A Remembrance of Mel Larimer

Mel was a friend, colleague and musical collaborator for over thirty years. During that time we shared in concerts, tours, recruiting trips, department meetings, family gatherings and many other activities. In all of these activities, what was always apparent was his love of Albion College, his deep commitment to its mission and his determination to give to his students the values he had received from the institution as a student here himself.

I first heard of Mel in the late 60s through my Music Department colleagues Dave Strickler, Tony Taffs and Jacqueline Maag, who were former professors of his. They were understandably proud of his many accomplishments in music education, and his name came up often. Then, in the early 70s, his daughter Christie enrolled at Albion while Mel was teaching at Olivet College and I met him as a result. Mel had received national attention at Olivet for the phenomenal growth of the music program in a school of that size. Because there was no full-time string teacher, I received permission to go there once a week to give private lessons and so began a long association with Mel and the Larimer family. Every now and then I would jokingly suggest that as an Albion grad Mel should join us at his alma mater, not knowing that this would actually happen following the retirement of Dave Strickler.

Mel’s contributions to Albion College have been well chronicled. His value to the Music Department was and remains inestimable. He was responsible for growth in numbers and new programs which greatly increased the opportunities for our students. My own recollections are of a man who was incredibly gifted in people skills and who had the ability and persistence to get things done even when it didn’t seem possible. An example of this came on one of our European tours when the choir and a string chamber orchestra were scheduled to perform at the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. When we got there, the person in charge of visiting groups told us quite adamantly that no instrumental groups were allowed to perform at that time. Mel refused to deny the string players the opportunity to play in one of the world’s great cathedrals. He asked for and got a meeting with some of the higher officials. It wasn’t long before permission was granted and the string group performed with the choir.

Mel loved cathedrals. No remotely historic edifice was safe from his insatiable desire to explore its sights and acoustical properties. As we traveled across Europe in our tour bus, every so often he would put down his reading material, go to the front of the bus and try to convince the driver and guide that this church he had just learned about was really only a few kilometers off the scheduled route. It would add only an hour or so to the time allowed and would be extremely beneficial to the students. More often than not he talked them into it. Then when we would get to the building in question he would persuade the authorities there to let the choir sing in the places that were not always accessible to drop-in visitors, especially 80 or so of them. Most of the time we were the only people there. Listening to the sounds of a Bruckner motet or a Palestrina madrigal echoing through the empty spaces in those settings produced some of the most memorable experiences of the whole tour and certainly impressed on the students the power of music to move and even heal.

Dave Strickler used to call his choir tours “coast to coast”, meaning Lake Michigan to Lake Huron. They had the same high musical standards and wonderful camaraderie that the later tours did, but when the tours were expanded during Mel’s tenure to include some of the most significant venues in Western music history, they became, for many students, a life-changing experience. Places like Notre Dame in Paris; St. Mark’s in Venice, where the Gabrielis and Vivaldi created masterpieces of instrumental and vocal antiphonal music based on the unique architecture of the cathedral; St. Peter’s in Salzburg where Mozart conducted his uncompleted C Minor Mass and his wife Constanze sang the soprano part; the La Scala opera house in Milan; Antonio Stradivari’s workshop in Cremona and the nearby museum which houses some of his most magnificent violins. The students were able to visit or perform in these places because Mel had the vision and the persistence to make it happen.

Mel’s gifts of persuasion and persistence were also shown over and over in his teaching, his organizing of major events and bringing to campus world-renowned musical figures such as Howard Hanson and Sir David Willcocks.

I played in many of the concerts Mel conducted, with the college groups and also with the Jackson Symphony, of which I was a member. His rehearsals were always marked by an insistence on excellence with great attention to details, tempered by good humor and some of the world’s worst puns. Whether it was the great classics such as the Brahms or Mozart Requiem, a moving spiritual, a choreographed Shaker service or a light piece for fun, he demanded and usually received the best his performers could give. Like the athletic coach he once thought he would become, he knew how to challenge and encourage his players to perform at a higher level than they themselves believed possible.

His recruiting skills were legendary. It seemed as if he knew every public school music teacher in Michigan. Through his work at the National Music Camp at Interlochen, he also knew hundreds of students as well. On our recruiting trips together we would go into a school and almost immediately meet students he addressed by name. For Mel, this emphasis on personal contact and attention was not simply a line in the Albion College catalogue, but a guiding philosophy in his whole approach to music education. It also meant to the rest of the music faculty many long hours of poring over huge lists of prospective students and making countless phone calls to really get to know these young people, as well as letting them get to know us.

Personal attention was also evident in Mel’s mentoring and advising of his students on campus. His office often was occupied by a student or students who were looking for guidance or were simply sharing everyday events with a respected professor. There were also students in his office occasionally who were not there by choice and needed a different type of guidance. Mel knew how to use tough love when necessary. In many of these cases the result was a positive change in direction or growth in maturity for the student involved. Because of Mel’s background in music education, he was able to give the majors in this field invaluable assistance and, as a result, many of them are still in influential teaching positions throughout the country.

As a staff member or department chair, Mel helped create a congenial, respectful working environment. When the inevitable differences or disagreements came up, mostly minor, some major (musical pun intended – for you, Mel), they were settled in a professional manner which minimized or prevented any personal animosity. I consider myself lucky to have been part of such a department. Mel and JoAnn were gracious and generous hosts and we treasure the many gatherings of faculty and other guests that were held at their Brockway Place home.

Albion College was indeed fortunate to have Mel Larimer as part of its community and we were fortunate to have him as a friend. His legacy will continue through his family, friends, colleagues and the countless number of students whose lives were touched by him.