George William Greer
1895 - 1967
George Andrew William Greer taught voice and conducted choirs in one academy and four Seventh-day Adventist colleges during his career. He was a musical pioneer who founded the first a cappella choir in Adventist schools, did the first extensive touring with his groups, and led the first Adventist choir to sing on radio and release records.
Greer was born on September 11, 1895, in Humboldt, California, the younger of two children born to George William and Isabella Smith Greer. He had a natural aptitude for mathematics and music and enjoyed piano practice and baseball as a child. He attended Lodi Academy, where he joined with three other students to form a male quartet, the first of several he would sing in over the next half-century. After a year at LA, he transferred to the academy at Pacific Union College.
Greer studied voice with college voice teacher Alexander A. Krasoff, former singer with the Metropolitan Opera, and then Ada M. Hartley (later Allen). He also studied woodworking, mechanical drawing, theology, and music theory beginning in the academy and continuing into his college years. Because of the blurred distinction in those days between academy and college classes, he never graduated from academy.
At age twenty, he met Hazel McElhaney, daughter of a dentist, who was preparing to teach elementary school. They married two years later. Although he was listed as a carpenter in the 1920 census, their home became a center of music activity as George organized quartets and glee clubs, which initially rehearsed in their living room. He also began teaching voice students in his home.
While Greer was by then enrolled as a theology major at Pacific Union College, he continued to study voice with Hartley, who was no longer teaching at the college but living nearby. At the beginning of his junior year at PUC, when the president informed him that he had to make a choice between taking lessons with Hartley or continuing at PUC, he dropped his classes at the college.
He continued to work with students from the college, singing in a quartet and directing a sixteen-member male chorus called the Sweet Sixteen. In the spring of 1921, he presented a highly successful program of spirituals with the male chorus at the college. Someone from the Pacific Press was present and invited Greer to bring his group to present the program in their auditorium.
The success of the concert at PP, which was heard by someone from Lodi Academy, led to an offer for the Greers to teach at that academy and its related elementary school. In the next five years he developed an outstanding choral program at LA. During this time, he also immersed himself in the writings of Ellen White and decided that he would no longer perform secular music with his choirs, a commitment he kept for the rest of his career.
At the beginning of his last year at Lodi, he was given a lighter load so that he could enroll at College of the Pacific to complete a degree in music. However, after three weeks he dropped his studies, fearful that continued study would alter his outlook and commitment to serve his God and the church. The only schooling he would have for the rest of his career were voice lessons and some short courses taken in two summers in later years.
In 1926, Greer, now thirty years old, was invited to return to PUC to teach voice and direct the choral program. He immediately formed a large oratorio chorus that provided the school's first performance of the Messiah in 1927.
More importantly, in his eleven years at PUC he formed an a cappella choir, a first in Adventist colleges, that became the premier ensemble at the college. The choir, with its refined and musical singing, quickly developed a reputation for excellence that led to widespread touring and performances on radio broadcasts. Even though he had not completed a music diploma or degree, the quality of his work led PUC to grant him a professorship.
Greer, at first a tenor and later a baritone, often referred to his voice lessons with Ada Hartley as the most important in his career. While teaching in California, he continued to study voice with Henry Pasmore at the University of California at Berkeley for seven years.
In 1937, Greer accepted a position at Washington Missionary College, now Washington Adventist University. He immediately established a fifty-member a cappella choir, and as he had done at PUC, formed an oratorio chorus and presented WMC's first performance of the Messiah.
Greer's a cappella choir became regionally famous for its singing in the next six years, performing in the capital's leading churches, and, on one occasion, singing at the annual lighting of the Christmas tree outside the White House. The group was acclaimed for its performances on national NBC radio and, in the summer of 1941, at the World's Fair in New York City.
While on the East Coast, Greer continued voice study in Washington, D.C., with Reinald Werrenrath, noted concert artist, and took additional voice lessons in a summer session at Westminster Choir School in New Jersey. He also attended a choral workshop conducted by F. Melius Christiansen, founder and conductor of the choir at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota, and a pioneer in a cappella choral singing in the U.S.
In 1943, the General Conference Radio Commission asked Greer to accept a position at the Voice of Prophecy radio program, which had become a national broadcast a year earlier, and was enjoying immense success. In that position, he would provide training for members of its music group, the King's Heralds quartet, and make changes in the music they were using. The church's trained musicians had urged the commission to make this move, feeling that the broadcast was not representative of the church because of the quartet's style of singing and use of too much gospel music.
Immediately as Greer arrived in California, he asked to meet with H.M.S. Richards, director of the program, wanting to reassure him that he would not make any changes without consulting with him. Richards questioned the need to make any changes, feeling that the broadcast's music needed to appeal to the average radio listener. Greer responded that the program's music might turn away musicians. Richards observed that most people were not musicians and that ordinary people liked what they were doing and were providing support for the program.
An intense conflict ensued in the next four years between Greer and the quartet and Richards, which never became personal but reflected vastly different ideas about what was appropriate sacred music. Greer found compromise unacceptable on what he regarded as serious issues. He also was uneasy when Richards and the quartet shared in whimsical teasing of one another and would laugh together.
Although Greer and Richards liked each other on a personal level and enjoyed traveling together, the relationship between Greer and the quartet steadily worsened despite efforts on both sides to make the arrangement work. Finally, in December 1946, three members of the quartet were released for not supporting and cooperating with Greer.
When Richards protested, the commission briefly entertained the idea of releasing him also. It was rumored that Greer's wife's uncle, General Conference President J.L. McElhaney, knowing of his nephew's hurt and frustration, had influenced the commission. It was an upsetting time for all parties and by 1947, when Greer had an opportunity to be choral director at Avondale College in Australia, he accepted the position.
In the next five years, Greer transformed choral music and the image of music at AC. He organized a large 70-member a cappella choir and then traveled extensively throughout the continent. The story of his remarkable success and experience in Australia appeared in The Youth's Instructor (the magazine for Adventist youth at that time) in March and April 1952.[i] By the time he left, the choir had gained national recognition for excellence and his accomplishments at AC were already legendary, a perception that widely persists to the present.
In 1952, Greer accepted a position at Atlantic Union College and taught there for two years before leaving when told by college president Lawrence M. Stump that he must also do secular music with his choir. He resided in Washington, D.C., area for the next two years, where he taught in the SDA Seminary for a summer, worked as an insurance salesman and cabinetmaker, and, before he and Hazel left, taught voice lessons and conducted a choir at the seminary.
In 1956, the Greers returned to PUC, where he worked until his retirement in 1960. Revered and highly respected by PUC students and faculty, Greer was given the title of professor emeritus at the time of his retirement. He was living in Lakeport, California, when he died on November 1, 1967, at the age of 72.
Sources: 1900, 1910, and 1920 U.S. Federal Census Records; Hazel McElhaney Greer and Norma R. Youngberg, 1974, Hymns at Heaven's Gate, Pacific Press, pgs. 10, 11, 16, 34, 36, 37, 44, 45-47, 54, 59, 63, 63, 139, 140; Hazel McElhaney Greer, The Youth's Instructor, 11, 18, 25 March and 8 April 1952; Walter C. Utt, A Mountain, a Pickax, a College, A History of Pacific Union College, 1968, pg. 66, 88, 89; "All Choral Work Under Full Steam Ahead, The Washington Missionary College Sligonian, 22 October 1937, pg. 1; October 22, 1937, pg.1; March 18, 1938, pg. 1; April 29, 1938, pg. 1; December 9, 1938, pg. 1; July 26, 1940; January 10, 1941, pg.1; April 4, 1941, December 18, 1942, pg. 1; LeRoy Summers, “Prof. G.W. Greer Recognized for Directing Choir,” April 16, 1943; Robert E. Edwards, H.M.S. Richards, Review and Herald Publishing, 1998, pgs.193-196, 198, 201-205; Milton Hook, Experiment on the Dora, Avondale Academic Press, 1998, pgs. 205-207; Louise Crosdale, History and Development of the Choral Tradition at AC and its Role, etc., Research Seminar in Music, 2003, pgs. 4-7; "Prof. G.W. Greer New Vocal Instructor," Atlantic Union College Lancastrian, 14 November 1952; Interviews, Ellsworth F. Judy, 13 March 2003 (music chair during Greer’s time at AUC; Wayne Hooper, 10, 14 February 2005; obituary, Adventist Review and Herald, 4 January 1968; Social Security Death Records, Ancestry .com.