Happy Birthday, Uncle Terry

March 6, 2018

“Daddy, whistling saves lives,” exclaimed my eleven year-old daughter.

I thought I had heard it all. Whistling is delightful. Whistling is annoying. It gives you lip wrinkles. It’s bad to do in newsrooms and a sign of confidence around graveyards. Dogs howl when they hear screechy high notes.

But save lives? I don’t think so.

My daughter Alydia started whistling when she was five. The summer of 2006, she declared that she would teach herself how to whistle, and she succeeded. Meanwhile, her younger siblings then and since have shown little interest.

With her newfound ability in hand, talk of her competing in the whistling competition crept into family conversations periodically.

“Someday,” we said. No pressure, though.

Then I was asked to judge the 2013 International competition, which would take place in Louisburg, NC, the longtime home of the competition. I had judged it once before and thoroughly enjoyed it. I had hoped it would be less stressful than competing, but it wasn’t. Judging is quite difficult, staying focused, suppressing biases, being sensitive and perceptive hour after hour. With a keen sense of duty to the whistling community, I agreed to do it.

As the deadline for registering to compete got closer, Alydia decided she would join me as an observer at the convention. This way she could scope out the competition and see how talented she really was. Good move.

A few days before we headed south to Louisburg, my wife’s friend Suzanne asked if I could whistle “Happy Birthday” for her Uncle Terry, who was gravely ill in the hospital and about to enter hospice. I noted his name, number, and the date on my calendar, which happened to be the main day of the upcoming whistle competition.

That day soon arrived. During the lunch break in the competition, Alydia and I and two fellow judges, both former whistling champions, jumped in my car and went to a burger joint just down the road from the competition venue. After we ate, before I got back in the car, I called Uncle Terry and whistled “Happy Birthday” for him.

It turned out he loved whistling, and his niece Suzanne thought it would boost his spirits on his birthday. He and I chatted for a moment, and then I asked if I could call him back. I got in the car with my fellow former champions–Greg Nye Smith and Mimi Drummond–and asked if they’d be willing to whistle for Uncle Terry. They agreed, and we quickly settled upon “Don’t Sit under the Apple Tree.”

I called Uncle Terry back, introduced everyone, and then without any rehearsal, we launched into a swing-version of the song, made famous by Glenn Miller. (I once whistled that song with the Glenn Miller Orchestra, but that’s another story). It was a sweet and joyous moment.

Our judgeships were calling, so after some brief chitchat, we wished him well and said goodbye.

For better or worse, my ability to segment and stay focused kicked in, and I didn’t think about Uncle Terry again until a few weeks later, when my wife gave Alydia and me shocking news. Uncle Terry was out of the hospital, but hadn’t entered hospice.

“Did he pass away?” I asked.

“No, he’s getting better.”


That’s when Alydia declared the curative powers of my whistling.

I’ve long thought that making time to touch a lonely, sad, or suffering soul, whether through a happy tune or a needed hug, can be a powerful elixir. But save lives? Who knew?

(Find this and other stories in my new book Find Your Whistle: Simple Gifts Touch Hearts & Change Lives.)