“It was a stroke of genius, but I’m still not quite sure whose genius,” former Mary Baldwin University Choir Director Gordon Page says about the college hymn, which he penned nearly 40 years ago. Generations of Mary Baldwin students who have sung A Hymn for Mary Baldwin at poignant college ceremonies might not recognize Page’s name, but he sees their appreciation every time the tune is sung, especially when students and graduates choke up on the last lines.
“I had always wanted to write something for the college, but it took a long, long time for it to come along,” said the 94-year-old Page, Mary Baldwin Professor Emeritus of Music. “We are a beautiful college, we are a small college made up of people who like to work with each other. When I thought about these central things, the words came out.”
Most noted for developing the Mary Baldwin University Choir,Page was one of those treasured faculty members who not only educated his students, but helped them realize their full potential, inspired them to excel, and became not just a tutor – but a friend, too.
During his 30 years as professor of music and director of the Choir, Page led students in repeat performances at Washington National Cathedral, Princeton University, Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City, and countless venues in the local area. Page and his first wife, Barbara Kares Page, longtime administrative assistant to former college president Samuel Spencer, and, later, his second wife of 41 years, Martha Anne “Mopsy” Pool ’48 (pictured above), welcomed students into their home and hearts, forging bonds with them that have stood the test of time. Martha Ann Pool was president of Mary Baldwin University’s Alumnae Association and worked as Spencer’s administrative assistant for several years.
Commencement – one of the annual events at which A Hymn for Mary Baldwin is sung – takes place on Page Terrace, a memorial to Barbara Kares Page, who had an untimely death in the 1960s. The emotional melody is also performed at Founders Day ceremonies in the fall.
“The Hymn makes me think about the times when Mary Baldwin was a seminary, and how they were back then,” said Sarah Benkendorf ‘06, president of the Mary Baldwin University Choir. Katie Ashe ’08, another member of the choir, agrees that the song “upholds the historic values of the college.”
The hymn was drafted while Page, members of the college choir, and Professor Emeritus of Theatre Fletcher Collins were in a vehicle bound for a performance in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Page had been asked by a television station in Roanoke, Virginia, to have the choir sing an original piece – preferably something written to be a hymn for the college or alma mater – on air upon their return.
“I must have started about eight or nine different versions before I hit on just the things that I thought were good. We sang it on air in Roanoke, and I thought ‘Well, that’s that,’” Page laughed, reclining in his Staunton home where the coffee table and bookshelves hold books about organ restoration and Mary Baldwin Chaplain Patricia Hunt’s collection of sermons and prayers, Playing With Fire.
Then Dean of the College Martha Grafton had another idea for the tune. She asked Page and the choir to perform it at Commencement in the mid-1960s, and it has been a staple at the event every year since. Arranged to a Scandinavian folk tune, the four-verse melody evokes scholarly ambition, socializing, and using the knowledge acquired in college after graduation. During his 30 year tenure, Page wrote other anthems for the choir to sing at chapel services, but none garnered the level of recognition of the hymn.
Although Page’s familiarity to people on campus has faded, his presence is still strong in the Mary Baldwin community. Page’s former students and choir members established an endowed scholarship in his name in the 1980s – to which Page and his wife contribute – and other alumnae helped create Page Garden outside the Pub at the campus’s Pannill Center. “I wanted somewhere where the young women could just relax,” said Page, who helped design the garden with Grounds Supervisor Jeff Wagner. Several music classrooms in Deming also bear his name.
When Mary Rutherfoord Mercy Ferguson ’63 arrived at Mary Baldwin, she remembers that “the Choir was spoken of with reverence and as one of the most prestigious organizations on campus.”
Ferguson, a member of the college glee club, and later the Choir, said the following at the 1998 dedication of Page Garden: “In my mind’s eye, I still see Mr. Page as those in attendance saw him from the back. A head of short gray hair bouncing on top of a flowing black robe as he put his arms and body, heart and soul into his distinctive style of directing.”
Elizabeth Jennings Shupe ’70 remembers fondly the day she met Page. “I met him when I thought I wanted to take voice lessons,” Shupe said. “I auditioned for him, and he graciously explained what my voice was … and was not. But he then encouraged me to join the choir. He was such a gentleman that I decided to try it. It was the best decision I made while at Mary Baldwin.”
Shupe became close with Page’s family during her time at Mary Baldwin and remains very attached to her “second family.” For Shupe, A Hymn for Mary Baldwin is more than just a song to sing at important school events.
The words of the hymn describe the physical, academic, psychological and spiritual essence of the college,” said Shupe, associate director of the Career Development Center at the University of Richmond. “‘We will know how we must borrow, Mary Baldwin, from thy yield.’ And I do remember and borrow every day.”
The hymn’s lines are no less poignant or sincere today than they were half a century ago.
Editor’s Note: Students Sarah Brewer ’06 and Megan Kadilak ’06 interviewed Gordon Page, writer of the college’s alma mater, A Hymn for Mary Baldwin, for an assignment in their Media Writing class in the fall. Mary Baldwin Assistant Director of Communication Dawn Medley went along on the visit to learn more about his contributions to the college. The students contributed quotes and details to this article.
A Hymn for Mary Baldwin
Melody: Scandinavian Folk Song
To these halls where Wisdom reckons,
To these hills where Beauty dwells;
Where the search for Learning beckons,
Where its tumult never quells
Here we bring out childhood visions
Stirring in the quest for Truth;
Here we forge the mind’s decisions
Tempered by the faith of youth.
Friendship, honor, sorrow, laughter
Are the ways by which we learn.
Knowledge first, then wisdom after,
Love that seeks not for return.
When we reach the last tomorrow
Of our days in class, on field
We will know how we must borrow,
Mary Baldwin, from thy yield.