right. “It got to the point,” she told her friend, “where I didn’t even know what I thought.”

A few days later, Fran moved into an in-law suite at Pattie and Duncan Bevan’s and settled into a hectic but satisfying routine, commuting 90 minutes every other day to Charlottesville. She had enrolled full-time at the University of Virginia, pursuing a graduate degree in speech pathology. She looked forward to a career helping stroke victims and children with speech impediments. Fran had a way of coaxing out voices.

“If we were getting a new cat at the SPCA, Mom always picked the ugliest, most pitiful animal on the face of the Earth,” Berkley recalls. “And they’d turn into the most beautiful cat. She could do that with people too.”

The Bevans were retired, and though Fran was only a decade younger, it felt like having a daughter in the house again when she came home from school, burbling about her day. “We’d catch her excitement,” Duncan says. “She was blossoming. It was a kind of joy to watch.”

Fran would leave for Charlottesville on Sunday after supper. She would spend the night there with classmate Carolyn Langford and her two daughters, sleeping on the couch in their small apartment. Carolyn was the same age, and also separated from her husband. She and Fran had long talks about their troubled marriages.

“She felt Bill just needed too much from her,” Carolyn says. “He needed too much in too many ways, and it smothered her. Every day she was away from him, she became more positive that she was doing the right thing.”

Bill stayed in touch with the Bevans, too, and at one point bluntly asked Duncan: “How long do you intend to allow this? It has to be costing you.” If her friends stopped giving her a place to stay, Bill reasoned, Fran would have to come home. In these conversations, he referred to her frequently as a child; she could not, he implied, survive on her own.

Pattie Bevan often wondered how Fran could possibly be so happy in their cozy little rambler compared with the McDaniels’ spacious house, with all those antiques, and Fran’s beloved baby grand piano. “How can you walk away from so much?” Pattie asked.

“I would’ve given it all up in a minute for peace,” Fran replied.

‘He Just Fell Apart’

Bill McDaniel was accustomed to being in control. In the classroom, in the pulpit, at home. But nothing was quite right anymore, not in any of these places. Teaching no longer fulfilled him; the school system, he told people, just wanted glorified babysitters for kids who didn’t care. He no longer felt passionate about his ministry either.

When he was called out of retirement in 1987 to save St. James United Methodist Church, he found just nine people in the congregation that first Sunday. Since then it had grown to 35, sometimes 40. But he bitterly told his son and daughter-in-law that he no longer believed what he preached.

The McDaniels had spent the summer preparing for Berkley’s wedding. Bill wanted everything just so. He took Fran to Williamsburg to shop for a dress. It was a typical scene from their marriage, Fran would later relate. In a pricey boutique, they spotted a pink, white and gold gown with a sequined bolero jacket. Bill urged her to try it on. “This was made for you,” he told her. Fran protested. The dress wasn’t her at all. Too flashy. Her taste was more classic, understated. Besides, what business did they have spending $2,000 on a dress? “We’ll take it,” Bill told the saleswoman.

“It became a symbol of his domination over her,” daughter-in-law Chris McDaniel says.

At the church before his wedding, Berkley nervously made a crack about his mother’s dress. “I called her El Toro. I got the Serious Mom Stare and an elbow in the stomach,” he smiles ruefully.

“It just wasn’t my mother.”

Bill performed the ceremony, but was so jittery that he forgot the Lord’s Prayer. In his excitement, he rushed down and stole the first kiss from the bride when it was over.

“Our wedding day was the last time I saw them together,” Berkley says of his parents. “It was the last day I saw him smile.”

Four days later, Fran left without a word.

Berkley and Chris were honeymooning at a mountain cabin with no phone. The place belonged to her family. Bill tracked down Chris’s brother for directions and made the 2 1/2-hour drive to find them.

“He just fell apart and cried and cried and cried and cried,” Berkley says. There had been some kind of an argument over Fran’s future, about her commitment to him.

For the first few months of their separation, Bill respected Fran’s request for privacy. And though he insisted that there was nothing wrong with him, he even sought counseling at her suggestion. Fran was worried about him. Bill had a history of depression, she told her friends, and he had threatened suicide before.

Berkley and Chris began spending all of their spare time with Bill, trying to comfort him, urging him in vain to start making a new life for himself, a life without Fran. Bill lashed out at them. He accused Berkley of conspiring with his mother, of betraying him.

Bill McDaniel had never felt secure about his family’s love for him, Berkley recalls. “He never believed that Mom and I loved him,” he said. He would sometimes drop this into normal conversation. No amount of protest could persuade him it wasn’t true. Berkley remembers loving his father so much that he would dress in his shoes and ties as a little boy, and hurtle himself at Bill the second he walked in the door.

Bill’s own love was expressed lavishly, with an intensity that was sometimes reckless. Berkley as a toddler would ride in the car standing on the seat next to his father, who would drive with one hand and keep the other arm around his son. He later told Berkley that he knew this was stupid, that it was dangerous, but he liked having him close.

When he was 6, Berkley and a playmate convinced Fran to buy them a bunch of cheap wooden stools at a crafts shop. They painted them with smiley faces and set up a stand by the road, to sell them. They sat out there all day, but no one stopped.

“Around dusk, Dad left to go do some errands and came back. We were about to give up. We hadn’t sold a single stool. Then suddenly a car stopped. Then another and another, about eight in a row. We sold every last stool.”

Berkley found out only a few months ago that Bill had gone around the corner to the Stop ‘n’ Go and paid the passersby. “He gave them five bucks for the stool and five bucks for their trouble,” Berkley says.

Now their roles had reversed, and Berkley tried to hold his father close, to make things turn out right for him.

“Every time we’d go over, he’d be sitting in the backyard at the picnic table, almost like he was waiting for Mom to get home,” Berkley remembers.

“He spent all his time thinking of Fran and what he perceived as the problem,” Chris says. “He’d go back to arguments they’d had while dating, wondering if it was something he said then. Towards the end, he was saying, I’ll take it to the Supreme Court if that’s what it takes to get her back.’ He quit seeing the value of his whole life.”

“Everything,” remembers Chris, “was about Fran.”

One of Bill’s closest friends later decided that it was really much more than that: “He described themselves as two misfits who could only be happy with each other. I think he saw Fran as just an extension of himself, that they were not two separate lives, but one, inseparable life.”

And when he realized that she was gone, Berkley says, that she would not be coming home, “my father and the Rev. Bill McDaniel ceased to exist.”

On his father’s 57th birthday in late September, Berkley made a devil’s food cake, Bill’s favorite, and went over to celebrate. Bill was morose. He was going to quit therapy; what was the use if Fran wasn’t coming back? “He told us that it was 30 years of his life’s work going down the drain.” He and Chris tried to convince him that he still needed help. He exploded, even blaming Berkley for everything.

“He sat there staring into space for an hour, not saying anything,” Berkley recalls. “I got up to hug him to try to snap him out of it. He was totally unresponsive.” They never spoke again.

Not long before, Bill had started talking about guns. He mused aloud about buying a hunting rifle. He said he’d like to hunt deer. Berkley found this puzzling. His father hated guns and thought deer were beautiful.

Berkley knew there was an old World War II service revolver in his father’s house. It had belonged to his grandfather or uncle. As Bill slipped deeper and deeper into his despair, Berkley tore through the house looking for the gun. When his father caught him, he laughed off his son’s concern. Bill told him the old thing didn’t even have a clip.

Berkley felt reassured. And some weeks later, when Bill announced that he wanted to buy a handgun, Berkley didn’t think too much of it. He and Chris had recently bought a gun after being robbed, and now Bill was saying he wanted one, too, to protect Fran when she came home. What kind would Berkley recommend? Berkley told his father a five-shot .38 caliber revolver would be best.

Prelude to Tragedy

They all asked her. Her friends. Her family. Her lawyer. Her therapist. “No,” Fran said over and over, “Bill would never hurt me.”

She was beginning to worry about him hurting himself though. Bill didn’t really know how to take care of himself. He had had quadruple bypass surgery seven years ago, and although Fran dutifully cooked healthy meals for him at home, Bill’s car was littered with candy wrappers. “He loved those pink coconut Sno-ball cupcakes,” Berkley remembers, “and Moon Pies.”

Sitting in the family room in their robes at night, Pattie and Fran would talk for hours. Bill’s health was poor. He suffered multiple allergies and took medication for that. He had pills for high-blood pressure, antidepressants, nitroglycerin for his heart, and recently, tranquilizers to sleep.

“She had always cut his hair,” Pattie says. “Bill never went to the barber. She’d say, ‘I hope Bill’s gotten someone lined up to do that. I hope Bill’s taking his medicine.’ ”

In his own discussions with the Bevans, Jackie McAllister and other friends, Bill expressed bewilderment over Fran’s decision. “She needs me,” he would say. “She doesn’t know her own mind.” Around the end of October, he finally told Jackie: “I have done what Fran wanted done, but from now on, things are going to be done my way.”

He began stalking his wife.

“The first couple of gifts he brought by were orchid plants, which he knew she liked,” Pattie Bevan remembers. “Then this stationery and pen, then the roses, how many roses? Yellow roses.

“He wanted to court her again.”

Bill talked to Duncan and wanted to know if Fran had counted the roses. “I wondered if she got the significance,” Bill said. There were 30 flowers, he confided. One for each year they had been married.

On the Monday before Thanksgiving, Fran and Carolyn Langford were standing in a hallway at the university, talking to a professor. All of a sudden, Bill McDaniel appeared, carrying a vase full of roses. “Yellow roses,” Carolyn recalled. He laughed self-consciously. “I guess you caught me with my pants down,” he said. He had a card and letter for Fran with him; he had planned to just leave the flowers for her in the speech clinic. Fran coolly took the bouquet, waited until he left, then gave them away. “Now he’s invading my space,” she told Carolyn.

“Afterwards, when Fran and I were walking to lunch, she said, ‘For all I know, he’s still around here watching me right now.’ ”

Seeing Bill on campus now left Carolyn uneasy. She was shaking as she drove home.

At choir practice that week, Bill was waiting in the parking lot and came in with some choir members. “I’m going to sing with you all,” he announced. Fran came down from the loft to confront him.

“No, Bill,” she said. “These are my people. You have your church and your people.”

He came to Mass that Saturday afternoon, sitting behind a pillar so Father Fred wouldn’t spot him.

The Bevans were getting spooked. “He showed up at church, in the parking lot, at Masses. He would be there and gone,” Pattie recalled. The Bevans beseeched Fran to lock the door leading to the choir loft when she was up there alone. “Bill would never hurt me,” she assured them.

Bill returned for both masses Sunday. That night, Fran tried to call him. She was furious. But Bill wasn’t home. She left a message on his answering machine. “She told me she was very firm, and said this had to stop,” Carolyn said. Fran was talking now about getting a restraining order.

Fran wasn’t the only one receiving unexpected presents from Bill McDaniel. Other friends later reported that he had been giving away his possessions for weeks. Favorite pictures taken from the wall. Pieces of china. A pickup truck full of trinkets and antiques for the St. James yard sale.

On Sunday night, Fran left as usual for Charlottesville after supper with the Bevans. It was raining. They hugged her goodbye.

The next morning, Carolyn Langford took her daughter to school and looked for Fran’s old Mercedes in the Best Western lot where they both parked across the street from the speech building. They usually read in their cars, then Fran would tap on Carolyn’s window when it was time to go to class. Carolyn didn’t see Fran this morning.

At five till 9, Carolyn was combing her hair in the visor mirror when she heard a bang. Between the cars, she saw a man in a hat pointing a gun at the ground two spaces away. He looked angry. He fired three more times. What’s that crazy hunter doing testing his gun in a parking lot, Carolyn wondered. She heard another bang. When she looked up, the hunter had disappeared.

The Aftermath

At first, they could not even bear to look up at the choir loft. Father Fred Feusahrens and Fran’s therapist spent hours beforehand talking to the 15 grieving members of St. Paul’s Adult Choir. Fran would want them to sing. The Sunday after her funeral, they came to church early.

Their voices tight with tears, they managed to sing one hymn that Sunday. It was “Be Not Afraid.”

The suicide note Berkley found in his father’s briefcase rambled irrationally. He mentioned nothing about wanting to kill Fran. “As a matter of fact,” Berkley says, “the note ended with him telling me to take good care of my mother.” Berkley believes his father had gone to Charlottesville intending to take only his own life.

“How can your pastor murder someone?” asks a good friend of Bill’s. “Given his religious convictions, I think in the end, he felt the only option was to carry this to a higher authority. He really didn’t see where one life stopped and the other began.”

When Berkley went to his parents’ house afterward, he found two exquisitely wrapped gifts on top of the piano. Bill had left them for Fran. One was a porcelain chickadee. The other was a hand-painted ornament, a wreath he had made. Bill had cut apart a photo from their Silver Anniversary party. On one side of the little wreath stood Fran, smiling at Bill across the other side.

‘We’re Hurting’

Berkley seems strong, but the sorrow overtakes him in surprising ways. He finds himself going to light a cigarette that isn’t there. At the retirement home where he works, he goes back four times to ask someone what they want on their hot dog.mal. I’m not going to let one day take away all the wonderful, happy memories of my parents.”

When the choir meets to practice, Steven Frampton, the 36-year-old acting director, sits where Fran once did. He doesn’t know that Claire Dixon, the soprano with the hearing aids, is hovering around the organ, hungry for praise, because that’s what Fran gave her. “Do you like my voice?” she implores Frampton. “You don’t think it’s yucky?”

“Well, just keep working at it,” he tells her.

The new director doesn’t know Fran’s signals, and privately, he sighs that Fran “pretty much almost spoon-fed them everything.” He doesn’t know that the red satin box on top of the organ was the “sunshine box” for cakes and gifts, like the delicate gold necklace the choir gave Fran for Christmas years ago. She never took it off, and it was buried with her. He doesn’t know that Gina wept when she brought the ultrasound of her unborn twins and showed it to Pattie Bevan, saying, “Fran wanted

The rehearsal goes slowly. Pattie Bevan and Jackie McAllister trade sidelong glances when Frampton snaps at the singers: “It doesn’t sound like that at all!” He makes them sing the same line again and again, “Till wicked men cut down the rose and left it lying there.”

Two altos whisper privately during a break. “Someone has to talk to him,” one says. “He doesn’t understand that we’re hurting.”

They plan to sing the song about the rose on Christmas Eve. They will gather just before midnight Mass up here in the cold rafters. The rogue altos and uncertain sopranos, the wandering basses and impulsive tenors. Chris McDaniel will come with her silver flute, like she had promised her mother-in-law. Berkley, if he can bear it, will join them too.

And together they will try to make a joyful noise.

CAPTION: The McDaniels’ son, Berkley, and his wife, Chris, look at family photos.

CAPTION: The St. Paul’s choir rehearses, without longtime director Fran McDaniel. But it’s different now. “It wasn’t about performing,” her son says. “It was about love.”

CAPTION: The Rev. Bill McDaniel and wife Fran on their 25th anniversary: “He needed too much in too many ways,” says a friend, “and it smothered her.
PHOTO scott brown for twp

Copyright 1994 The Washington Post
Record Number:  620709