Alice Olivia Jones Strawbridge
Alice Strawbridge taught music for nearly thirty years in two Seventh-day Adventist schools. Even without extensive formal college-level musical training, she was a honored at the time of her retirement in 2012 as an influential, inspiring, and effective music teacher.
Alice was born in Detroit, Michigan, the seventh of nine children of Gilbert Emmanuel and Lu-Alma Clarke Jones. Although she and her siblings were given piano lessons by their mother from their earliest years, Alice was the only one with an interest in pursuing music seriously, inspired by her mother’s piano playing:
My mother was very shy about playing in front of people, often playing after we children had gone upstairs to bed. I remember very quietly leaving my bedroom and going down a few stairs to watch her play through the bannister. She played so beautifully. If by chance I made a sound, she would immediately stop.
Alice had a natural affinity for the instrument and studied with two more teachers after her mother felt she could no longer help her daughter. By age fourteen she had mastered Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1, op. 23.
Following graduation from high school, Alice wanted to attend the Juilliard School of Music and become a concert pianist, but lack of money and existing racial barriers at that time prevented her realizing that dream. She lived in a depressed area of the city and took the only work she could find, which was serving as a domestic, cleaning homes.
At age 27 she married Arthur Virgil Strawbridge II. They would have a daughter, Sherry Delours, and a son, Arthur Virgil Strawbridge III. She was a devoted mother who gave them piano lessons and encouraged them as her son pursued his interest in mastering wind instruments and her daughter the violin. Both were also singers and active in music through their high school years.
She and her husband both fully supported their children as they attended academy and completed college degrees, making financial sacrifices to do so. After they had completed college, she took some music classes at Wayne State University.
In the 1980s, her husband, who worked as a custodian at the Seventh-day Adventist Davison Elementary School in Detroit, mentioned to the principal that his wife played the piano. She expressed interest in having Alice possibly teaching music to their students, talked with her, and offered her a position. For the next three years she taught the children not only how to sing songs but about theory as well, wanting them to understand what they were doing and why.
When her son was hired to teach physical education at Peterson-Warren Academy in nearby Inkster in 1987, he suggested they consider hiring his mother to teach since they were looking for a music teacher. Although approached by the principal to teach there, she declined several times, in part feeling she was not good enough to teach music to students at the K-12 level. Her husband urged her to accept the invitation, reminding her of the important role music had played in her life. She recalls,
I got down on my knees and prayed about it, asking the Lord to show me a sign. I didn’t have a car other than an old raggedy station wagon and needed something more reliable to be able to commute to the school. I went to a Ford dealer and picked out a brand new car and he said, “Now what do you have for a down payment?” I said, “All I have is my old car.” After he had looked at it he told me, “All I can give you is fifty dollars for it as a down payment.” I said, “OK, I will tell what I will do, I will keep my old car and give you a fifty dollar check.” I was able to sell my old car later for $200. The way this worked out I took as a sign that I should teach at the academy.
She prayed for help as she faced the challenge of teaching older students, and in the next quarter of a century, she developed and led a highly praised multi-faceted program in which numerous students who were unaware of their musical potential became skilled players and singers.
When during those years Strawbridge proposed to create a band program at the academy, she was turned down by the principal because they didn’t have instruments. When a change in leadership happened, she was given permission to start a band. She worked closely with a music store that helped the school and her students buy the needed instruments and succeeded in eventually establishing a band of sixty members. She would personally buy three or four instruments each year and then donate them to the school:
I wanted to get a baritone sax, so I went into the music store and told them what I wanted, and they said, “How much money are you going to put down on it?” I said, “I don’t have any.” The owner said, “You come in to my store and you are asking me to take this out of here and you don’t have any money to put down?” “No sir,” I said, “but in six weeks I’ll have it paid for.” “Well,” he said, “we’ve never done this before, but we will do this for you since you have such an honest looking face.” And it was paid for in six weeks.
She developed a three-tiered band program, starting with students in the first and second grade, which she called the Blue Bird Band. These then became the feeder for her elementary band, which in turn provided students for the high school band.
Strawbridge also gave piano lessons at the academy. She would arrive at the school by 7:30 in the morning and teach non-stop through the lunch hour, finally leaving for home as late as six in the evening. She rarely missed a day and even when she fell and broke her ankle during an ice storm, she continued to teach every day. Her son drove her to school and then placed her in a wheelchair from which she taught all of her classes and lessons.
She became known as a firm, yet caring teacher who motivated her students to excel in music and guided them as they made critical personal decisions. Strawbridge was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters by First Baptist College and Seminary in 1996 and at the time of her retirement in 2012 was recognized by the academy for her service, the quality of her work, and the influence she had had in her students’ lives.
Strawbridge also worked tirelessly as a pianist and choir director at the Burnside Avenue Seventh-day Adventist Church in Detroit for twenty years. She conducted a ladies’ chorus at the church which presented concerts on the campus of Wayne State University on several occasions.
She also directed a youth choir at the church which rehearsed on Friday nights. The students would bring food and after a supper, they would rehearse until candlelight vespers. Some of the students would then go to her home afterwards, where they would study the Bible and discuss different issues. Several of those students became ministers and leaders in the church.
Sources: Interview, September 2012; Oliver Page, communications leader, Burns Avenue SDA Church, “Dedicated teacher receives special recognition,” Lake Union Herald, September 2012, 27; Lake Union Herald, 2 November 1971, 9.