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P.J. to Fulton. The great Sheen voice was first heard 57 years ago in the rooms above Newton Sheen's hardware store in El Paso, Ill. (pop. 1,800). It was quite a voice, even then. "Sakes alive, you could hear him crying three blocks away," recalls an uncle. "And when we were out riding in the buggy, Grandfather Fulton used to say, 'If you don't stop that crying I'm going to dump you out in the tumble-weeds.' "
When Sheen was small, the family moved to Peoria, 30 miles away. His father alternated between storekeeping and farming. Young Sheen was a frail boy who never ate much and sometimes annoyed his three brothers by curling up with a book rather than help with the chores. He was christened Peter John, and called P.J. as a boy, but he preferred Fulton (his mother's maiden name), and used it until it stuck. His father was a Roman Catholic who had drifted out of the Church but came back to it, and P.J. grew up in a good Catholic home, where no evening passed without the Rosary being recited. Priests often dropped in for supper, or just to talk. Fulton wanted to be a priest as far back as he can remember.
He went to Catholic schools, served as an altar boy at St. Mary's Cathedral, Peoria, and got an early introduction to the practical side of religion when he sold advertising for the church paper, the Cathedral Messenger. He was always in a hurry, even then.
A Speaker Is Made. At St. Viator College, Bourbonnais, Ill., he was an excellent student. He did not go in for sports, preferring dramatics and essays for the college magazine. (Sample: "I can imagine a St. Francis looking at a virgin lily and saying: 'Who made you, little one, and who made you so lovely and so frail?' "
He made the debating team in his freshman year. The night before the Big Debate with Notre Dame, the coach called him aside and told him bluntly: "Sheen, you're absolutely the worst speaker I ever heard." Whereupon he stood Sheen in a corner, took one paragraph from his prepared speech and made Sheen repeat it for an hour. Then he said: "Do you know what's wrong with you?" Sheen thought hard and said: "I'm not natural."
St. Viator's won the debate. Sheen has been determinedly natural ever since.
He never seemed seriously interested in girls, but occasionally he did go out with them. Old schoolmates particularly remember a French girl whom Sheen dated; she later became a nun.
A Star Is Born. After a year at St. Paul Seminary, Sheen was ordained in 1919, then did two years' graduate work at Catholic University. In Washington, he made his debut in the pulpit. The priest who was supposed to preach one Sunday at a Washington church had to leave town because of illness in the family, and asked Sheen to substitute for him. Fearing that the church's pastor would think he was too young, Sheen did not present himself at the rectory till five minutes before Mass was supposed to start. The pastor said gruffly: "Get over to the church. The other altar boys are dressed already." But Sheen made a hit: "They asked me back the next week," he says.