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Legend's lasting legacy

by Krista Habermehl, MA'05 | January 30, 2017

Legend's lasting legacy
Supplied photo of Earle Terry directing the Earle Terry Singers on CFPL-TV London in 1953.

“Leave them wanting more.”

That’s what Earle Terry always said when a crowd was begging his renowned all-female choir, the Earle Terry Singers, for another encore after a particularly captivating performance.

It’s also how so many felt — left wanting more — when the charismatic choir director, educator and author passed away in London, Ont., in 1999.

And it’s why, when approached by Western Music Dean Betty Anne Younker, former Earle Terry Singers Marlene Fagan and Irla Stewart immediately agreed to lead a fundraising initiative to name a studio in the recently renovated Music Building for their past choir director.

“Because of the wonderful person he was, we wanted to help,” said Fagan, who studied Music at Western in the 50s. “It wasn’t complicated. We said, ‘Of course we will.’”

The pair called, met and wrote letters to an extensive network of people who knew and loved Terry. In short order, more than 100 donors came together to raise $25,000 in honour of the man who directed the Earle Terry Singers from 1948-75, the London Conservatory Choir from 1953-68, and also taught choral music at Western from 1951-81.

“Music education was his main interest,” Stewart said. “He would be so proud to see the renovations and re-building of the Don Wright Faculty of Music; it is a great place to honour him.”

In 1947, Terry came to London from Toronto to take the role of Director of Music for the London Board of Education — a role he held for 30 years, overlapping with his teaching at Western and volunteer work with the Rotary Club, Kiwanis Club and the YMCA. Within a year of his arrival, he established the Earle Terry Singers through various contacts and connections he made through the school board.

Legend's lasting legacy
Torin Chiles, who currently lectures Voice students in the Earle Terry studio in Western's recently renovated Music Building, plays a tune for former Earle Terry Singers Marlene Fagan (left) and Irla Stewart.

Stewart was one of them, having just begun her career as a primary music teacher in London. In addition to singing for the choir, which broadcast regularly during its heyday on CBC radio and CFPL-TV London, Stewart also arranged music.

“Through Earle Terry, I was given the opportunity to direct, accompany and write arrangements of choral music. Mr. Terry expected a lot, but you just wanted to do it,” she said. “You learned so much. These experiences have shaped my musical life.”

One experience Stewart will never forget is when the Earle Terry Singers represented Canada in Brussels at the first UNESCO International Conference on Music Education in 1953. The choir travelled by sea to get there and produced and practiced their performance on the trans-Atlantic crossing.

The Singers also had the occasion to perform at Madison Square Garden in New York City, on the same program as Victor Borge, Mahalia Jackson and Guy Lombardo. Fagan, who met Terry while completing her music education at Western, was part of the performance.

“It wasn’t a hard job,” said Fagan, of being part of the notable choir. “Mr. Terry was always enthusiastic and so keen about what he did. He was also very loyal and he mentored us. He was a perfectionist too and had a way with people.”

In addition to numerous trips abroad, the choir frequently performed locally, including an annual three-evening Christmas festival that filled the 1,200-seat auditorium at H.B. Beal Secondary School. Terry’s wife, May, would design elaborate gowns and costumes for the singers to wear at these performances, creating a striking tableau for the crowd.

While the Earle Terry Singers dissolved in 1975 after more than 25 years of performance, 40 or so former members still meet quarterly to reminisce about their involvement in the extraordinary choir.

“The fact so many contributed so happily to this fundraising campaign is a real testament to Earle Terry’s legacy,” said Western Music’s Torin Chiles, who currently lectures Voice students in the Earle Terry Studio. “It’s wonderful. It’s a testament to the force of his artistry and the influence he had on so many people — but also the force of his personality.”

The naming of Chiles’ studio room for Terry is particularly poetic, since Chiles is the current choir director at New St. James Presbyterian Church, where Terry played the organ and also directed the choir for more than a decade in the 50s and 60s. “It’s such a strong feeling of continuity and connectivity — he is a role model to aspire to.”

Western’s Music Building recently underwent a $23.5-million renovation and expansion project that resulted in two new recital spaces and increased spaces for faculty studios, rehearsal halls and rooms, practice rooms and classrooms.

According to Western Music Dean Betty Anne Younker, the building renovation and expansion has created a better environment for music teaching and learning.

“On behalf of the students, staff and faculty, I thank Marlene and Irla for their energy, dedication and commitment to this initiative,” she said. “Their leadership in helping to honour Earle Terry directly impacts our students’ education in the same positive way Earle Terry did for his students and singers.”

This article appeared in the Winter 2017 edition of Impact Western
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