Clarence William Dortch


An influential and noted Seventh-day Adventist choral director in the first half of the 20th century, Clarence W. Dortch taught at four Adventist colleges during his career. He was a beloved teacher, respected for both his musicianship and personal qualities.

Clarence was born in Springville, Tennessee, on June 15, 1894, the youngest of four sons of William Diggs and Mollie Lindsay Dortch. Following graduation from academy in Keene, Texas, in 1915, he pursued a music degree at Pacific Union College where he also taught piano part-time. In July of his first summer there, he arranged and sang in a mixed octet for Ellen White's funeral. She was one of his favorite writers.

Dortch married Lena Geneva Dake on March 12, 1918, and they would have three children, Jerita, Verne, and Corinne (Burns). He started his teaching career at Lodi Academy in 1918 but was drafted in that same year and served eight months in World War I, where he reached the rank of corporal. Following his discharge in 1919, he taught for a year at Gem State Academy and then returned to Pacific Union College to teach for six years (1920-1926). While there, he studied with noted voice teachers in the area.

Graduate training was taken at the American Conservatory in Chicago and he later graduated with a master’s degree from North Texas State University. He attended numerous workshops under Fred Waring, F. Melius Christiansen, and John Finley Williamson.

Dortch chaired the music department at Southwestern Junior College for sixteen years, from 1926 to 1942. Following this, he taught at Southern Missionary College for five years and then joined the faculty at Walla Walla College, now University, where he taught until his retirement in 1956.

Dortch was known to many of his students as "Fessor," an endearing term which started at Southern Missionary College. This followed him to WWC where he became known as the "Fessor of Professors."

Marvin Robertson, music department chair at Southern Adventist University for 33 years, worked closely with him while a student at Walla Walla College. At the time of Dortch’s death, he commented on that association:

Clarence Dortch was one of the most influential people in my life. What he was as a man came through in performance. He had been a red head when younger and noted for his terrible temper. He determined that this was not the way to behave as a Christian in rehearsals. As a result, he was kinder than he should have been at times. He often remarked he would rather err on the side of leniency than upset his God. I never saw him during four years in all his groups lose his temper. He was not always happy with us but he was always a Christian gentleman.

Dortch's achievements were recognized by a listing in Who's Who in America on two different occasions. Also, the yearbook was dedicated to him in his final year at Walla Walla College with the following tribute:

A slight Southern drawl and a cheery smile suggest the reason for his countless friends a man with enough patience and self-control to father fifty mischievous and restless students for a week on choir tour or patiently review a sacred selection until the most obstreperous member has learned his music ... . A man with music in his soul and artistry in his fingers, he is too busy with the "King's Business" to bother with secular music.

During the forty-odd years that he directed choirs, countless students were strengthened by his devotion to his Creator and his ability to make music meaningful.

When he retired, he returned to Keene, Texas, where he taught 25 private lessons for Southwestern for two years. He was the first teacher to be elected Emeritus Professor at that school. Dortch returned to Walla Walla College in 1981 and 1985 to attend reunions of his choir held during Alumni Weekend. Dozens of former students returned from across the nation just to sing once again under his direction.

The Dortches were living in Jefferson, Texas, when Lena died on October 28, 1983, at age 87. He was living in Longview, Texas, when he died on September 6, 1990, at age 96.


Sources: Interview with Marvin Robertson, 19 November 1990 and letter, 17 June 1991; The Chronicle of Southwestern Adventist College, Mary Ann Hadley, editor, 1994, 82, 83, 85, 90; Southwestern yearbook, Mizpah, 1938-1942; Interviews with Stanley Walker, July 1990 and October 1991; Dan Shultz, A Great Tradition, Music at Walla Walla College, 1892-1992, 93, 94,114-116; WWC yearbook, Mountain Ash, (dedication) 6.


A Tribute to Clarence Dortch

Pamela Maize Harris

September 9, 1990

Clarence William Dortch was born June 15, 1894 in Springville, Tennessee, the youngest of Mollie Lindsay and William Diggs Dortch’s four boys. He passed to his rest September 6, 1990, in Longview, Texas, at the age of 96 and was buried in Keene, Texas.

He leaves to mourn two children, Corinne Burns of Jefferson, Texas, and Verne Dortch of Calhoun, Georgia. His wife, Lena, and a daughter, Jerita, preceded him in death. Clarence Dortch had 13 grandchildren and 10 great grandchildren, the latest of whom was born Friday.

He cherished a childhood dream of teaching music. In 1912, Clarence Dortch enrolled in academy at Keene. A few days before school started, Clarence and another hardworking teenager were nailing shingles on the new two-story grade school building where Evans Hall now sits at Southwestern Adventist College. A block away, two new students - both girls - pushed through the turnstile entrance to the campus.

The two boys took notice. Clarence turned to the other fellow and said, "Do you see the taller brunette? She’s mine if I ever get her." It took him six years, but he married Lena Dake March 12, 1918, in Keene, Texas. They stayed married for 65 years.

Although no voice teachers taught at Keene when Clarence attended academy, he took lessons in the summer from teachers in Ft. Worth and Dallas. He decided to get some teaching experience during his last two years by renting a horse and buggy and driving two to three miles west of Keene to teach piano and reed organ lessons. He also organized a girls’ octet at school and dubbed them "Ye Southern Warblers."

After graduating from academy in 1915, Clarence pursued his degree at Pacific Union College in California, where he taught piano part-time. In July of his first summer there, Clarence arranged and sang in a mixed octet for Ellen White’s funeral. White was one of the founders of the Seventh-day Adventist church and one of Clarence Dortch’s favorite authors.

Clarence received his advanced training in the American Conservatory at Chicago, Illinois, and his master’s degree at North Texas State University. He studied under some of the great musicians of the day, and he enjoyed attending choral workshops under Fred Waring as well as St. Olaf Lutheran’s Melius Christiansen and Westminster Choir College’s John Finley Williamson.

His official teaching career began at Lodi Academy in California but was interrupted in 1918 by World War I, in which he served as a corporal. After his discharge in 1919, Clarence headed the music department at Gem State Academy in Idaho then returned to Pacific Union College from 1920-1926. He studied under noted teachers in San Francisco, Oakland, and Los Angeles during this time.

This is also where his first two children, Jerita and Verne, were born. Clarence headed the music department at Southwestern Junior College at Keene for 16 years. During this time his third and last child, Corinne, was born.

Clarence spent five years in the music department at Southern College in Tennessee and then joined the faculty at Walla Walla College, where he headed voice and choral group activities. While there, he was published in Who's Who in America for two years.

After nine years at Walla Walla and forty years of teaching, Professor Dortch retired to Keene where he and Mrs. Dortch moved into their petrified wood and rock cottage. Since the college needed help in the music department, he taught about 25 lessons per week for two years. Professor Dortch was the first teacher to be elected Emeritus Professor by the Board of Trustees of Southwestern Adventist College.

Professor Dortch was a beloved teacher. The endearing term of "Fessor" was started at Southern College in Tennessee. Five students followed “Fessor” to Walla Walla College where the title stuck and followed him the rest of his life. He loved it.

Just how highly he was esteemed can be illustrated best by tributes his students have given him:

You taught me more than how to play the organ; you set such a wonderful example of loving kindness, meekness and generosity of spirit and sharing your talent. When I think of the term ‘Christian gentleman and teacher,’ you automatically come to mind. Lucia Wilson in a Christmas letter

In 1981 and 1985 Professor Dortch attended reunions of his choir at Walla Walla College where dozens of former choir members returned from across the nation to sing again under their beloved “Fessor’s” direction.

"What a special treat to sing under your leadership again," wrote Ellen Dana. "I can hardly wait until heaven."

Bonnie Smith Oliver called choir her "favorite college memory," while Les and Anne McHan remembered “Fessor” and Mrs. Dortch as the "dearest, sweetest, and most loving Christian people" they had ever known.

Another wrote,

We’ve asked the Lord to build our mansion on the same street as yours so that distance will never separate us again. We’ve never forgotten the wonderful influence that you have had on our lives."

Dr. Jim McHan and his wife Carolyn have been especially close friends through the years. Jim spent several years as a student living in the Dortch home. Carolyn wrote about that experience in a recent birthday card:

Fessor, Jim saw such love and commitment in your home... and determined to follow your pattern. He has been a loving, energetic husband, taking the role of priest of the family seriously. For this I am grateful."

Fessor” had a kindness, a tolerance for a diversity of people, a special way of loving kids so completely that he reached them when nothing else could.

"Your life has been a wonderful example in helping us relate to problem people," another former student wrote.

Betty Lawson called “Fessor” "my spiritual dad."

And Abbie Remboldt wrote him:

Jesus said, "When you look at me, you see the Father." When I look at you (‘Fessor), I see Jesus. Your life and faith in me throughout the years has kept me going.

Betty McGinnis Wood wrote, "God has used your talents and training to inspire music that has blessed thousands."

Melvin Johnson remembered Professor Dortch’s dedication to church choral music:

Associating with you in the first Walla Walla College production of the Brahms Requiem was one of the inspirational periods in my early teaching experiences. We are grateful for your magnanimous and humble attitude to students and associates in the music activities wherever you have been.

Marilee Hayes Thomas remembered the "depth of feeling" ‘Fessor could draw from a group, although he was not a "moody musician."

Donna Leno remembered his patience and Dr. Marvin Robertson, now chair of the Music Department at Southern College, also spoke of that patience:

As a musician and choral director I tried to model my life on his interest and patience with students. He was a good musician, but he did a lot for people’s lives beyond his music. I never saw him lose control in a group. I wanted to emulate that model.

Patience is also a quality his son Verne recalls, "I don’t ever remember him raising his voice." And Verne should know. He sang in his father’s choirs - as did all the Dortch children. Corinne remembers that he always wanted to give any performance to the glory of God. And she said he was always generous with both his love and his time.

"He was very easy to care for in his older years," Corinne said. "He never complained, was even-tempered, and was a saint on earth."

Even though Clarence Dortch may have been a saint on earth, he was very human. His wife, Lena, liked to tell about the time his curiosity got the best of him one night when he was eavesdropping on Corinne as she returned from a date. She was engaged in quiet conversation (or whatever) on the porch. Clarence leaned forward in bed to catch the juicy morsels of conversation when Lena gave him a gentle shove promptly knocking him out of bed and onto the floor.

And he could be an absent-minded professor. He normally walked to school every day, but once he pulled the Dodge out of the garage, drove to school, parked the car, and taught classes. At the end of the day, he walked straight home leaving the lonely Dodge parked at school. Next time he went to the garage to get the car, he had to remember when he drove it last and where it was.

And ‘Fessor Dortch even became the victim of his own choir at church one time when before the sermon and after the main prayer he gave the choir their cue. They launched into the dismissal response and there wasn’t anything ‘Fessor could do but sing on and stifle a smile.

When Clarence Dortch wasn’t being a professor, he pursued hobbies of gardening and travel. In Collegedale he grew tomatos so large the vines had to be tended from a ladder next to the house, and farmers came from all around East Tennessee to see his monster tomatos. In Keene, he enjoyed growing vegetables and fruits - especially dewberries, blackberries, roses, and other pretty flowers.

Both Verne and Corinne remember family outings and many trips across the country. Four days before he died, Clarence Dortch told Verne he wished he could jump on the plane and fly with his pilot son.

He loved railroads, too, and especially enjoyed train trips in Colorado on the Silverton-Durango Railroad as well as the Texas State Railroad, where he asked at age ninety to ride in the locomotive with the engineer.

During the summers off from teaching, Professor Dortch painted and hung wallpaper. Verne remembers his amazement at watching his dad slap the paste, fold over the paper and fling it on the wall with it turning out perfectly.

Because ‘Fessor loved good music, the whole family attended concerts from the time the children were little. During their Keene years, when Verne was around 12, they’d have to drive all the way to Dallas and Ft. Worth for concerts. Verne would be asleep in the back seat by the time the family got home. As they drove in the driveway, his dad would say, "OK, Verne, the old cow’s got to be milked." And Verne would head sleepily to milk the cow. The Dortches had a cow for many years from which they enjoyed good milk and cream.

Professor Dortch was tenderhearted and couldn’t bear the thought of putting a family pet to sleep. And one of the hardest things he said he ever did in his life was to sing at his father’s funeral. He prayed for special strength and when he got up, stood by the casket, and sang, "Don’t You Love Your Daddy Now?" he was able to do the impossible, to sing it with a dry eye.

He loved the William Tell Overture, the book of Esther, baseball, truthfulness, honesty, following the weather, the music of composers Schubert and McDowell, his wife, children, and grandchildren.

He loved his students - he and Lena kept 30 in their home over the years.

His life was characterized by a selfless giving. He embodied what singer Marilyn Cotton describes as a great vocalist. Character is the talent - not the voice, Cotton says. A great singer has the ability to give, give, give. A selfish singer has a pinched voice and cannot sing publicly because singing is a body-action.

And that’s why Clarence Dortch is famous, because he was so giving. As Betty Lawson told him, "You have touched many lives and that’s a Real life. Fame is only that, and you are truly famous to everyone you’ve touched."

Two special honors which meant a great deal to him were having the Keene Seventh-day Adventist Church’s pipe organ named the Dortch Memorial Organ and having the Southwestern Adventist College choir rehearsal room named for him.

Professor Clarence W. Dortch’s legacy is an eternal one. As one of his students wrote to him: ". . . and the light was for all time - and the love was for all men."

Praise God for such a life.

Pamela Maize Harris is the daughter-in-law of Dortch's daughter Corinne Dortch Burns