I first met Richard Bowen when he came to campus to interview for a sabbatical replacement position in the College’s Department of Music. As a professor of religion, I was one of the “outside” members on the committee, although music has always been an essential part of my life at Wabash. Richard gave a great interview, and I gave him a complete thumbs-up. He was hired, and so began a friendship—both personal and professional—that has lasted for many years.
One of Richard’s responsibilities was to direct the Glee Club. And one of the first things he did with the Glee Club was to make them rehearse “Old Wabash”. The Glee Clubbers were incensed, and I soon heard about it. For the first couple of weeks that fall semester, they repeatedly came to my office and complained. They objected to his insistence that they go back, re-learn their diction, re-learn the harmonies, re-learn the rhythms.
“Who the hell does he think he is?” they’d say. “We know “Old Wabash”. He doesn’t. He’s new. He’s an upstart.” They grumbled and grumbled.
Then came the first concert, which, of course, included “Old Wabash”. It was exquisite. The audience knew it, and wasted no time in telling the students. And when they heard this feedback, they realized what Richard had done. He had deconstructed
“Old Wabash”, and had built it back to this perfection. Once they realized they could sing it, that changed everything.
Richard’s musical excellence was repeated in concert after concert that first year, and, remarkably, continued for the whole length of his time at the College. Most of our singers are amateurs, yet he was able to persuade them, year after year, that they could do these complicated pieces of music and do them well. They learned that they could trust his belief in their abilities. Any doubts our singers had were erased when they performed, heard how good they could sound, and heard that confirmed by grateful audiences on campus, across the country, even overseas.
I traveled with Richard on two occasions. During my first sabbatical, the Glee Club was on the road for their Spring Tour to the East Coast, and I traveled on the bus with them for a couple of days. That’s when I first saw Richard’s organizational skills and what I sometimes jokingly call his Germanic side. The whole trip ran like clockwork.
The second occasion was the summer tour of England, Scotland, and Wales, for which Richard kindly invited me along as a chaperone. It was an extraordinary trip. He’d done a reconnaissance trip earlier in the year—gone to all the places, had met the tour guide, had set up performance venues, and started arrangements for accommodations. So, again, the trip ran like clockwork. He put some students in charge of baggage detail, unloading and loading the bus at each stop. Others were responsible for uniforms, and still others for the music. The concerts ran smoothly and sounded beautiful.
On a few occasions, of course, he had to play the disciplinarian. But I never saw him yell at a student or berate him. By having everything set up before hand, Richard was freed up in his own way. He could concentrate on encouraging the students and keeping their spirits up.
I recall how, one day in England, the students had the afternoon off. So Richard, his wife, Eileen, and long-time Glee Club accompanist Cheryl Everett and I went to a pastry shop and took afternoon tea. Richard kicked back. He told jokes and made puns. We laughed and talked for hours. We all mused, lovingly, about some of the shenanigans of the students, like the afternoon they ignored the capacity-sign on a hotel elevator, overcrowded it, and got stuck between floors.
On another occasion, we were in Wales and had arrived at a hotel on the shore of the North Sea called “The Beaches.” The beaches were mostly gravel, and it was cold and late in the afternoon, gray and chilly. So, again, the adults sat down in this beautiful bar with a view of the beach, sipping the finest bitters and tea. And then we looked out and there were the students. They had put on their swimming trunks and they were larking around in the water, going in and coming out. You could see they were cold, but by God, they were going to go in. That was the kind of camaraderie you find among Wabash students and singers on these trips, a part of the Wabash culture that continues today because of Richard’s work.
It is work he now passes on with great satisfaction to new Glee Club Director Reed Spencer, whose first year overlapped with Richard’s last so that Richard could show him how to manage the many moving parts of all things having to do with the Glee Club. Reed is first rate, and the hand-off this past year has gone well.
Richard is staying on for the first part of fall 2017 to help lead the 125th anniversary of the Glee Club. It’s fortuitous that he is. He’s done research on the history of the Glee Club, including Chapel talks on different versions of Old Wabash. He knows who the various Glee Club directors have been over the years. He has a keen sense of both history and performance. Whatever we do it will be musically very high quality, as befits such a reunion.
What drives Richard to this level of excellence? Well, first and foremost, I’d say it’s the music itself. There’s music in his soul. It’s like there’s this eternal music he’s always trying to reach for and approximate. And he does that by paying attention to the details. The smallest phrase—he knows what hand gestures to use, how to communicate with singers to get what he’s looking for.
But there’s something else. He has a vitality and passion for life, and he’s brought that to the music, to our singers and our College, and those voices will be his legacy.
David Blix is Associate Professor of Religion and first sang in the Glee Club during his student days at Wabash.