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Organists trained by Roberta Bitgood

Many of Roberta Bitgood's associates contributed sketches of their experiences with her over the years to her autobiographical book Swell to Great: A Backward Look from My Organ Loft, published in 2000 by The Bayberry Design Company. A selection of those reminiscences, together with some that have been newly written, will appear here on a rotating basis.

Shirley V. Alderson

Danford and Emily Byrens

Judy Culler

William D. Kaltrider

Margaret (Williams) Mealy

Brian Rogers


Shirley V. Alderson

Shirley Alderson was a longtime member of Roberta Bitgood's choir at Crossroads Presbyterian Church in Waterford, Connecticut. She is a church deacon and, prior to her retirement, operated a day care in her home for many years.

It was in 1984 that Dr. Roberta Bitgood first attended a Sunday service of our church, then named Waterford Presbyterian, which met at Harkness Chapel on the Connecticut College campus in New London.

As I recall, our organist, Norma Branch, realizing that Dr. Bitgood was in the congregation, acknowledged her and her talents during our sharing of Joys and Concerns that Sunday. She concluded by inviting Dr. Bitgood to play the postlude for us, which she did with her special talent and usual aplomb.

Since Norma Branch and her husband were planning an extended trip, we were looking for someone to fill in as organist and choir director on a part-time basis. That someone turned out to be Dr. Bitgood, who quickly became Roberta or "Dr. B" to those of us in the choir. Roberta filled that position ably for 14 years, moving with us when the church, renamed Crossroads Presbyterian, moved to its own building in 1989. She was responsible for the installation of a pipe organ in our church, the first and only one in the town of Waterford.

During Roberta's tenure, our choir grew and participated in many ecumenical services and choir festivals in churches and synagogues on both sides of the Thames River. At one point, she planned and put together a choir festival which included former members of her "Bitgood Kids" choir from Bloomfield College and Seminary, in New Jersey. What a wonderful weekend that was.

We would meet for choir rehearsals at the chapel on Thursday nights from 7 to 9 p.m. One winter, due to the cold weather, cold chapel, and the fact that most of our members lived in the Great Neck area of Waterford, we decided to move our rehearsals to the home of Jim and Ethel Kyle on Great Neck Road. I remember that Roberta wasn't too happy with this arrangement because there were too many "easy" chairs for people to sit in. Her feeling was that no one could sing well slouched down in an easy chair.

One Sunday in October of 1989, we began our service at Harkness Chapel and, halfway through the service, migrated to our brand new building on Cross Road in Waterford. As I recall, there had been a brief period of tension between the pastor, Rev. Dr. John Webster, and Roberta as to whether or not we should enter the church with or without music. I can't remember just who won out, but no matter, it was a joyous day for all.

At that time, Roberta was also playing the organ on Friday evenings at Temple EmanuEl on Dayton Road. There was one occasion when we participated in a musical service there, singing in Hebrew.

Roberta has generously shared the talent God gave her with the Adult Day Center that meets in our church building during the week. The clients of the Day Center still enjoy her playing. She has also played for our Presbyterian Women's evening meetings—playing "Happy Birthday" during coffee hour more times than she probably wants to remember.

There comes a time in all our lives when the responsibilities of work take on a rather "heavy" feeling, leaving frayed nerves and confusion. This occurred during Roberta's leadership of the choir. Some changes became necessary and they were made. For a short period, Roberta became our accompanist at choir rehearsals and Madelyn Shafer took on the responsibilities of choir director. This arrangement was, I believe, rather painful for Roberta. It was decided after a discussion with Roberta and her daughter, Grace, that she would be our organist only, and she performed gracefully in this capacity for another two years. Subsequently it was discovered that Roberta was suffering from the effects of macular degeneration, and so it was in April of 1999 that she decided to retire for the third time in her life.

In October of 1999, we were blessed to hear Roberta, John Anthony, and Mike Noonan in an organ recital at Crossroads, followed by a reception. The grand finale of the recital was a "stump the organist" free-for-all hymn sing with members of the congregation calling out hymn numbers at random and Roberta playing them. Needless to say, she was never "stumped."

This has been a difficult transition for Roberta and the congregation. There is no one who can replace Roberta—her talent, her unique personality, and her many interesting tales of years past as she cut her niche in what had been pretty much a male profession. We miss her greatly.

During her tenure at Crossroads, I was privileged to have Roberta become one of my very dearest friends. We spent many Thursday evenings at BeeBee's Dairy having supper before choir rehearsal. And Roberta, always the swimmer, was a frequent visitor to our home and pool on Great Neck Road. It was always a pleasure to include her, and her family, in our various family celebrations. She has given me a deeper awareness of the joy of classical music—which I will always associate with her.

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Danford and Emily Byrens

Danford and Emily Byrens had church music positions in Montgomery, Alabama, and then worked as a team in churches in Saginaw and Bay City, Michigan. After Dan retired from his college teaching post in Michigan, they went to the Phillippines in 1990 and taught for four years at Silliman University. They go back periodically, but spend most of their time in Michigan in order to be with their twenty-six grandchildren.

We have two fond memories of Roberta that stand out. In her farewell recital at the Congregational Church in Battle Creek, she played some American music from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Before the last piece in the group, she apologized for the music in her own amusing way, saying that her friends laugh about this corny music with so many diminished seventh chords. As usual, Roberta was ahead of her time, because now this music is back in fashion and played a lot. After she finished that piece, she played— "by popular demand"—the Bach Toccata and Fugue in D Minor. That whole toccata is based on a diminished seventh chord! It was all I could do to keep from laughing aloud over that circumstance, and the placing of the works on the program one after the other.

Roberta returned a couple of years later to give a program at St. Phillip's Church in Battle Creek for the local chapter of the American Guild of Organists. It was one of the best talks we have ever heard about the Guild and the problems it was facing at the time with several competing factions such as purists and those using electronic instruments—altogether a most delightful speech and evening. But the wonder of it was that as she talked she kept reaching into her large pocket book—actually a kind of over-the-shoulder bag—and fishing out scraps of paper, just exactly the right one for every statistic she wanted. Of course, she could have just pulled out pieces of paper and made up statistics for all we know, but it was a real tour de force. No wonder she guided the Guild so well!

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Judy Culler

Judy Culler taught orchestra, general music, and mathematics in the South Redford, Highland Park, Troy, and Livonia school districts, as well as violin, viola, cello, string bass, and piano privately. She is a deacon and member of the hand-bell and adult choirs at St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church in Livonia, Michigan.

I met Roberta in September 1960 when I was a first-year teacher in the South Redford School District near Detroit, Michigan. I was looking for a church home and read in the newspaper that Roberta Bitgood was going to be starting as music director and organist at the Redford Presbyterian Church that next Sunday. I attended the church service and afterward went down to the choir room to meet Roberta. I told her that I was a new music teacher in the area and would like to sing in her choir and that I was a violinist and would like to play for church services. I was greeted warmly by Roberta, but I was also handed a hymn book and directed by her to “sing for me.” I sang the alto part in a few hymns while she played, and I guess I passed the test, as she invited me to attend the next Thursday’s choir rehearsal. Little did I know at the time that this would begin a very special lifelong friendship for me!

I sang in the choir every Sunday while Roberta lived in Redford, and I played the violin often with the choir and as a soloist for church services. I soon learned that Roberta also played the violin and viola, and we both joined the Detroit Women’s Symphony that met in a church in downtown Detroit on Monday evenings. We played viola together on the second stand of the viola section from 1960 to 1963. We shared in preparing music for many fine concerts during this time. I remember Roberta being particularly impressed when two young men who were the sons of one of the French horn players in the orchestra gave an outstanding performance of the Mozart Sinfonia Concertante for violin and viola at one of our concerts.

After dating my husband-to-be, Dave Culler, from June 1961 until June 1962, we were married in Sylvania, Ohio, which was my hometown and the place where Dave was teaching elementary school. Roberta came to Sylvania to play for our wedding, and this pleased both of us very much. We settled in an apartment in Michigan after we were married, and Dave began teaching fifth grade in the Garden City Public Schools, where he stayed for the next thirty years. Roberta always used to say that I knew the choir needed tenors, so I married one!

When Roberta accepted a new calling at the First Presbyterian Church in Bay City, we kept in very close contact with her, often stopping in Bay City on our way to our summer jobs at Interlochen, to sing and play in her church there. Roberta and Bert visited us often at our home in Westland, and Roberta came to Detroit each month for AGO meetings or other events. After most of these meetings, Roberta would spend the night with us and return to Bay City the following day. She had a key to our house, as she often arrived late and we had sometimes gone to bed. I remember one particular time when she came that we didn’t realize she was there until morning. When Dave went into the spare bedroom to get his clothes to get dressed for school, there was Roberta asleep in the bed! She woke up as he was looking in the closet and thought she should say something, so she meekly said, “Hello.” She says that Dave jumped a few feet off the floor when he heard her!

Many of the nights when Roberta came, we were still awake, however, and we had long visits as I graded math papers and Roberta worked on her ever-present needlepoint. Having a late night snack was always a treat, especially when we had fried chicken, which Roberta loved. Dave would finally go to bed, and Roberta and I would often stay up a couple more hours. Our first child, Kevin, was born in October 1964, and he grew to love Roberta as we did.

When Roberta was called to her third Michigan church in 1969, the First Congregational Church in Battle Creek, we attended her organ concerts and again sang in her choir whenever we visited. Roberta kept up her viola playing all through the years, and one of her very special highlights was traveling to Europe with the Battle Creek Symphony Orchestra. I remember her saying that she never thought it would be her viola playing that would give her the chance to go to Europe. She loved every minute of this experience. In 1970, our second son, Kurt, was born so we had another Bitgood fan added to our family.

Roberta continued to stay with us when she came to the Detroit area, and there were many nights when she and I would play violin and viola duets just for fun until two in the morning. We were both “night owls,” but I can say that Roberta had me beat in this regard. I would give up before she did, and I was thirty years younger!

After Roberta and Bert moved back to Connecticut, we saw them just about every year. During our family vacation in 1977, the four of us stayed for several days in the cabin down by the cove. Whenever we were there on a Thursday night, we went to choir practice, and we always sang in Roberta’s choir on Sunday. In addition, I usually played one or two violin solos during the church service. In 1984, when Bert died I was able to be there that week, and I played for his memorial service. Roberta played the organ for the entire service. How many people do we know who could have done that?

In September 1989, Roberta agreed to play for our son Kevin’s wedding, here in Livonia. This meant a flight from Connecticut to Michigan for Roberta, a three-day stay here with us, and then a return flight to Connecticut immediately after the wedding so that she could play the organ in church the next day at Crossroads Presbyterian. What dedication! She didn’t even get to go to the wedding reception!

In more recent years, I have flown to either Hartford or Providence and rented a car so I could spend a few days with Roberta. Our visiting never seems to end, and our late night duet playing only stopped a couple of years ago. I have been privileged to see all the sights of the New London area and most of Connecticut, and I was included in a wonderful four-day vacation at Tanglewood with Roberta, Grace, and Stuart in 1997.

Roberta will always be one of our very closest friends, and we are proud to be among her hundreds of admirers. She is one exceptional lady!

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William D. Kaltrider

Bill Kaltrider is the organist and choir director at St. Mary's Catholic Church in Alpena, Michigan. He also plays funerals at St. John the Baptist Catholic Church, as well as playing, on occasion, at the cathedral in Gaylord.

Although our paths crossed many times over the past fifty-plus years, I distinctly remember my first meeting with Roberta. It was at the Waldenwoods School of Sacred Music, and I learned the Bach G minor Prelude and Fugue under her guidance. This was in the early 1940s! Swimming and roller-skating were the extent of the physical activities at Waldenwoods. I couldn't swim and Roberta couldn't skate, so I learned to swim from Roberta and she roller-skated—hanging on to me for dear life.

My next contact with Roberta was when she was in Riverside. I was fresh out of the U.S. Navy, not knowing what I wanted to do with my life. I worked for the Alfred Kilgen Organ Company in Los Angeles and played in a little Baptist church in Eagle Rock. I took a lesson from Roberta as often as I could get something prepared. I learned the Farnam "Toccata" and the Bach Fugue a la Gigue at that time. My church had a Wurlitzer reed-electronic. The action was sooo slow. Roberta still had the little Roosevelt in Riverside. She brought all my complaining to a halt when she said, "I'll never let an organ keep me from playing any music I want to play!"

I remember most fondly my times with Roberta and Bert when they were in Bay City, Michigan. I owned and operated a music store located some fifty miles from Bay City. The two of them would often go canoeing on a Sunday afternoon and appear at our door—sometimes at suppertime. It was on one of these occasions that I learned to make Bitgood Burgers. Take one pound of hamburger, lots of chopped onion, and add a lot of water (almost soup); spread this on hamburger buns; place under the broiler. You can easily feed 5,000!

It was through these informal times that I got to know Bert. He loved his work as an occupational therapist, but one day was telling me of a problem he was unable to solve for one of his patients. This young high school boy was an excellent trumpet player. He had been playing with firecrackers and blew the fingers off of both hands. Bert was determined to find a way for him to play the trumpet again. I worked with Bert in designing solenoid magnets and a special switch he could operate with his thumb—and then talked a local electric motor company into producing it. This was really exciting for all concerned. It also cemented our friendship.

It was during this time that I was Roberta's assistant at First Presbyterian. This was my first experience working with a Bitgood Summer Choir. The format was that Roberta would pick out two easier anthems, and the title and composer would appear in the Sunday printed bulletin. With no weekday rehearsal we would meet whoever showed up that Sunday morning at 10 a.m., rehearse them into a choir, and then at 11 a.m., "You're on."

Because of Roberta's responsibilities with the AGO, she would call on me to fill in at various times of the year. One of these times was late in January. Because of the time of year and the distance involved to my home, I would often stay at their house. This particular January, I walked in and there to greet me was their Christmas tree! Well, having nothing else to do on Saturday night, and not wanting to let an opportunity slip by, I went into town, bought lots of pink paper, and when they came home the next week they were greeted by the biggest Valentine Tree ever created. I understand they brought many choir people in to see what happens if you leave your Christmas tree up too long.

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Margaret (Williams) Mealy

Following her choir experience at Westminster Presbyterian in Bloomfield, New Jersey, Margaret Williams continued her study of music at Wellesley and Harvard and has been teaching music ever since. In addition to easy hymn harmonizations, she published Sing For Joy with her husband, the Rev. Dr. Norman Mealy.

My memories of Roberta at Westminster Church in Bloomfield, New Jersey, are enveloped in the sound of fine music pouring out of the organ loft all through my formative years. And down in the pews there was that sense of high esteem with which my parents and other adults spoke of "our organist."

A more personal memory is of us eight-year-old choristers dissolved in giggles, eyed tolerantly by "Miss Bitgood" while she continued firmly with rehearsing the anthem. In my high school years she flattered my growing musical skills by asking me to substitute for her at Wednesday prayer meetings and made me a very grown up tribute (as if to a colleague) by inscribing an Oxford Book of Carols with the words "To Margaret Williams with sincere appreciation of your many kindnesses to me."

And now I offer my sincere appreciation of her kind encouragement to me over the years and her continuing friendship, with all those musical overtones.

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Brian Rogers

Brian Rogers was college librarian of Connecticut College from 1975 until 1993, and special collections librarian from 1993 until his retirement in 1999.

My first exposure to the church organ had nothing to do with pipes and stops, but with the pedals, that unique feature of the instrument that is both its crowning glory and arguably its greatest challenge. Our church had a Hammond electronic organ, vintage 1940, positioned, like the great theater organs of yesteryear, at the front, and to one side, with the organist's back to the congregation. A tenyear-old sitting in the front row could watch the organist's feet, and I marveled both at the dexterity on display and the sonic result. I was the only person in the front row, of course—in our church, as in most, the members of the congregation occupied the first two or three pews only on Easter, perhaps also at Christmas, when they could not be accommodated in the middle and back rows.

For the rest of the year, only the pedal-watcher—uninhibited by virtue of youth's naivete and emboldened by the fact that my father was the minister—sat up front.

And where is Roberta Bitgood in this memoir? She enters at the point where I first began to comprehend the differences between a pipe organ and an electronic Hammond. Roberta came to Alfred, New York, just up the road from my hometown, as a faculty member and guest artist at the annual Church Music Institute. Directed by the late, indefatigable Lois Boren Scholes, the institutes were held for several years in the forties and fifties, attracting organists and choir directors from around the country for an intensive week of workshops, lectures, organ recitals, and a grand culminating event featuring the attendees assembled as the institute choir. Here, for the first time, I heard choral music performed with authority and confidence, accompanied gloriously with the organ, and it was a revelation.

Those culminating evenings of hymns, anthems, and organ works were as memorable for the participants as for the audience, and were especially so for an impressionable kid just into his teens. The choir's response to the inspired direction of Roberta Bitgood, Robert Fountain, and other nationally known conductor/performers, after a week of sight-reading, study, and rehearsal, was imbued with the unique conviction that only dedicated church musicians could bring to such an occasion. The charismatic personalities of Roberta and the other faculty members, their wit, their utter professionalism from years of experience with the liturgical repertoire (from the anonymous composers of "ancient alleluias" to the newest generation) drew out the very best of the singers.

The organ component of the institutes—half of the week's curriculum, as I recall—was centered on the Rosebush Memorial, a fine 1930s Moller in the Alfred Seventh Day Baptist Church. In one of many memorable recitals the organist, whose name is now lost to me, discussed the Bach prelude and fugue he was about to play and suggested that as the theme of the fugue recurred on its stately, inevitable way it would at last begin to glow, and he cupped his hands as though holding a precious object radiating light from within. The imagery was potent, the sound deeply thrilling.

Those extraordinary services of worship through music linger in the memory, and, as alumni will attest, Roberta Bitgood was a key figure in them. My father served as chaplain for some of the institutes, and I think he once introduced me to Roberta. This would have been like meeting a movie star, for she was one of the guiding lights of the program and that perforce made her a star.

Twenty-five years later we came to New London, Connecticut, where I had been appointed director of the Connecticut College Library. In prior years my wife and I had sung in church choirs and every now and then we encountered the name of Roberta Bitgood on the sheet music in our hands, or on the back where publishers list other works in print. So it was a pleasant surprise to learn that Roberta Bitgood was not only a graduate of Connecticut College, but lived a scant three miles away and was a frequent visitor to our Greer Music Library. As an active choir director and organist she made good use of the music library's excellent collection of scores and recordings, and saw to it that it had copies of her compositions. Every year at Alumni Reunion she played the Harkness Chapel Austin for the Sunday morning Service of Remembrance, an event treasured by those in attendance for the memorable sense of uplift and consolation provided by Roberta's music.

But Roberta was not seen only in the music library, Harkness Chapel, or the area churches she served until her recent retirement. We know that her music interests have always extended far beyond the organ console and the choir loft. Go to any concert, recital, or evensong in southeastern Connecticut and Roberta is likely to be there. The bond between music lovers strengthens quickly as they compare notes during intermissions, or over post-concert refreshments, and in our first such encounter with Roberta we acknowledged that our lives had intersected years before in a little university town in western New York that had a historic church with a fine pipe organ. The only thing that cements friendship more firmly than the shared love of music is, of course, shared personal history, and we have been proud to be numbered among Roberta's countless friends these past twenty-five years.

When the name of Connecticut College still included the words "for Women," my predecessor in the library had engaged in an effort to acquire letters and other primary research materials relating to outstanding American women, on the order of collections then being formed at Smith and Radcliffe. Our collection eventually included significant holdings on Frances Perkins, the first woman Cabinet member; Belle Moskowitz, a key player in the history of the Democratic Party and adviser to Governor Alfred E. Smith of New York; Alice Hamilton, one of the first women to attend Harvard Medical School, later a powerful voice warning of the dangers of lead paint and other industrial toxins; Prudence Crandall, the 19th century educator who defied the attitudes of her time by opening a school in Connecticut for young African-American girls; and others. The library's priorities shifted, however, and this collection did not grow for some years until it suddenly occurred to me that the papers of Roberta Bitgood, a local girl who had become one of the college's best known alumni, should be preserved and, like the archival material acquired years before, made available to posterity. I think Roberta was not at first convinced of the value of this, but several visits to her home to examine her files and boxes led eventually to the removal of most of them to the Special Collections department of the Charles E. Shain Library.

Items from the archive provided a rich supply of material for an exhibit I prepared for display in Harkness Chapel during the 1993 Roberta Bitgood Jubilee sponsored by the local American Guild of Organists chapter. The archive is being sorted and arranged by the College's music librarian, Carolyn A. Johnson, herself a church organist and choir director, and a description of it appears at the back of this volume. For many personal and professional reasons I am deeply gratified that a documentary record of Roberta Bitgood's career will be permanently available to any who wish to consult it. The Roberta Bitgood Archive has been listed in recent editions of the Directory of Special Libraries and Information Centers and in due course will be publicized in other printed and Internet-based research tools. Together with her many compositions for choir and organ, the existence of the archive ensures that the achievement of Roberta Bitgood will long serve as an inspiration to church musicians everywhere—indeed, to all who find spiritual joy and renewal in the music of Christian worship.

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Last revised March 9, 2011

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