Donald Evans Vollmer
Don Vollmer, a recently retired Seventh-day Adventist pastor in Southern California, is also an accomplished musician. He is more widely known as a member of the Wedgwood Trio, a male vocal and instrumental ensemble with an international reputation that has played a pivotal role in music in the Adventist church.
One of three children, Don was born during World War II in Takoma Park, Maryland, where his father was serving at the Army War College as a physician to the families of a group of noted Army officers that included Mark Clark, Jonathan Wainwright, and John J. McNair. Shortly after he was born, his father was sent to Europe to be the major in charge of an army hospital that cared for prisoners liberated from the Mathausen concentration camp in Germany. The family moved to North Carolina following the war, when Don was four.
Because his father, Donald Henry, and mother, Mary Louise Evans, as well as an aunt, Dorothy Evans Ackerman, a well-known Adventist singer in the South and a voice teacher at Southern Adventist University for over a quarter of a century, were musically talented he grew up surrounded by music. Even so, in his earlier years, he sang infrequently, although he played baritone horn.
Don attended Mt. Pisgah Academy in Asheville, North Carolina, where he met Jerry Hoyle, a transfer student from a high school, during his junior year. They became good friends and as classmates shared in some music activity. Following graduation in 1962, they spent a summer together selling religious books and holding an evangelistic meeting in a small community in North Carolina, before Vollmer left that fall to attend Atlantic Union College, and Hoyle attended Southern Missionary College, now Southern Adventist University.
When Vollmer learned that Hoyle and Bob Summerour, a casual acquaintance he had met during visits to a youth camp in prior summers, were going to spend the 1964-1965 school year at Newbold College in England, he decided at the last minute to join them. He secretly gained acceptance and arrived unannounced shortly after school started, surprising the two men and other friends.
The three men started to sing American folk music and arrangements of spirituals and other religious music to the delight of both students and faculty at the college. It was at this time that Vollmer, wanting to do more than just sing, took a crash course in playing the guitar from Summerour, a skilled guitarist.
By the end of the first semester, they had started to play off-campus, known as the Shady Grove Singers, the name taken from their opening song at concerts. They began playing at the New Gallery Center, an Adventist evangelistic venue in London, on a regular basis. One of the goals of the center was to present religion in a setting that would attract non-Adventist youth, a strategy facilitated by the trio with its folk music.
One of the programs presented by the center, a variety show called "The Best Saturday Night in Town," became a showplace where the trio, which would engage in humorous repartee and Southern style kidding between numbers, became a highlight. When the semester and their stay in England ended, they were given the "New Gallery Personality Award," an acknowledgement of the pivotal role they had played in the center's programs.
Before the end of the semester they traveled to France, where they worked with Gisela Willey, a visiting professor at Newbold, and her French-singing choir, to record music for use by the French Educational Ministry and the French Voice of Prophecy broadcast. They recorded some Appalachian folk music and also accompanied the choir with their instruments on some of its numbers.
The return to the U.S. would mean an end to the trio unless Vollmer, decided to transfer to SMC from AUC. Following a summer of extensive travel throughout Europe, all three enrolled at SMC, where they changed their name to The Wedgwood Trio. Having just come from England, where Wedgewood china connoted quality, they decided the name had a classy ring to it and would suggest high quality folk music.
Word of their success in England preceded them to the SMC campus, and when they played at the first college program of the year, a hootenanny, they were a hit with the students. By the beginning of the second semester, they were frequently playing off campus at numerous church functions and at events in other Adventist schools. When Hoyle graduated at the end of the year, he took a job at a school in nearby Chattanooga so that the trio could continue.
During the school year they had worked with Jim Hannum, a teacher at SMC, to produce their first record, My Lord, What a Morning. When the next school year started, the trio resumed singing, and began selling their record at concerts. The sales of the record and playing of it on religious music radio stations led to increased popularity and more requests to perform.
H.M.S. Richards, Jr., of the Voice of Prophecy broadcast, heard them perform while visiting on campus and approached them about singing at evangelistic meetings he was holding in Texas on behalf of the Voice of Prophecy. Their success in that and another series of meetings led Richards to invite them to join with him and Del Delker in the summer of 1967 during their tours to camp meetings on behalf of the VOP.
By the end of that summer, the Wedgwood Trio was nationally known in Adventist circles and hugely popular with young people. The reception accorded the group by older Adventists, however, was mixed.
The reaction was visceral, surfacing more than any other time during their travels with Richards and Delker that summer. After one introductory performance in an evening meeting at a Mid-western camp meeting, Richards was told the trio would not be allowed to perform at the youth meetings the next day.
This action, the most extreme that summer, was a blow to the trio as well as Delker and Richards. In spite of the criticism, both Richards and Delker later talked about how they had personally enjoyed working with the trio and the positive impact it had had on the young people that summer during their travels in thirteen states and two provinces in Canada.
Additional recordings were made which led to their acceptance into mainstream Adventist music. Bookings for performances had to be done six to nine months in advance, and they were performing in sellout concerts to enthusiastic and appreciative audiences in large and well-known venues such as the Pasadena Civic Auditorium in California.
By the summer of 1969, however, a decline in the size of audiences and a drop in record sales began. In mainstream music, edgier sounds in rock music and more sophisticated folk music were emerging as the new rage with young audiences.
With the approach of a new decade, Summerour and Hoyle felt the trio should experiment with and incorporate some of these newer trends into their performances. They wanted to add more rhythmic activity by using percussion instruments, using electric keyboards and amplified string instruments, and singing songs with more thought-provoking lyrics about challenging issues developing in the church and society.
Vollmer, however, became increasingly uneasy as these changes began to be implemented. For him, the new approach was a departure from what they had wanted to do as a group when they had started five years earlier. The newer music conveyed a message of anger and rebellion that stood in sharp contrast with the music of hope and affirmation they had been singing.
He was troubled over what he felt would be a compromise of his principles if he continued with the group and, after discussing his concerns with the other two, withdrew. It was a troubling development for the trio, the end of an experience that had created extremely close personal bonds and many satisfying memories.
After leaving the trio in 1969, Vollmer continued to teach Bible. He completed an M.Div. in the seminary at Andrews University and then taught at Greater Miami Academy in Florida. In 1982, after serving as a pastor in North Carolina, he accepted an invitation to work as a pastor/evangelist in Galway, Ireland. Working in this enchanting part of that country proved to be a wonderful experience for him and his family. In 1987 they returned to San Diego, California, where he was senior pastor at the El Cajon church.
In 1990, twenty-one years after the original trio had disbanded, Vollmer was contacted by Hoyle, who had become a psychologist, with a suggestion that they get together with Summerour and play for the fun of it. Although Vollmer was hesitant, they and their families met at Hoyle's home where, following a meal together, they tuned their instruments and began to sing. It was an emotional reunion that started with Down in the Valley and ended with Shall We gather at the River, the song they had used as the ending number at every concert they had given as the Wedgwood Trio.
Inspired by that informal reunion, they agreed that they would perform together again as the Wedgwood Trio, if invited to do so in the future. Two years passed before they received an invitation to play at a reunion concert for a convention of baby boomers in Long Beach, California.
After accepting the invitation, Vollmer began to worry that the other two might want to do some of the newer music that Wedgewood had done. His fear was allayed early on, though, when Summerour suggested they do only the “older music.” The positive reaction at the church proved to be a prelude to that afforded them at the convention, which ended in a standing ovation, a resounding affirmation of the role they had played in the lives of their audience in another age when both the trio and those in attendance had been young.
Still unsure about whether to continue and, if so, at what level, they accepted an invitation to perform during alumni weekend at Southern Adventist University. Because of the enthusiastic reception the trio received at this appearance, they made personal and financial commitments to continue as a trio.
By 1995, three years after that first reunion concert, they were giving up to 25 performances a year, many ending in standing ovations. They bought back the rights to their earlier records and, in February 1993, released a CD with highlights from recordings done from 1964 to 1969. The success of that collection led to a second CD featuring music done from 1970 to 1973. They have since recorded additional CDs, with sales of the collections and new releases totaling over 50,000 copies.
In 1995 Wedgwood traveled to Australia, where they sang in camp meetings and at Avondale College to enthusiastic audiences. Two of their more meaningful concerts abroad, however, were performed at alumni weekend at Newbold College in England in the summer of 1995. They took their families along and shared with them nostalgic visits to sites that had had meaning to them as young men in their early twenties.
A week before going to Newbold, they performed at the General Conference Session in the Netherlands. While three decades earlier they had been viewed with alarm by many in the Adventist church, they were now featured at the largest church gathering in history to that point and greeted with applause after their numbers.
In subsequent years, they have traveled and performed extensively. Dick Walker, a fiddler who has played with them since 1996, recently wrote about that experience, noting particularly the effect that Vollmer's singing has had on him:
I first heard Don sing the hymn Softly and Tenderly during one of my first concerts with them. To watch and hear him sing that hymn was for me a moment of great insight into the love of God, a moment I carry with me to this day.
The passage of years and the changes around them in society and the church as well as those that have occurred in each of their lives have forged lifelong friendships. Like the Voice of Prophecy broadcast and Faith for Today telecast, which pioneered new ways in which to do evangelism for those outside the church, the Wedgwood Trio was the first to show a way to reach and keep young people and members with differing tastes in the church.
Summerour recently commented about Vollmer's role in the commentary that occurred between numbers:
Our music was one thing, but our stage style was what really made our group successful. We were able to put people at ease with religious issues. Don was really good at this type of interaction. We had this rhythm where I played the rebellious one, he was the innocent, and Jerry was the peacemaker. These usually secular exchanges, when combined with the music, enabled us to connect with our audiences and enhance our spiritual message.
Sources: This biography is based primarily on interviews conducted by Marilyn Thomsen with members of the Wedgwood Trio, which were then edited and placed in context by her in Wedgwood: Their music, their journey, Pacific Press Publishing Association, 1996; conversations, interviews, and email exchanges with Vollmer, Summerour, Hoyle and in March 2009; and "Dick's Forum - No.13."