Frances Walker Memorial Service: Celebration of Life (audio-visual record)

Frances Walker Memorial Service: Celebration of Life (audio-visual record)


Good afternoon to you all. It’s my very great honor to
welcome you today as we celebrate the life, the
work and the legacy of Frances
Walker. The work at Oberlin is
predicated on our commitment to excellence,
artistic and intellectual, to ideals and principles that
are bigger than ourselves, and to having an impact in the
greater world beyond Oberlin. It is work born of relationship, and, certainly, that is evident
in your presence here today, and we thank you for that. Frances’s commitment to her
students, to Oberlin, to music and to social justice certainly embody the very
principles of this institution and they inspire us all. And it is a great honor to
welcome all of you today as we celebrate her, and to note the truly
extraordinary life of Frances
Walker. Thank you for being here. Good afternoon. I am Nolan Williams, Jr., class
of ’90, and Dr. Walker was my pianoforte
professor. In preparing my thoughts for
today for this invocation, I took some time to listen and
to meditate, much like those of us who have
been sitting here have had a
chance to do, to Dr. Walker’s live
performances, and her
recordings. What was striking to me was the deep messaging embedded
in so many of the selections that Dr. Walker performed. In many ways, her music was
itself a form of prayer and
meditation. This is because Dr. Walker was
selective about choosing
repertoire that spoke to her soul, so that the music she played
would always emanate from her
heart. I believe Dr. Walker, in her own
way, has formed her own invocation
for this occasion. It is a collective of the song
messages that we’ve just heard, and other songs that she has
delivered to us through the music of Bach, her brother, George Walker, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, William
Grant Still, Margaret Bond, Johannes Brahms and Franz Liszt. I invite you, then, to receive
this invocation –a different kind of
invocation– in three parts: The first part as a prayerful
reflection in the voice of Dr.
Walker, using words that were put to
music by Bach; the second, as a refection of our collective
voices; and the third and final part, in the voice of Dr. Walker,
again. Let us pray.Deep river, my home is over
Jordan,
Deep river, I want to cross over
into campground.
Like Johann Sebastian Bach, I
have called to you, Lord, I have prayed, and you have
heard my lamentation, you have bestowed your grace upon me, you have not left me in despair. You have led me to the right
faith, Lord, and through this faith, I have
lived for you, I have striven to be useful to
my neighbor, I have kept your word, I have
embodied your word, through that which is good and
gracious, that which is honest and
honorable, that which is lovely and long-
suffering. And now, you have exalted me,
that my name may never again be
mocked; you have helped me to forgive
those who have been less than
loving to me; you have pardoned me, and
granted me a new life.So bury me, now, beneath the
willow,
under the weeping willow tree,that those who love me will know
where I am sleeping,
and, perhaps, they will weep for
me.
Deep river, my home is over
Jordan,
Deep river, I want to cross over
troubled waters into campground.
In this spirit, God, we pause
today for a moment, recognizing that our coming-
together, is like a Brahms intermezzo, connecting two acts of an
enteral play penned by your
divine hand. Returning to these halls, we are
drawn, today, into a world of
dreamy nostalgia, full of quiet longing and
majestic and serene beauty, to remember a woman, who,
through her life and music, made a profound difference upon
all of us, and upon this institution. In this moment, oh, God, this
sacred intermezzo, we celebrate the life of Dr.
Frances Walker Slocum, we know that her path, her
journey, was not easy, but, we thank you, that by Your
mercy, her path is now transcendent. Transcendent, like a train ride
full of hills and valleys, highs and lows, cities and
plains, yet, from a distance, altogether
beautiful landscapes; transcendent, like a musical
etude with simple beginnings, that’s then embellished with
gentle arpeggios, like a song, moving from theme
to exposition, to
recapitulation; transcendent, like a life that’s
endured terraced dynamics, dramatic tempi changes and
syncopations, but, through it all, this life
was nonetheless connected with a
source that is greater than all of us,
and was at peace; transcendent, like a hauntingly
beautiful melody of a rhapsody, whose melody rings above all, in
octaves. God, today we thank you for the
life and legacy of Dr. Walker, and we pray that the music that
filled her heart –the transcendent music that
defined her life– will forever find a place in our
hearts and in our spirits, until we see her again.Deep river, my home is over
Jordan,
deep river, praise God!I have crossed over troubled
waters
into campground.Oh, don’t you want to go, to the
Gospel feast,
the Promised Land, where all is
peace?
Just the other day, two months and two weeks before
my brother,I went to the hillside, I went
to pray,
and now I know the angles done
changed my name,
done changed my name for the
coming day,
thank God, the angels done
changed my name.
Amen.[music][applause]Courageous, proud, sensitive,
honest (occasionally brutally
so), funny, sometimes cantankerous,
smart, gifted, focused,
misunderstood, caring, opinionated, generous. These are some of the words I
think of when I think of Frances
Walker. In short, like most of us, she
was complicated. Everybody needs at least one
person in their life who is guaranteed to tell you
exactly what they think. For many of us here today,
especially her students, –most of whom maintained a
life-long friendship with her– Frances Walker was that person
in our lives. In fact, on one of my last
visits with her a year ago, while sitting in her kitchen
“shootin’ the breez, and chewin’
the fat,” she said, “Well, you’re not so
perfect. . .” and then she began to list all
the ways she thought I wasn’t perfect.[laughter and applause]I recall very well my second
lesson with Ms. Walker in the
fall of 1978. In the first lesson, she’d given
me a list of pieces to work on for
the following week, and I came back to her studio; I
was so excited, I was so proud, to show off all the hard work
I’d done and what I had accomplished that
week of practicing. And after the first few pages,
she stopped me and said, “It’s obvious you haven’t
practiced, “so I’m going to sit here and
eat my lunch, “while you take this lesson time
to practice.” I was crushed. I was crushed so much that I
couldn’t even touch the piano. I was 18 years old, and I had
never experienced anything like
that. So, she turned around and she
said, “Go ahead, practice.” So, I spent the next half an
hour doing what I thought was
practicing. She eventually stopped me, and she asked me if that was how
I practiced in the practice
room, and I said, “Well, yes. That’s
how I practice.” Which was, continually, you
know, every time you make a
mistake, you start over from the
beginning again? Well, when I said yes, that was
my first lesson: How to
practice. And I’m sure that wasn’t the
first time she’d used that trick
on a student, but it was how she found out that I didn’t know how to
practice. There were many times that I’d
see her out of the corner of my
eye, while I was playing something,
and she was just staring at me. And, I’d stop and say, “What!” And she’d say, “I’m just trying
to figure you out.” And, really, that was her gift
as a teacher– figuring out her students and
what motivated each one of us. She often told me that if she
hadn’t become a pianist, she would have been a
psychologist. She was fascinated with figuring
out her students and what made each of us tick, and how she could use that
knowledge to make us better
pianists. I imagine, now, that all of us
must have had very different
lessons, because she was tailoring each
one based on how she thought she
could best get through to us. Many of you know that we became
very close over the years, but it wasn’t always so. We had huge falling outs in the
early years, about things, like why in the
world was I playing the flute in
the symphonic band, because it was taking too much
time away from my piano playing; or why in the world was I doing
a double degree in Spanish, it was taking too much time
away from my piano playing. And then, I decided to go to Colombia for a year to learn
more about my mother’s family
and language, and, OMG, she was done.[laughter]Boy, did we have some arguments
in those days. By some miracle, we made it
through those difficult times. She forgave me for being a
stupid teenager, and over the years we became
friends. In my senior year, my father
passed away, and my mother had to decide to
either come to my recital or to my graduation, because she couldn’t afford to
do both. Well, of course, I said my
recital. And I thought that was more
important than my graduation
ceremony. So, that meant I wouldn’t have
anybody at my graduation, just a
few months later. So, Ms. Walker took it upon
herself to become my family. And unbeknownst to me, she
invited her friends from around
the country, Oberlin grads from her
generation, Sylvia Olden Lee, William Duncan
Allen and others, to come to Oberlin to celebrate
my graduation and be my family. and she held a party for me at
her house after the graduation
ceremony. One of my fondest memories is
when, after moving back to
Chicago, after graduating from Eastman, I’d finally saved up enough
money to buy a condo, and she offered to come to
Chicago to help me house hunt. She loved houses; she loved
interior design; she loved
decorating. So, going to houses was just a
dream for her, and I thought, “This is great, we’ll have a
blast.” Well, everyone who knew Ms.
Walker, knew that she strongly,
strongly, strongly disliked
cats. And she was always a little
suspect of anyone who had, or
even liked cats. And, wouldn’t you know it, every
single house that we went into, every single apartment, had a
cat![laughter]Despite her dislike of cats,
though, she went into every
single apartment to support me, and, of course, she gave her honest opinion
about each one of them. Frances Walker leaves behind an
enormous legacy, one that is bigger than even
most of us imagine. She triumphed over personal
adversity and persevered against all the
odds. But when she graduated from
Oberlin, there were very few concert
halls or colleges or universities that would hire a black, and especially, female,
classical pianist. There were no places for black
classical musicians, and the world is full of people
who so desperately wanted that
dream, but who were unable to pursue
it. People like Nina Simone, or Hazel Scott, or Ron Carter,
Trude Pitts, and legions more whose names we
will never know. That she made and pursued a
career for herself as a black, female classical
pianist is huge. She paved the way for many
others and, a trailblazer, made a way for all of her
students, regardless of their
race or ethnicity. She made all of us think that we
could achieve anything. Her belief in us made us better;
it made us stronger. Before ending, I’d like to thank
all of Ms. Walker’s students who
are performing today, and to ask all of her students
who are here, but are not
performing, to please stand so that you
might be recognized, and there are several here, I
see . . . oh, I see many of you,
so, . . thank you![applause]In closing, I’d like to read a
card that Ms. Walker sent to me
back in 1986. Many of you know that she was a
prolific writer, and loved to write letters, and her handwriting was very
distinctive, so, whenever you received
something from her, you knew, before even looking at
the envelope, who it was from. But, she sent this card to
me, and I would like to send it
back to her today:Dear one, I open wide the arms
of love
to hold you close in my
thoughts and in my prayers.
Regardless of the distance that
separates us,
I know that we are one in spirit
and in truth,
and love is the common
denominator that links us.
In my mind’s eye, I see you as
the resplendent child of God
that you truly are,
I see you whole, well, and
strong, blessed with peace and
happiness.
I see you standingon the threshold of greater good
than you have ever known.
I see you poised and free from
every limitation.
I let my love wing its way to
your heart,
and join with the great love of
God now pouring out to you.
I give you love that frees and
uplifts;
love that comforts and endures.Dear one for whom I pray:I love you, I bless you, I
behold the Christ in you.
Now to him who by the power at
work within us
is able to do far more
abundantly than all that we ask
or think,
to God be the glory.Thank you.[applause][music][applause][music][applause]Good afternoon, on a beautiful Saturday, sunny
day in Oberlin. It is an honor to be asked to
remember Frances Walker on this solemn occasion. Thinking about our departed
colleague brought back memories of our
rookie year, incredibly, in 1976, which was shared with Sedmara
Rutstein and Bob Shannon, who’s
here, today. I remember those new faculty
orientation sessions, and being impressed by Frances’s
sense of gravitas, and also what I later came to
recognize as her wicked sense of
humor. My most vivid memories of
Frances are her wonderful
performances, especially in great Romantic works by Liszt and Brahms, as well as works by her brother, some of which you heard today, which showed a great sense of
nobility, a resonant, but never harsh
sound, and a sense of time-flexibility that was always tasteful, and
never sentimental. Recently, I went back to listen to her recording of the Samuel
Coleridge-Taylor24 Negro
Melodies,
and heard the same moving
qualities in those performances, enhanced by a deep sense of
personal connection to that
music. I’m very glad to see that we can now hear some of
those pieces, today, during the video presentation. Also, in thinking about the
event, today, I reread Frances’s
autobiography,A Miraculous Journey,and was struck by the hardships
and tribulations that she experienced in pre-
Civil Rights America. Growing up in a disciplinarian
home, and surrounded by a highly-
talented family, which included her later Pulitzer Prize winning brother,
George, she often had to struggle with
feelings of inferiority. While always a top student, both
academically and musically at Oberlin and also at the
Curtis Institute, her college years were sometimes
marred by racially tinged
comments and attitudes. That she was able to transcend
these difficult circumstances to achieve distinguished stature
in the music profession, both as a pianist and as a
teacher, speaks volumes about her talent,
perseverance, resilience and courage in the face of
adversity. As a result of these
experiences, I think she rarely minced words with us,
her colleagues. and always exuded a sense of
moral conviction, and I know that she was an
inspiration to many students who needed support in overcoming
similar difficulties and
challenges. And I know, also, that, after
her retirement, she continued to be an advisor
and mentor to many students who relied on her counsel and
hard-earned life experience. It’s been really meaningful for
me to revisit my memories of my dear colleague, Frances
Walker, and I’m now convinced, actually,
more than ever, that her personal and
professional life was, indeed,A Miraculous Journey.[applause][music][applause]Oh, it’s a honor to be welcomed
back to Oberlin to speak today. Frances would be thrilled we
were in this room to celebrate
her life. When Yamasaki designed this
complex, I think most of you know he
also designed the World Trade
Center immediately following the
Oberlin Conservatory. While that might have been a
tribute to, say, wealth and power, I would say, in this building,
these complexes, he imagined truth and beauty as being what
he was after. We had the faculty ensconced in
this building, to the North, the central complex was nearly
like a cathedral, –the central moment of this
building– and the practice wing to the
South. And in this space, here, inside
of Warner, this was the exploration of
truth and beauty–Frances loved
this stage. She loved this space, this
keyboard, the music that she
possessed, and those moments, she
transcended all barriers, and took people with her. And the reason why I find it
particularly interesting, is because the first time I
encountered Professor Walker was on this stage. I was a tuba student, not a
piano student– oh, and by the way, the tuba
students did take their lessons in the practice wing (to point
out), we were not in the Bibbins
complex. So, as brass players, being
obstreperous folks as we were, we would often come in here to
play excerpts as frequently as
possible. And, one evening, we’re plowing
away at theRide of the
Valkyries,
and piano students are drifting
into the hall, and sitting down, and, obviously, it’s the
beginning of a studio class, and the stage door opens, Professor Walker looks down over
her glasses, and says, “Gentlemen, it is time to
leave.”[laughter]Now, normally, we were a little
slow to evacuate the premises, but like field mice to the
exits,[laughter]we left the room. And that was my first encounter
with Professor Walker. Many years later, in sort of a
cosmic irony, I did inhabit an office in
Bibbins, as a matter of
fact. . . and, it might have been the
second day I was dean, perhaps
the first, I received a phone call from Professor Walker, said, “David, this is Frances
Walker. We need to have lunch.” From that point forward, I
became a pupil of Frances. Frances took it upon herself to
be sure that, as dean, I would learn how to see through
the eyes of many students, and many faculty within the
building. She took me through the odyssey
of her own experience, and, courage has been mentioned
on this stage a number of times, but the kind of courage she
possessed is the courage to say, “I’m going to choose to take
flight, and then defy the laws
of physics,” and do exactly that. It’s a
different kind of courage. We talk about being born, by the
way, into a family so highly
accomplished, but we have to remember that this was in the early part of the twentieth century; and, by the way, whatever the Walkers were
serving for breakfast should be required dining for
Conservatory students here in
Stevenson, because George Walker, and
Frances Walker, both from the same family: iconic artists. But, that said, the truth of it
was, as their daughter, they did not
imagine for her the career, the place, that she
imagined. That was followed by choosing
to not only teach in
Mississippi, but to marry a white man– to choose love, to choose love
over the law, over fear, over all of these
things, she made that choice. It seems, now, like something
one should do, but if we just for a moment try
to live in that space, you realize how impossible it
would have been to do, and she did it, nonetheless. Frances spent so much time
working with her students; she spent so much time working
with me. And the reality is, is years
later, as she was beginning to think
about the legacy, which she wished to leave
behind, for her, it was inevitably about
the teaching, about exposing students to what
she’d been exposed to, because she had found in music
the opportunity to completely
be herself. She allowed that to propel her
through her life. And it allowed her to cross
barriers, and challenges, and to
enter into spaces otherwise, she never would have
been able to go to. And, the need, in fact, the
desire to transmit that was
real. Today, it’s important for this
audience to know the things that she didn’t
necessarily want people to know
at that time. And that is: That conversation we had on that
first day led to a series of lunches. And, each year, Frances would
ask me for the entering roster of black
students at the Conservatory. And then, she would take it upon
herself to be sure that financially,
personally, emotionally,
musically these students were looked
after. I wouldn’t necessarily hear
something, but Frances would. And if Frances heard it, then I
would hear it, of course. But, through this, she did
several things: She saw the opportunity to take,
frankly, a young dean and educate that person how to
see the world; she saw the opportunity to take
the resources she did have and apply it to the betterment
of so, so many students; and she certainly left with me,
ultimately as a student, the memory of the fact that courage, principle, and the
pursuit of truth and beauty are always worthwhile. Thank you, Frances. You gave us
all.
A great many thanks.[applause]Good afternoon. I’m not going to
speak. But I just want to say I’d like to make one small correction: The arrangement ofSometimes I
Feel Like a Motherless Child
is from24 Negro Melodies,by
Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, which Ms. Walker recorded the
complete work on Orion Records, I believe. So,
thank you.[music][applause][Dean Kalyn] It’s been so
wonderful to hear from so many of
Frances’s Oberlin family, today, but I would also like to
acknowledge members of her personal family
who are with us: Her son, Jeff, and his wife,
Karen; also Frances’s granddaughter,
Amber; and her nephews, Gregory, of
course, we’ve heard from, and
Ian. It is a great privilege for us
that you would be with us today, and that you would give us this
opportunity to share with you the things that Frances meant to
us. So, thank you for being
here. I would also like to offer a
special thanks to Lee Koonce for organizing
today’s service,[applause]I started out by saying that
this work is born of
relationship, and the deep relationships that so many in this room have
shared with Frances are ever-evident and present in all that Lee has done to put
this together. So, thank you, Lee, for that. We
appreciate the opportunity. I hope that you will join us all in the lobby for further
fellowship and reminiscence, again, of a truly extraordinary
person, but perhaps appropriately–most
appropriately– we really need to give the very
last word of today to Dr.
Frances Walker: As long as my mouth is running,
I don’t get tired.[laughs]Hello, there. Come right into my
house. Did you have a nice trip? When you go to bed, why is it
that you wear your glasses at
night? Well, I said, so I can see in my
sleep, see in my dreams. I grew up on Sherman Avenue,
in Washington, D.C. My mother brought us up to say, You can’t be the same, we say,
you got to be better. That’s what we heard all the
time. My father’s full name was, Artmelle Theophilus Walker. He’s from Jamaica, West Indies, and he had no money. He said he stoked coal. You know, they called all blacks
and all help, George, so that’s how he adopted the
George. Once he got enough money to go
to medical school, then he became a doctor. I started piano at four-and-a-
half, and my brother, George Walker,
was already playing, so, you know, we took to it
very early. Shiloh Baptist Church was my
spine, my soul, my everything, certainly one of the major
influences in my life. And it was because of minister,
and the choir director, and the organist there. It was important in my life. You see, I was in this fire. I was five-years-old. The match dropped on this
delicate dress. Which is worse?– to have my father come and kill
me, or to burn up? And I decided, I’ll take my
father. The arm, you see, is shorter. So, in playing and practicing, I
had to develop the strength in this
arm, which was weak, and this was the powerful arm,
the left one. The music was what kept me
alive, music and movies. Somehow I met my husband at
Tougaloo College in Mississippi. I mean, that’s the last place
where you would expect to find a blue-eyed, handsome, educated
white male in your age category. If we had hundreds of thousands
of people like him we wouldn’t have the problems we
have in this world. Olyve Jeter Haynes. She said, “Oh, you know, I have a lot of
music by black composers, do you wanna look through
it?” That changed my life. It was like a trove of diamonds. The black people were starving,
thirsting for that music. The place was jammed, we had to
turn away a lot of people, and there was weeping and
standing ovation throughout. It was very difficult coming
after my brother, because he was
the genius. I learned the second sonata
before I learned the first. I love this recollection: He threw his head back and
roared with laughter. I turn, “What’s funny?” He stopped. I heard things in your playing that I never heard before. Now, that is the greatest
compliment, from a composer, and I thought I was playing it exactly the way he played it. I was going to do the music of
black composers, and this
producer said that24 Negro Melodies,or
Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, “It’s you history!” And he was
adamant. And if he was going to produce
it, that’s what he was going to
produce. And the recording engineer is
right here in Oberlin, and he was saying, “Frances,
that is so beautiful. . .” and then the electricity went
out. It was January! I’ve been teaching all along,
you know. They come to me for coaching,
and advice, personal advice, musical advice. They come because they just like
to talk to me. So I am blessed in that respect. I tell them about life, really,
that’s what I do. I think I’ve been talking for, how many years? I think I’ve
said everything that I should say, or what I
have to say. Nothin’ else to say.

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