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The Tentacle


June 6, 2003

As Good As It Gets

John W. Ashbury

Emory & Henry College is a small, church related, liberal arts school in far southwest Virginia. It boasts one of the best small college football teams in the country over the past half century. In 1952 they played in the Tangerine Bowl, before television revenues required bigger university teams, not necessarily better ones.

The other sports have credible records as well, but nothing that compares to football. There have been legendary coaches like Conley Snidow and Casto Ramsey and Lou Wacker. And, of course, there have been outstanding players like Bob Miller, an All American three years running, Sonny Wade and Earl Hawkins.

There is another team at Emory & Henry that attracts its own especially talented individuals. There are hard practices, not every day, but frequently enough each week to tire out the participants. And these sessions donít stop in the Fall. They go on every week, almost to graduation day.

Perhaps it isnít exactly fair to compare this team to those sporting squads. But to the nearly seven hundred students who have participated in the Emory & Henry College Concert Choir over the last 45 years, the experience far exceeds the excitement of a winning game, or the awarding of a varsity letter in a special banquet.

Founded in 1958 by Charles R. Davis, who just happened to quarterback that Tangerine Bowl team in 1952, the choir has performed in many of the famous cathedrals in Europe and the United States, including St. Peterís in Rome, Notre Dame in Paris, Canterbury in England, and St. John The Divine and St. Patrickís in New York.

In 1972, the choir won a silver medal at the Rome International Choral Festival. It was the highest award presented at the competition. The lead tenor of that choir was Mike Austin, whose vocal abilities were first recognized by Dr. Davis when he overheard Austin singing in the shower after football practice. Austin has sung leading tenor roles in many of the major opera houses in Europe.

Chick, as Dr. Davis was known to the choirs before he received his doctoral degree from Indiana University, spent a couple of years in Frederick while stationed at Ft. Detrick. While here he was the choir director at All Saints Episcopal Church, where his wife Adrienne was a featured soprano.

The Concert Choir of this small college is considered very special, by not only those who have been selected for it, but also by those who truly appreciate great choral music. In truth, Chick Davis is a large part of the "special."

After his football career ended, his plan was to go into coaching. He was offered a position as an assistant at the University of North Carolina. But his brother prevailed on him to give his great love for music a chance. So Chick traded one passion for another and enrolled at the Westminster Choir College in Princeton, N.J. It was fortuitous in more ways than one.

After Westminster, the Army grabbed him up and he came to Frederick. As the end of his hitch approached, Dr. Earl H. Hunt, president of Emory and Henry, wrote and asked him to return to his alma mater to establish a choral music program. Little did Dr. Hunt know what he had wrought.

And so the saga began. The first choir traveled not too far from home. By 1965 it was traveling as far away as Florida after singing at the New York Worldís Fair in Ď64. And then there came that spectacular trip to Rome. It was followed by trips across the country and again to Europe.

But most of the trips have been to little Methodist churches, some, though, arenít so little - like Christ Church Methodist in New York.

As the 25th Anniversary of the founding of the choir approached in 1983, Chick decided a reunion was in order. It was such a huge success that anniversary celebrations have been held every five years since.

And when Chick announced his retirement in 1995, a special reunion was held. More than 250 present and former members returned to campus to rehearse and perform. That concert was recorded. Chick retired in í96, but the quality of the choir has not diminished one iota. That may sound unlikely to most. But the "new" director is a former member of the Concert Choir. More importantly, he is Chick and Adrienneís son Mark.

The Emory and Henry Concert Choir is unique. No other recorded choir transmits the fire and emotion that fills the hall every time they perform. The sound is unlike that of any other choral group. "Unique" doesnít really convey the difference. Robert Shaw attracted great voices for his chorale. He had a particular sound in mind when he selected the people for his groups.

The Davises - Chick and Mark - mold the voices that come to them to produce a wonderful richness that so frequently touches the soul, even when the choir is performing an unfamiliar work.

E & H Concert Choir alumni come from all walks of life. From the ministry. From teachers and school administrators. From property managers to real estate sales men and women. Yes, some sing in other choirs after graduation, but few make a career of it like Mike Austin.

Yet, their presence at the reunions is assured by a genuine love for the music and the hard work that goes into making it glorious.

There is another ingredient that is paramount. All have a special relationship with Chick. Whether it be mentor or friend, they all have an abiding love and respect for this man who has brought such joy into their lives.

Many of them had no idea that they could sing and produce such sounds when they came to Emory. But Chick found out and prodded, poked, cajoled, and teased them. And all of them feel they have become better people for the experience.

Chick has instilled a spirit, perhaps his own, in each of us who sang last Sunday at the 45th anniversary reunion. We came from the many nooks and crannies of this great country, from Connecticut to Oklahoma, to join one more time in the making of great music.

Rehearsals were long, hard and tiring. But it was all worth it. At the concert the audience gave great applause, understanding that it wasnít perfect. But what could you expect after only about 10 hours of practice every five years.

A tradition lives at Emory and Henry. As long as the former members return to these anniversary celebrations, it will live. It will survive because Chick Davis, and now his son Mark , have made it so wonderful an experience that we canít go long without renewing an old acquaintance and an old joy - singing - no matter our age.

Plans are afoot for the 50th anniversary in 2008. With nearly 900 former Concert Choir members by then, it is expected that about half will return. When they hear of the plans, perhaps even more will come back.

Chick told us last weekend that he wants to perform Verdiís Requiem with a full, professional orchestra.

No matter how many return, they all will be there in spirit. And it will be recorded so all will have the opportunity to at least hear it. It wonít be exactly like being there, but with recording technology growing so rapidly, who knows. Stay tuned.



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