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Disabled Musician Cheered by Home Parish : Meeting Pope Was Music to His Ears

September 24, 1987|MARY BARBER | Times Staff Writer

Tony Melendez sang "Never Be the Same" again last Sunday night, and it was true.

Hundreds of people at St. John the Baptist Catholic Church in Baldwin Park clustered around "our Tony" to kiss the cheek that Pope John Paul II had kissed when Melendez sang that same song five days earlier.

The huge congregation burst into applause when Melendez sang and played the guitar with his feet, as he has done at the 5 p.m. Mass for the past five years. They applauded even more when Melendez wept as he tried to tell about the Pope's kiss and encouraging words.

"He told me to keep on doing what I was doing," Melendez said. "I just want to thank God that he gave me this chance to be told to keep on."

Born without arms but with a clear tenor voice and a gift for music, Melendez, 25, drew national attention Sept. 15 when he played and sang at a young people's program for the Pope at Universal Amphitheater.

Television cameras followed John Paul as he unexpectedly worked his way through the crowd to hug Melendez's legs and then to kiss his right cheek and say the encouraging words.

"I was really nervous, even though I knew the song well," Melendez recalled. "When I was singing to him, he was nodding gently. And then it happened.

"Oh, yes, it's changed my life," he said, citing offers of television appearances, press interviews and records. He appeared on "The Late Show" on KTTV-TV Monday and has been invited to speak and perform in several states, he said.

"But it's all so new and I don't want to do anything hasty," he said. "The way it was before, I just told people I'd play and sing for them if they'd give me enough for gas and something to eat when I get there. Now I can hardly answer all the calls."

He is working toward certification as a youth minister and has taken summer courses at Incarnate College in San Antonio, Tex. He had wanted to be a priest but was turned down because of his handicap.

Melendez was born in Nicaragua, where his mother, Sara, had taken the drug thalidomide, which was prescribed by her doctor when she was pregnant. The family moved to the United States when he was a year old. His father, Jose Angel Melendez, died in 1984.

"We're all go-getters. We never stop, and I'm probably more like that than the others," he said of his brother and two sisters, who all live with their mother in the family's home in Chino.

His father played the classical guitar but didn't teach him how to play, Melendez said.

Melendez said he always had a need to express himself musically, and someone told him about the 12-string acoustic guitar that has automatic chords and is easily tuned. Experimenting with it at home, he taught himself to play by ear.

"I never knew I would ever be able to play it," he said. "I knew a little bit of music, and then I found out about this acoustic 12-string guitar that I could play."

He uses a guitar pick with his right foot for accompaniment that is often intricate. His repertoire includes songs he has written and a wide range of "religious, country, rock 'n' roll and soft ballads."

Melendez plays regularly for Mass at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in Chino on Sunday mornings, and for the young people's Mass in Baldwin Park in the evenings. Father Peter Nugent said he chose Melendez to lead music for the 5 p.m. Mass five years ago "because he communicated his faith with this very unusual talent."

At Sunday's Mass in Baldwin Park, Melendez sat on a low stool before the near-capacity audience of 800 congregants, opening and closing his guitar case, plugging in electrical cords and adjusting sound equipment with his feet.

He rehearsed responses with the congregation before Mass began, encouraging them with cheerful authority to sing louder and better.

Nugent spoke on the subject of fairness and justice. "Some people look at physical limitations as burdens that are unfair," he said, smiling at Melendez. "And some people don't."

Then Melendez sang "Never Be the Same," by Ron Griffen, a love ballad that is also a wedding and a religious song.

"In union with our God we are as one, bringing light into the dark," he sang.

After the Mass, and after hundreds of friends and strangers hugged and kissed and photographed him, Melendez joined his mother and girlfriend, Nettie Klinge of Chino, outside the church.

"We love him," Lydia Rivas said. "When you feel down, you hear Tony and you're better."

"Look at this guy! I'm so proud of him," said Elsa Rodriguez. "In my family we say, 'if Tony can do it, I can do it.' "

Sara Melendez looked heavenward, dabbed a tear and said she has a videotape of his encounter with the Pope that she watches over and over.

Melendez didn't talk because some more people came to kiss his cheek.

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