Former Professor of Music and creator of the Glee Club Frederic E.T. Tillotson—“Tilly” to students and friends—was remembered 50 years after his death last Saturday during Homecoming. Over two dozen past Tillotson singers and Glee Club alumni—ranging from the Class of 1951 to the Class of 1964—participated in an open sing in his memory.
Tillotson, a pianist and conductor, joined the faculty in 1936 as the College’s first-ever chair of the music department, although never attaining a bachelor’s degree himself. To that point, the music program at Bowdoin had been very informal and mostly student-organized, so Tillotson’s arrival marked the beginning of the formalized department.
President K.C. Sills empowered Tillotson with the task of transforming Bowdoin into a “singing college,” which he did by working with more than five generations of Bowdoin students. He taught for more than 25 years, and was the director of the Glee Club until the year before he died in 1963.
According to a College Bulletin from March 1961 entitled “Bowdoin is a Singing College,” the Glee Club was considered “one product of a total music program, designed to provide an education in the appreciation and performance of fine music for all Bowdoin men who wish to take advantage of the opportunity.”
With Tillotson at the helm, the Glee Club grew in size and prestige, performing an average of 15 concerts a year. The group traveled along the east coast as far north as Canada, performing at the Town Hall in New York four times and playing an annual Bowdoin Night at the Pops in Boston from 1947 on. At a time when Bowdoin was all male, the Glee Club also traveled to all-female colleges in New England to sing combined concerts with their groups.
In addition to his work with the Glee Club, Tillotson formed the Meddiebempsters, the College’s first a capella group, in 1937. While discussing the possibility with President Sills at Sills’ house, the two were unsure of what name to choose. According to Tillotson’s son Clive Tillotson ’53, the men settled on a name by throwing darts at a Maine map on the wall. When the dart landed on the small northern town of Meddiebemps, they knew they had the group name.
Another major event during Tillotson’s tenure included the annual Interfraternity Sing, in which the 12 fraternities on campus competed against one another in song.
Tillotson’s modern-day counterpart and former student Anthony Antolini ’63 now carries on his former mentor’s work. A 22-year mainstay in Bowdoin’s music department and former president of the Glee Club, Antolini is the director of the Bowdoin Chorus—the current, co-ed reincarnation of Tillotson’s group.
“He created a culture where singing was as important as hockey,” said Antolini. “It was taken very seriously.”
“Tilly put his whole heart and soul into this program,” he added.
Barclay Shepard ’51, the oldest alum in attendance at the open sing, remembered Tillotson fondly.
“He was warm and friendly—a wonderful conductor who conducted not only with his hands and his arms but also with his face and his eyes,” he said.
Tillotson became engaged in the lives of his students outside the classroom as well—some even lived in his house. His Glee Club once visited the White House the day after performing to a crowd anchored by Bess and Margaret Truman. Another time, they were forced to miss a scheduled performance after being snowed into their hotel in Kingston, N.Y., only to have the locals come by and listen to the group put on an impromptu show.
Tillotson made his mark on Gibson Hall, the home of the music department and the first building specifically and entirely dedicated to music at Bowdoin. He played an integral role in designing and planning its three floors to best suit the various functions and needs of the department.
Moreover, Antolini said that Tillotson’s fundraising was the reason Harvey Dow Gibson ’02, a multimillionaire Wall Street investor, donated the money for the building. Before Gibson opened in the early 1950s, according to the “Singing College” bulletin, the department had been “confined to one classroom and an oversized closet” in the back of the chapel for nearly 20 years. When Tillotson died his ashes were scattered outside the building, and during its renovation in 2004, Gibson 101—the main 80-person rehearsal room—was renamed “The Tillotson Room” in his honor.
“Tilly showed me the importance of being well organized and how to create the social fabric that a community program has to do. He was a great salesman for his program, and he taught by example,” said Antolini. “Not only did he raise money for the building but also for scholarships—so we could all go on tour, and so the singers who otherwise couldn’t afford suits could get them. He made people feel at home.”
Antolini, along with Tillotson alum Terry Stenberg ’56, helped organize Saturday’s “Fifty Years After Tilly” event. The alumni singers started the event by performing a medley of traditional Bowdoin songs while Antolini conducted, and continued with an open sing. A few singers even guest conducted while Antolini joined the chorus.
However, the singers did not recognize all the songs in the book—some had only been brought into the chorus repertoire in recent years, and many arrangements have been modified with soprano and alto parts for co-ed groups.
Still other songs had previously existed but their names had changed so as to reflect a more contemporary College. “Rise Sons of Bowdoin” is now “Raise Songs to Bowdoin,” while “Forward the White” has become “Hail Black and White.”
The event concluded with the recording of “The Bowdoin Medley,” played by the Portland Symphony Orchestra and arranged by former Glee Club and Meddiebempster member Stenberg. Composed of five songs deeply entrenched in the College’s history (“We’ll Sing to Old Bowdoin,” “Hail Black and White,” “Beneath the Pines,” “Raise Songs to Bowdoin,” and “Bowdoin Beata”) the compilation was recorded last October after Stenberg decided to memorialize these songs from Tillotson’s prime. Featuring 55 musicians playing 30 different instruments, the arrangement represents Stenberg’s hard work digging up the old charts and digitally arranging them for a group.
A Portland Symphony Orchestra subscriber himself, Stenberg decided to undertake this venture to preserve the songs of the past for today’s Bowdoin in honor of Tillotson; he had heard the Symphony play University of Maine songs multiple times and was inspired to ask it to play traditional Bowdoin songs as well.
The Bowdoin Concert Band will play the medley later this month during Family Weekend.