Written by Sarah Cannon
When Mama was born Feb. 10, 1907, Converse was 18 years old, Teddy Roosevelt was President, women couldn’t vote, corn flakes and the victrola had just been introduced, and a horse and buggy or train were the ways to get from one place to another. She was born into a musical family; her father was one of 6 boys, 4 of whom formed a quartet that sang at the churches near their farm in Delaware. After a move to SC, Mama began taking piano lessons in Walterboro, 7 miles from her home in White Hall, and this required a ride of 3 miles on one train, getting off, and taking another train for the other 4 miles into town. She went on her own starting at age 7. Her love of music and her fascination with pianos were evident even then. After a move to Hendersonville at the age of 12, she continued her lessons with Mrs. Brooks, who started the first Junior Music Club in North Carolina, with Mama was an active member.
When Mama graduated from high school at age 16, she wanted to go to college and major in physical education, having been a tomboy with 2 older brothers and athletic ability of her own. However, her mother insisted she come to Converse and study music. So she rode the train from Hendersonville, was met at the station by a college employee, and saw the college for the first time when she came to campus to stay. Cudd was the freshman dorm at that time. Having always been around boys growing up, an all-girl school was quite a change for her.
There were 12 girls in the music program when she arrived, and she often talked of their having to practice on silent pianos and then play for their professors on regular pianos. She especially enjoyed the yearly music festival, when 500 Spartanburg County children were seated on the Twichell stage and “sang like angels.” Converse enhanced both her natural leadership skills and her music ability.
She graduated at age 20 and returned to Hendersonville to teach music in the public schools, where her favorites to teach were first graders. She also taught elementary classes and made sure her students were exposed to music and also had time to organize teams and play ball. She was a life-long advocate for private and public music education.
Since the Great Depression came soon after her graduation from Converse and she needed extra money to supplement the $125/mo. she was due (but wasn’t always paid), she was hired as the organist at the First Presbyterian Church, a position she held for 35 years. She quickly got to know a particular baritone, John Brown, whom other members urged her to invite to be in the choir. Their first date was when he took her home from choir practice, and the rest is history. They married in 1938, and my Daddy’s family was as musical as Mama’s. Daddy sang in the choir for 50 years, his mother had been an organist (while he worked the bellows), and he had a sister who studied voice at Cincinnati Conservatory.
My brother and I both took piano lessons from Mrs. Brooks’ daughter, a concert pianist, for $1 per lesson. Mama was determined that we would learn to read music “like you read the newspaper.” She loved her grandchildren and was pleased that all of them studied music as children. She gave her Converse ring to Lisa at graduation since they now had the same BM degree from the same college. One of the highlights in the last years of her life was seeing Lisa shake Dr. Bowman’s hand after playing Rachmaninoff’s Concerto No. 2 with the Symphony. She turned to me, awe-struck, and said, “I never thought I’d see a member of my family shake hands with the conductor of a symphony.”
The compassion and love Mama had for her students shone throughout her life in other ways. She cared for family members with devastating illnesses, volunteered for many positions within the church, especially those involving music and spiritual growth for young people, responded to needs within the community, was a member of a women’s service club for over 50 years, helped rear a teenage niece, and logged over 1000 hours at the local hospital in her retirement.
Nothing would please Mama more than to know that her legacy of music education lives on. Lisa suggested we consider establishing a scholarship in her name, and that suggestion grew to become an endowed scholarship so that young people will have the opportunity to experience and grow through music, particularly piano, for years to come.