Thursday, June 28, 2012
Profile of Ralph E. Williams, choral composer
Ralph Williams holds the beloved family dog "Sandy" on the front portico of the family residence in Morris MN. We live on Northridge Drive. That's where the USDA Soils Laboratory is located. Ralph was an original faculty member of the University of Minnesota-Morris (UMM). This photo was taken days after his 96th birthday. The family includes wife Martha and son Brian. Martha ran the UMM post office for many years. Brian worked in the print media. The following profile info on Ralph was compiled by Liz Morrison in 2000. If you discovered this post because your church choir performed something by Ralph and you decided to Google his name, welcome! We think you'll find the following profile interesting. Thanks much to Liz for her efforts and talent.
I was born: June 19, 1916, in Glenwood, the youngest of five boys. I grew up in Glenwood, where my father was in the construction business.
My Norwegian roots: Both my parents were of Norwegian descent, and I have many close relatives in Norway. My mother emigrated from Norway in 1905. She was one of 12 children: four came to the United States; eight stayed in Norway, including her youngest sister, who was born after my mother came to America. They never met.
My education: I graduated from Glenwood High School and attended the University of Minnesota, where I received my degrees in music education.
Playing with Swifty: My father died of cancer when I was 16 years old, so I earned my way through college by playing trumpet in dance bands. During the school year, I played with Swifty Ellickson, a well-known Twin Cities band leader in the 1930s. At one of our dance jobs, Glenn Miller stopped by, and I had a chance to visit with him. His band was playing at the old Nicollet Hotel in Minneapolis.
Montana musician: During the summers, I worked in dance bands at hotels in Glacier Park, Montana. I played trumpet and doubled on saxophone, clarinet and violin. During dinner I played piano concerts.
I performed at Glacier for four years. In the summer of 1940, I led the band. We were Ralph Williams and his Campus Nighthawks. The reason we were the Campus Nighthawks was, I had bought some used music stands from another band leader, and the stands all had "CN" on them.
Trail guide, too: In addition to performing every night at Glacier Park, during the day I guided horseback trips in the Rocky Mountains. I had practically grown up on horseback.
Clothes make the man: The real Montana cowboys used to give me their castoff riding clothes and boots, so I really did look like a cowboy. Then every night, I would get all dressed up in a tuxedo. I didn't usually tell people I guided up the mountain that I was also in the orchestra, and vice versa.
The cost of an education: As a musician and trail guide at Glacier, I earned my train fare, room, board and $35 a month. Tuition at the University then was $21 a quarter. So I was able to earn all my tuition during the summers. In the winter I earned my room and board playing in bands and slinging hash. Some months, I even made a little extra.
Fighting the Glacier Park fire of 1936: In August, 1936, there was a large forest fire in the Many Glaciers area of the park.
About a week before the fire, I had taken a 20-mile hike along the Continental Divide, and had seen the smoke from a fire started by a lightning strike.
As the fire grew, it threatened the Many Glaciers Hotel, where I was performing. The day the fire came over the Divide, the hotel guests and women employees were evacuated in 15 red touring buses. The orchestra and other employees stayed behind to fight the fire.
That night, we were watching the fire, waiting for it to jump the Divide. About 11 p.m. the fire came down the mountain at 60 miles an hour, making its own tremendous wind, and flew across a small lake in front of the hotel. Bear and deer swam side-by-side across the lake, ahead of the fire.
Saving the hotel: The Many Glaciers Hotel, the largest in Glacier Park, is built of huge logs. Working with wet towels wrapped around our heads, we continuously soaked the hotel down with fire hoses and saved it.
But the fire destroyed many other buildings in the area, including the orchestra chalet, which burned to the ground. As soon as the fire had come over the mountain, we had taken our belongings out of the chalet and dumped them in a nearby spring. We retrieved them the next day, under several inches of ashes.
Walking through fire: At the height of the fire, the fire chief ordered three of us employees to jump on the running board of his Plymouth. We drove right through the fire at high speed to the hydroelectric plant, which had caught fire.
We slid down the river bank, through burning brush, jumped into the river, and managed to put the fire out at the plant. We stayed by the plant several hours; when we got back to the hotel, the others said they thought we had perished in the fire.
Awful beauty: That was the one time I thought my life was about to end. The sky was full of ashes and smoke and sparks. The wind from the fire was so strong, you could hardly stand up. Fire balls of burning branches kept flying through the air and bouncing off the hotel.
About 4 a.m., after the fire had passed by, I looked out into the night and saw thousands of stump fires flickering on the dark mountainside. It was a beautiful sight.
Eyewitness account: I have always enjoyed taking pictures, and I took photographs before and after the fire, and as the fire approached. I visited Glacier Park in the 1980s and mentioned to the management that I had helped fight the 1936 fire. They were pretty excited about that and asked me to write an account. I did so, and included the pictures I had taken. They are in the Federal Museum at Apgar, Montana.
Tokyo, November, 1945: In June of 1942, I joined the Navy and spent the next three years and eight months as a gunnery officer in the Pacific.
In November, 1945, my ship stopped in Japan for a day. I took the electric train into Tokyo. For 20 miles, between the port and the city, there were no houses standing. But there were thousands of tepees made of corrugated tin, with a column of smoke rising from each one.
I took a long walk through Tokyo in the dark. In every doorway, there were homeless families - mothers, fathers and children, sleeping in the entrances.
My occupation: I am a retired professor of music.
My first job was in Brainerd, as the high school choral director in 1941-42.
After the War, I finished my masters degree at the University of Minnesota, and became the choral director at the U of M School of Agriculture on the St. Paul campus.
Leading a distinguished chorus: In the 1950s, I directed the 120-voice Minneapolis Apollo Club Male Chorus. The music critics of the Minneapolis and St. Paul newspapers always gave us rave reviews. Of my first concert, on the 60th anniversary of the choir, critic John Sherman wrote that the chorus showed "the finest tone and technical mastery of its long career."
Recruited for UMM: In February, 1960, I was having lunch at the dining hall on the St. Paul campus when a young fellow shouted across the room: "Hey Ralph, I'd like to talk to you!" I thought he was a college student, he looked so young. It was Dean Briggs, and he wanted me to come out to Morris and teach music at UMM.
I was the only music faculty member the first year, 1960-61. My responsibility was to organize a choir and band. I decided on my own to organize a men's chorus and orchestra, too, I also gave vocal lessons and organized small instrumental and vocal groups.
Tapping local talent: The orchestra included string players from throughout western Minnesota. Daisy Hansen of Morris, a former member of the Duluth Symphony, was concert master. We also had two excellent pianists from Morris High School: Kay Joranger Carlson, who went on to become a member of the UMM music faculty; and LeeAnn Hruby Erickson.
There were 37 UMM students in the band, plus ten outstanding high school students from the area, including Jim "Doc" Carlson, who should need no introduction for anyone locally, as he joined the UMM faculty and established the Jazz Fest. There were also about 37 students in choir.
My work as a composer: I have 90 original choral compositions, some with band accompaniment, published by four music publishers, which have been performed by school, church and college choirs around the country.
When Dean Briggs hired me, one of the first things he said was, "Would you write a UMM Hymn?" I did, and for good measure, I also wrote a fight song. In this music, I tried to capture the spirit of the campus as well as the beauty of the area. The men's chorus performed at the Seattle and New York World's Fairs, paying for most of the expenses by selling copies of the songs and a men's chorus record.
I retired in 1978, spending all but one year of my career at the University of Minnesota.
Some of my interests: I used to race boats on Gull Lake. I also enjoyed hunting. We have been active with the Heart to Heart support group (I have had bypass surgery), the Sons of Norway (where we say "hats off" to Marilyn Syverson), the UMM Retirees Association, and the Good Sam motor home club.
My favorite food: Lefse and rommegrot.
Johnny and the milk bottles: When I was a boy, I had a pony named Johnny. He was a three-quarter size Indian pinto pony who had been trained as a racer. Put him up against another horse or a car and he would really take off.
I used to deliver milk to houses on Pelican Lake (near Glenwood) on my pony. I carried the milk in glass bottles in saddle bags. One day, on my milk run, Johnny and I were racing a car. I had the milk bottles in my saddlebags and we were racing like mad and all of a sudden, the milk bottles broke and milk exploded all over me and my horse, and they all had a good laugh in the car.
Thank you for reading. Any feedback, please email Brian Williams: firstname.lastname@example.org
- morris mn minnesota