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Letter to the Editor: Memories of an Albemarle public school music teacher

A performance by the Cleveland Orchestra at Indiana University recently was an exciting time, especially for a campus with a world-class school of music.

For me, the sounds of one of the nation’s great orchestras rekindled wonderful memories of an exceptional music teacher, Katherine M. Almond, who retired in 1972 as supervisor of public school music in Albemarle.

Flashback to 1947 at recess on the playground of the old Efird Elementary School, then just off Carolina Avenue where a little shopping center is now. Amidst the usual chaos, as one of the shyer third-graders, I was jostled about by some of the more aggressive boys, only to be “rescued” by two older girls who were my friends. After settling down, I told them excitedly that we were being bussed that day to Albemarle High School for a performance of the North Carolina “Little” Symphony.

My excitement was no accident. It had been carefully programmed by Mrs. Almond, who taught at Efird School a couple times a week hauling a big record player and lots of recordings into a classroom.

She introduced us to the sounds of the instruments and played short snippets from the classical pieces we would soon hear directed by Dr. Benjamin Swalin, the conductor of the symphony, which in those days performed for students all over the state.

It’s likely I paid more attention than most, but the memories of Mrs. Almond sitting by the record player opening new musical worlds for us — at a school mostly for the children of textile mill-working parents — are priceless.

As many public schools now have trimmed music and art classes, that in those days we were gifted with fine instruction in music from such a dedicated teacher seems a distinct tribute not only to her, but also to the times.

The high school auditorium had an air of boisterousness that day, long ago, packed with elementary students, the orchestra somehow crammed on to the small stage.

Soon there was a hush, because Maestro Swalin, aided by Maxine Swalin, also a musician, had a gift for commanding the attention of energetic and sometimes unruly kids. In my memory, the concert was splendid, almost exotic, because of the unusual charm of the Swalins, who made everything Mrs. Almond taught us “come alive.”

Before she died, more than a decade ago, I visited Mrs. Almond in the Albemarle nursing home where she spent her last days. Quite lucid, she played the organ for other residents while I was there, still showing enthusiasm for music. I thanked her for having immense impact on my life, which seemed to please her as much as the joy I felt in telling her.

Teachers rarely get the praise they are due, but on that day, a great one did.

G.C. Wilhoit,
emeritus professor,
Indiana University