On December 3, 2023, Renee Fleming became a Kennedy Center honoree in Washington, D.C. for her contributions to American culture and specifically the performing arts. One of five such inductees in the 46th year of such awards, she received recognition from all over the world. My special interest in Miss Fleming began over a decade ago when I was researching and writing about my Great-great-great grandmother, Susan Fleming (1846-1931), of Venango County. She met and married Henry Moon, Jr. (1835-1905), of Allegheny County during the oil boom along the northern Allegheny River. Renee, as I will take the liberty of calling her, was born in nearby Indiana County, PA, the home of my alma mater, Indiana University of Pennsylvania. Her mother, Patricia (Seymour) Alexander, was a music education major there as were my wife and I. Coincidentally, Patricia was born down river in the Allegheny County town of Coraopolis, where my post office was when I was growing up, before an off-shoot became the Moon Township US Post Office. Patricia, Renee’s mother, was buried out of Moon’s Copeland Funeral Home, just down the street from my Pearce home. The original Copeland site was in Coraopolis. More about Renee’s mother in a minute. All this doesn’t make us “related,” in the blood relative sense, but we want to lay out other amazing coincidences, and name-drop whenever possible in this article, which hopefully will leave you wondering, “Is the author related to Renee?”
The well-known actor, Jimmy Stewart, also born in the small town of Indiana, is called ” The native son of Indiana, and for many years Renee has proudly been known as “The native daughter of Indiana.” And speaking of famous people from small towns, does the name “Michael Douglas” mean anything to you? How about “Michael Keaton?” This famous actor was born in 1951, just eight years before Renee and just down the street from her mother in Coraopolis. Unlike Stewart, Keaton had to change his name because of another Michael Douglas in Hollywood.
Renee Fleming lists her religion as “Protestant.” Her grandmother was Helen Bures, an immigrant from Croatia. Her family attended the Second Presbyterian Church of Coraopolis, where Czech was spoken and daughter Patricia was active in singing and teaching. The Second Church was among my charges as President of the Pittsburgh Youth Presbytery, District I.
Allow me to surmise that Renee’s mother, Patricia, traveled the 90-minutes to Indiana from Coraopolis, as did I, to study music as a single high school graduate. In the summers she sang with Pittsburgh’s famous Civic Light Opera. In her junior year at IUP she fell in love and later married a young man named Edwin Davis Fleming. My wife, Susan, and I also met in the music department our junior year, fell in love almost immediately, and married shortly after.You can read all about the results of that in my Memoir.
Renee was born in 1959. While I don’t know exactly where her father Edwin was born, it was surely Indiana County. I do know several things of perhaps coincidental interest: His middle name is Davis and often our ancestors from Europe repeated family names in succeeding generations to honor them. Remember my mentioning Grandmother Susan Fleming earlier? Her grandfather’s last name was Davis, of Welsh origin. While I don’t know where the American Davises lived originally, there remains a prominent Davis family in Indiana, PA, proprietors of the Davis Brothers Heating. Also, a recent Indiana County obituary for Edwin Davis Fleming’s 93-year old brother, Paul, reveals that their mother’s surname was Davis. And lest I forget, one of Susan and my favorite professors at IUP was Charles “Charlie” Davis, a chorale director and conductor of the orchestra for the annual spring musical. I remember that he owned a farm just north of town with large white horses, some of which pulled carts in the Indiana County Fair.
And while I’m name-dropping, I need to say that one of the more prominent Pennsylvania Fleming families runs a tire and auto service, located just below the new high school on the main road into Mars, Butler County, near to where I spent the first 12 years of my life. I can’t say that there’s a family relationship there, however.
After graduation from IUP, Renee’s father Edwin and wife Patricia took music teaching jobs near Rochester, New York. Renee was born in 1959. Mother Patricia taught voice and piano students privately, with as many as 45 students, not unlike my wife. She also taught at the Roberts Wesleyan University while doing graduate studies at nearby Eastman. She eventually studied at Julliard in New York City and for the last 25 years of her life taught with the Eastman School of Music Community Division.
The sad part is that Patricia and Edwin separated and were divorced. At some point he had gotten in trouble for acting inappropriately with some of his female students. According to various family obituaries and news accounts, he accepted an early retirement, moved to South Carolina, and remarried. My first thought is, and not to make excuses but “Perhaps his wife was away a lot and he fell into temptation.” That part of Renee’s background I don’t wish to know. A happy time for Patricia was that she remarried in 1982, a businessman from Rochester named George Alexander.
But, let’s concentrate on the wonderful, talented, and beautiful Renee. She married in 1989 while attending Julliard. But, unfortunately, the bond broke a decade later after the birth of two daughters. The father was actor Rick Ross. Here’s another personal coincidence: my great-great-great grandfather was James Ross (1811-1885), a Scot from Northern Ireland.
In 2011, Renee found love again. If you’ll excuse my sick humor, this time she married a lawyer. This was all after a blind date. They appeared together at the Kennedy Center Honors for the world to see.
Her list of accomplishments is far too great to cover here, but a search of “Renee Fleming” on Google will get the curious started. Suffice it to say that she has awards in most genres of music: opera, film, Broadway, pop, jazz, etc. She is an author, recording artist, public speaker, and so on. She sang the National Anthem at the 2009 Super Bowl, “You’ll Never Walk Alone” at President Obama’s inauguration, and a memorial service on 9/11. But perhaps the most touching performances for me was “Oh, Danny Boy” at the funeral of Senator John McCain on national television. This was one of his favorite songs, and an advisor suggested that Renee Fleming sing it, as funeral plans were being made while the Senator was sitting on his front porch in his last days, battling brain cancer. The Senator burst into tears at the thought. Renee was deeply touched at the request, saying she first fell in love with the ballad as a child. She says it reminds her of her father. And oh, by the way, she had to get permission to miss a performance of a Broadway obligation to sing on national television.
One of my personal favorite performances by Renee Fleming is a program with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir recorded in 2014 entitled “Christmas Glow.” It’s available streaming on Youtube and BYU-TV. One nagging question that I have been unable to get an answer to is “Why is Edwin Fleming’s name in the credits as guest conductor at the beginning?” Renee has unashamedly said that the song “Oh, Danny Boy,” sung at John McCain’s funeral, reminds her of her disgraced father. Does she still offer him redemption when she can? The name never appears, that I can find, after the credit.
So, knowing the proximity of our counties in Western Pennsylvania – Venango, Indiana, Butler, Allegheny – is it possible that there’s a link to my ancestors and me: Fleming, Davis, and Ross. As this former radio man would say, “Stay tuned.” There’s more research and writing to come.
Last revised 1/11/24