When Ginnie McNaughton watches the inauguration of an American president on Monday, she’ll think of a scared and skinny 11-year-old kid from Cuba who came to love her Southern fried chicken and “fit right in” with her young family in Miami.
That kid would grow up to become Rev. Luis Leon, the silver-haired rector of the “Church of the Presidents,’’ St, John’s Episcopal in Washington, D.C. He will deliver the benediction at Barack Obama’s inauguration and his foster mother, a Miami native, will watch on her flat-screen TV with joyous pride — and a touch of nerves.
“I’m thrilled, so very thrilled for him,” said McNaughton, who was Leon’s foster mother for several years after he left Cuba alone in 1961. “And proud, of course. It’s truly amazing what he’s done.”
Then after a pensive pause, she added, “You know, I’d be a little nervous up there. I’d be thinking a lot about what I’d want to say.”
Rev. Leon was among the more than 14,000 Cuban children spirited away from the Communist island during Operation Pedro Pan. He lived with the McNaughtons in a home they had just built in Snapper Creek Lakes until he went away to a Georgia boarding school for high school.
This is not the first time Leon delivers an inaugural benediction. In 2005, he became the first Hispanic to do so when President George W. Bush took office. And as minister of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Washington D.C. since 1995, he has personally welcomed three presidents to his historic church — Obama, Bush and Bill Clinton. Obama and his family attended St. John’s several times during his first term.
This does not surprise the 82-year-old McNaughton, who believes her foster son is a charismatic force in his faith community.
“He was a most out-going, affectionate boy,” she recalled. “He was amazingly poised at 11.”
McNaughton, a well-coiffed, soft-spoken retired real estate agent, is a third-generation Miamian. Her maternal grandfather purchased the only newspaper in town, The Miami Metropolis, back in 1904. Her father was the first city manager of Coral Gables and worked closely with Gables founder George Merrick.
She and an older brother grew up in Miami Beach. At Smith, she switched her majors from zoology to religion, so enthralled was she by the courses she had taken in that subject area, and eventually won a graduate fellowship to attend Union Theological Seminary in New York City. Her first job was as a counselor to freshmen Protestant students at New York City’s Hunter College.
But Miami soon called and in 1956 she accepted a position as Christian education director at Plymouth Congregational Church in Coconut Grove. She had been married for only two years, with a 10-year-old stepson, Malcolm, at home, when she volunteered to foster a Pedro Pan child. “I figured Malcolm would benefit by having a brother, a buddy, somebody to pal around with,” she said.
The weight of this new parenting responsibility didn’t hit her until she was driving home from the Children’s Services Bureau with two elementary-age boys in her back seat. “Then I thought, ‘What have I done? What have I gotten myself into?’”
Despite those initial doubts, she never once regretted opening her home. Leon took to calling her relatives uncle and auntie and doted on McNaughton’s two sons and daughter when they were born. She now has seven grandchildren.