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.
Leon, reached at his home one evening last week, remembers the McNaughtons as “a very loving, very giving family. They treated me like their own son.”
Though he had learned English at school in Guantanamo, Cuba, life in the U.S. was still a big culture shock. He missed his parents and sometimes cried at night with homesickness. His father died before the family reunited. McNaughton, he said, was always there with a comforting word.
“Ginnie was very loving,” he said, “like a good mother can be. There were a lot of hugs, a lot of support.”
She introduced him to peanut butter and the colloquial expression, ‘How come?’ And he spent many afternoons and Saturdays fishing the canals with Malcolm McNaughton. He also accompanied the family to trips to Key Largo — “I still have a picture of when I caught a big barracuda” — and to the North Carolina mountains.
“I had never been out of the tropical climate before and this was my first time,” he recalled. “It was very beautiful there.”
McNaughton and Leon have kept in touch throughout the years. In September 2003, when President Bush hosted a White House dinner to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Leon’s ordination, McNaughton was one of the 30 guests the priest invited. She shows off some of the mementoes from that dinner in the living room of her house in East Ridge Retirement Village, where she moved in December. She also keeps newspaper clippings of her foster son.
When she found out he had again been chosen for the inaugural benediction, she phoned him and was able to speak to Leon’s wife, Lu.
“I was just tickled pink,” she said. “Lo and behold, Louis is going to be up there with the president.”