Worthie Gem Lenore O'Brien Fitch

1934 -

Gem Fitch, pianist and organist, has spent her career as a teacher, soloist, accompanist, composer, and church musician. She has taught at three colleges, an academy, and two elementary schools and served as an organist at a number of churches.

Born in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, Gem was the youngest of seven daughters born to Anna F. and John M. O'Brien. Her gifts in music were apparent from an early age, and before she was a teenager, she was playing for church and evangelistic meetings. At age fifteen she was the pianist for the 1949 Canadian Youth Congress.

Gem prepared to be a concert pianist, taking lessons in Vancouver, British Columbia, where she studied piano with Phyllis Schuldt, organ with George Gibson, and theory with Cecelia McLean. She received the ARCT diploma in both performance and pedagogy from the University of Toronto's Royal Conservatory of Music of Toronto in 1957.

While living in this part of Canada, she competed in the Vancouver Music Festival, winning the Bach, Beethoven, Bartok and piano solo open competitions. She also received the Arthur Benjamin Silver Salver and Modern Music Trophy in that festival.

Gem taught music at Canadian Union College, now Canadian University College, from 1957 to 1972. During that time she continued piano study under Alexander Munn in Edmonton, Alberta.

In her first year at CUC, she met Victor Fitch, dean of men and math and physical education teacher. They married in the summer of 1958.

She served as an adjunct faculty member in piano at Walla Walla College, now University, from 1975 to 1982. While at WWC, Fitch also taught piano at nearby Whitman College, served as an organist at the College Place Adventist church, and was minister of music at the First Congregational Church in Walla Walla. She served as pianist and organist for the Walla Walla Symphony and was a soloist with the orchestra in 1978, when she performed Cesar Franck's Variations Symphoniques for Piano.

In her years at WWC, Fitch was active in the Washington Music Teachers Association. She was a featured soloist in a fundraising concert and, in 1982, performed at the banquet of the state convention. In addition to performing at this event and serving as an impromptu accompanist when another pianist became ill, she cared for numerous details related to that banquet.

Fitch is also a composer. The words for a hymn she wrote in 1982, Crowning Jewel of Creation, #385 in the 1985 Seventh-day Adventist Hymnal, were set to music by Wayne Hooper. When he read her submission for possible inclusion in the hymnal, Hooper, in his own words, was "immediately struck by the first line, comparing the beauty of Sabbath to the finest of the jewels that might adorn a monarch's crown."1

This collaborative effort was unique since Fitch has also composed a number of works on her own. One of these, a hymn tune, Port Whitby, was chosen for inclusion in a 1992 collection, 100 Years of Hope, honoring the centenary of Hope Publishing Company. A number of her original compositions are included in the North American Division of the SDA church's K-12 music curriculum, which was released in 1992. She served as a member of the committee from 1989 to 1992, when this curriculum was designed.

Fitch also composed a piano solo, Chinese Kites, which was one of 29 pieces written by Canadian composers, in a Diamond Jubilee Collection, published to honor the Canadian Confederation of Music Teachers Association at the time of its 75th anniversary. This work was subsequently selected as a test piece in the syllabus of the newly formed Conservatory Canada and was included in listings for the Royal Conservatory of Music.

Fitch wrote the Centennial Hymn for CUC's celebration of its 100th year in 2007. It is printed in its centennial book, The Hilltop Story. She has also written theme songs for various Adventist churches' anniversary celebrations and for youth gatherings.

The Fitches moved to Oshawa, Ontario, Canada, in 1982, where they lived for seven years. In those years, Gem gave piano lessons at Kingsway College, taught K-8 classroom music at College Park Elementary School, and was organist and choir director at St. John's Anglican Church in Port Whitby. Her Port Whitby hymn tune, mentioned earlier, was written during this time to celebrate the 140th anniversary of that community. She also wrote music for special programs at CPES.

In 1985, when Toronto hosted the International Bach Piano Competition, Fitch wrote a long and detailed review of the event which was printed in The Piano Quarterly, a prestigious professional journal with a worldwide circulation. In describing the competition, she used humor, including a reference to a contestant who had had a bad case of static cling but had prevailed over another whose memory had failed, observing that "a clinging slip wins over a memory slip every time!" A number of letters were sent to the editor praising the article for both its humor and detail, although one more conservative reader wrote to express her shock that such an article would be printed in a professional magazine of that caliber.

In 1989, they moved to Red Deer, Alberta, when Victor became educational superintendent for the church's Alberta Conference. Two years later, he became president of CUC, a position he held until his retirement in 1997, when he became part-time educational superintendent of the Manitoba Saskatchewan Conference. When he fully retired in 2008, the CUC board honored him with the title of President Emeritus of the university, a first in the school's history.

During these years, Gem gave piano lessons in her home, taught briefly at Red Deer church school, and also taught piano at CUC. She adjudicated for five years at piano festivals in Alberta before fully retiring as the 20th century ended.

Gem has been listed in a number of biographical volumes including the International Who's Who in Music and Musicians' Directory in 1990/91, the International Who's Who of Professional and Business Women in 1992, and others.


Sources: Information provided by Gem Fitch, 23 January and 7, 8, and 18 April 2008; Resume on file at Walla Walla University (1975); Wayne H. Hooper and Edward E. White, Companion to the Seventh-day Adventist Hymnal, 1988, Review and Herald Publishing Association, 393-94. Personal Knowledge.