Friday the 13th, 2013

Probably everyone who has a chance of seeing this blog entry already knows that today is the fifth anniversary of the death of Sr. Sue Pietrus. The students who sang in her Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College Chorale and Madrigal Singers, and those who had Music Education classes with her, always talk about what a strong positive and lasting effect Sr. Sue had on their lives. In a way, I envy you former students, because I’ll never know just how much Sr. Sue affected my life.

I mean, I certainly know about how I met her at USC, where I was studying Church Music and she was studying Music Education, how she was a member of the USC University Chorus while I was Assistant Director (imagine that, Sr. Sue singing under my direction!), how she sat in front of me at Commencement in 1993. I remember her first words to me when I arrived as a new faculty member at SMWC ten years later, “Welcome to my Woods!” What I don’t know, and won’t know at least in this life, is what, if anything, Sr. Sue had to do with my being hired at SMWC. When I applied for this position, I honestly did not remember that Sr. Sue was a Sister of Providence (she once said that she “played down” her status as a nun while at SMWC…but not that much). I applied because I had never had a tenure-track college position in 10 years since earning my DMA, and this position looked like something I would be qualified to do.

When I interviewed here, Sue wasn’t here. She was, I think, dealing with some medical issues–in fact, she didn’t teach here at all during my first year, even though she was here to welcome me. I interviewed in the spring of 2003 with the expectation that, if hired, I would be directing the choirs here until Sue’s return, and teaching Music Materials and Music History. Fortunately, workload-wise, SMWC decided to hire me to “replace” Sr. Laurette Bellamy (who could never truly be replaced), and hired my friend and one-time student Sr. Therese Fassnacht to handle the choirs and some other things in Sue’s absence. I was a tiny bit disappointed about not getting to conduct, but I had plenty to do, and still do.

So, you see, I don’t know whether Sr. Sue told the other faculty about me, or how much, or if she encouraged the college to hire me, or not. Nobody has said, and I don’t ask or expect them to. Once, a faculty member outside our department told me in passing that I had been “hand-picked” for this position. She perhaps meant I was hand-picked by Providence, because nobody asked me to apply–I saw the advertisement in the Chronicle or the Music Vacancy List; I don’t remember which. And, as I said, I didn’t even remember Sue’s connection with the SPs and SMWC.

So, with that said, I’d like to speak my piece on Sr. Sue’s legacy. The words “legacy” and “heritage” have been worn thin here in recent years, in my opinion. Just today, another faculty member outside our department said to me, “Sue wouldn’t recognize this place now.” She didn’t mean that the buildings look different (they don’t), nor did she refer to the trees that have been removed (quite a few).

I’m not going to try to put any more words in that faculty member’s mouth, though–I’ll simply add why think Sue wouldn’t recognize this place now. First, here are some non-reasons.

Sue lived more than long enough to recognize the declining numbers of SPs on the SMWC faculty. She would not be particularly surprised that, five years after her passing, there are still fewer. I count five SPs on the Board of Trustees–out of thirty-one members.

Yes, “Christmas at the Woods” has been discontinued. This was done way before I arrived here. So, although it was abundantly clear that Sue despised that decision, she would not be shocked to see that “Christmas at the Woods” has not been revived. Nor would she, I think, be scandalized by the fact that we don’t present the same type of pops concerts in the fall that she did. I am saying that these things are not, in themselves, Sr. Sue’s legacy, any more than they were, in themselves, her life while she was here. Her life–her passions–were Choral Music. Music Education. Musical Theatre. The scandal–the reason Sue woudn’t recognize this place now–is that we really have only one of those things–Choral Music–left.

I feel as though I need to apologize to Sr. Sue for letting these things happen to her legacy. I was department chair when a lot of these decisions came down. Yet, at one time we were able, with help from the Advancement folks, to raise money to endow a scholarship in Sr. Sue’s name, but what has come of that? We now offer no major in Music Education, so we can’t give it to a Music Ed major; nor do we offer a Theatre major or minor anymore, so we can’t give it to a Theatre major or minor. The best we could do is give it to a Music Therapy major who sings in Chorale and Mads, or maybe a Music minor, but even that isn’t happening, as far as I can tell. (Do correct me if I’m wrong.) Sue, we tried so hard to keep these things from happening. (Please, if you haven’t, take a look at Music Education alumna Jenny Power’s blog about Sr. Sue’s legacy.)

I’ve been criticized, and perhaps will be again, for saying negative things that “make the department look bad.” (Nobody actually in the department has said this, though.) But I am only stating facts. Now for some slightly more subjective items. We still have the best Music Therapy program I’ve ever seen; but it’s getting harder and harder to keep it going. Am I making things worse by blogging this? Well, let me accentuate the positive once more. We have a fantastic Music faculty. Legit.

So, when I hear anyone connected with the Woods lamenting the loss of things past, I want to remind them to ask why things aren’t like they were. Sure, it’s in part because Sr. Sue died. But what happened after that? We didn’t forget about her here in the Conserv. We have worked hard to do what she would have us do. Look at the College you love so much and ask why the direction seems to be changing so much. Stand up for the good things–the things about which Sue was so passionate. Choral Music. Music Education. Musical Theatre. Hold them up; fight for them. Let’s not look back without figuring out how we are going to move forward. I need to do that, and I need your help.




4 thoughts on “Friday the 13th, 2013”

  1. Wow-John–this was amazing. I remember as well when Sue called me to come out and interview for the job of assistant professor of theatre. It was a tenure-track position that Sister Sue had championed for years and years. (Many of my predecessors were amazing folks–especially the renowned Sister Olive! (I’ve kept a photo of her-along with Sue’s). I KNOW she was behind my hiring–and, when we could no longer keep Christmas-at-the-Woods going (she would be gone, and the withdrawal of college support made it impossible for me to do alone–it had gotten too costly and difficult. I think it’s time had really passed) she never blamed me–although I always felt guilty! SHE HELPED ME REVAMP THE MINOR AND WAS TOTALLY BEHIND THE NEW THEATRE MAJOR THAT WAS INSTILLED (THETARE AS A MAJOR HAD A LONG HISTORY AT SMWC–BUT IT HAD BEEN GONE FOR SEVERAL YEARS). Sorry about the caps–geeze). She would have been devastated to see her music ed. gone and the faculty theatre position–she probably would have never allowed my retirement! With Sue as a musical director and a full orchestra, we produced The Wiz; Once Upon A Mattress, Pirates of Penzance (when folks see tapes of this one, they ask me where we got all the professional performers!), The Mikado–with the help of Steve Prescott and Michael Boswell, and a Quilters revival. Sue was one of a kind and her effects on her students will go on for a long time to come. Yes, SMWC has an amazing CHorale and MAdrigal group and Music Therapy program. Students and hired adjuncts are trying to keep theatre production going. I hope to be able to come back one day and see the music ed and theatre programs back again. Thank you, thank you, thank you, John. It isn’t negative to deal with challenges and problems, it’s honest and clear-sighted. We’ll see what the future hoolds! Sharon A.

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