A Musical Reunion
A photo from 1960 shows then Choir Director Eugene M. Riddle as he leads Whittier’s A Cappella Choir in song. Although we cannot hear the vocals spilling from students’ diaphragms, there is a visual harmony in their confident posture, perfectly-pleated robes, and graceful faces.
Fourth row, fifth singer from the left, stands Stephen Gothold, who is a sophomore at the time. He will go on to graduate from Whittier in 1963 and earn a Ph.D. in music from USC just five years later.
Surrounded by music growing up, a career in the field only seemed destined for Gothold. “I came from a musical family. We sang at home and I had a couple of uncles who were professional musicians. After I stopped wanting to be a cowboy, I just wanted to be a musician,” he joked.
Aside from choir, Gothold also studied piano at Whittier. “I was with a very inspiring group of people, there were about 30 of us, and we were in the music building 20 hours a day. Riddle was a big influence on me, but Margaretha Lohmann, who taught piano and was the chair of the music department, was a huge influence on me.”
When Gothold learned that the College was looking for a new choir director, he threw his hat into the race. He admits he was "dying” to take over - and, while it took a little longer than he would have preferred, Whittier hired him for the job.
Gothold would go on to reign as choir director at Whittier for more than three decades, instilling his passion for music into the lives of what he estimates to be nearly 700 students. Although he retired from the College in 2003, he still directs the City of Whittier’s community masterworks ensemble, Chorale Bel Canto, comprised of local residents and Whittier faculty, staff, and students. He also continues to keep close ties with the College as a regular at its Whittier Weekend festivities.
Whittier Weekend 2013, however, carried a different note.
Knowing Gothold would be returning to the Poet campus to celebrate his 50th reunion, choir alums Alicia Fowler Blalock ’87 and Randall Davidson ’88 saw it as their opportunity to round up other former choir members to sing a few songs with their beloved maestro.
“We believed that if we arranged [the choir reunion] and got the word out, choir people of all ages would want to come and make music together. Anyone who knows Gothold and has been part of any musical group under his direction would not want to miss the opportunity,” said Blalock.
And so the hunt began. With the help of Whittier’s Office of Alumni Relations, Blalock and Davidson reached out to 500 choir graduates, from 1955 through 2012, and launched a Facebook page where followers could share photos and memories and vote for what songs to sing at their reunion, everything from old madrigals to Bach to Gilbert and Sullivan operettas.
“Reaching out had a double effect of sparking communication between old choir mates, friends, and professors, and making new friends. It was special to meet other Poets and share cross-decade musical experiences,” said Davidson. “This is a magic of Whittier College: to share a common experience in a rather intimate place.”
Through his and Fowler’s efforts, nearly 80 choir alumni made their pilgrimage to Whittier Weekend, their vocal chords all at the ready for Gothold.
Finally, the day arrived. Gothold walked to his post, front and center. It was showtime.
The group warmed up with a rendition of "Heads, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes," and followed with "The Wassail Song" and "So Glad."
Gothold was later presented with a special plaque for his years of service to generations of Whittier choir members.
"I was really touched and I had a great time," said Gothold. "I thought they sounded beautiful.”
That afternoon, Gothold provided his students with one more great choir memory to keep in their liner notes. The experience also reinforced for them something Gothold had taught long ago: music, at its best, is when it's shared.
“Choir was my society,” reminisced Fowler. “It was the place I belonged, and choir people were my people for four years. Most of my favorite memories from Whittier involve my choir mates and tours and rehearsals.”
“I find singing in a group to be one of the most relaxing escapes from the daily grind that I know," added Davidson. "Every year, twice a year, I fly to China [on business] to meet factories and discuss business. In the evenings, we have dinner and we sing Karaoke. There is an incredible understanding that can pass between people when they enjoy singing together. The gift of song is one of the aces up my sleeve.”
Above: Randall Davidson ’88, Stephen Gothold `63 and Alicia Fowler Blalock ’87.