Grace Maxson Wood McNabb Reith


When Grace McNabb was hired in 1902 to chair the music department at Walla Walla College, now University, she was twenty-four. Even though it was her first teaching position, she was ideally suited for the job. She was well known on the campus and in the community, being the daughter of WWC's first music teacher, Carrie Wood, a respected musician, who had sung for two U.S. presidents and been a pioneer in the Adventist work in the Northwest.

More than that, Grace had been somewhat of a prodigy as a teenager, widely hailed for her singing and pianoforte playing. Her accomplishments at nearby Whitman Conservatory of Music, then one of the leading music schools in the Northwest, were widely acclaimed. After she graduated from the conservatory with a major in pianoforte, she continued to take voice lessons for two more years and then traveled to San Francisco, under sponsorship of a local benefactor, to study opera. Her mother, however, became concerned about her daughter's growing interest in that genre and stopped her study after one year.

When Wood returned to the Northwest in 1901, she married D. C. McNabb. The invitation to teach at WWC was offered the following year. Her breadth of background and reputation led the college to pay whatever she wanted, which in her second year of teaching was $50 per month plus room and board. In April of that school year, she requested a salary increase to $75 for the next year.

The reaction of the board, recorded in its April 7, 1904, minutes, was "to call in the Faculty to see how they would feel about the Board's paying one teacher so much more than the other teachers." Even though the faculty naturally opposed the request and the school was in a precarious financial condition, the board relented, and three days later voted to pay the requested amount, a salary larger than that of the president of the college.

Shortly after the next school year began, McNabb discovered her husband had been previously married and had never divorced. She left him and offered to resign her position, but the board, after discussing the situation, declined her offer, unanimously voting that "she continue her work at the school." The following April she was officially granted a divorce on grounds of "abandonment" and resumed her maiden name.

Wood's unusually high salary continued into the next school year. As that year ended, however, Marion E. Cady, who was just completing his first year as the new college president, adjusted salaries so that in the coming year she would earn four dollars less than he was making.

in 1907 as the school year ended Wood marryied John Reith, who had completed his study at WWC a year earlier. She then left with him as he continued his preparation to be a physician. When they returned to the area five years later, she was asked again to chair the music department at the college. Although Reith initially demanded her former salary of $75 as a condition for returning, in the end she accepted $65, when the board satisfied other conditions she had listed.

She continued in that position for the next five years, a period of unusual growth for both the school and the department. During this time music became one of the first four-year college programs to be listed at WWC, the first baccalaureate degrees in music being awarded in 1916.

Reith left with her husband for England just after World War I to prepare for mission service. In order for him to practice medicine in British controlled Africa, he had to receive a medical certificate at a London school. At the end of their first year there, she received a frantic telegram from WWC wanting to know if she could return and run the music department for a year. Once again, she agreed to do so and immediately left for the U.S., a trip remembered in later years with mixed feelings by one of her children:

She took me and my sister and left by boat, travelling in third class, hoping to save the school some money. As a result we ended up at Ellis Island in a line with children who were sick and had whooping cough, waiting to be examined. It was terrible.

One of the officers heard mother talking to my sister, came over, and said, "You speak perfect English!" She told him she was born in Washington state near the Blue Mountains. He immediately sent us on to New York City. We then traveled by train to Walla Walla, where Mother taught for one year.

As the year ended, Reith returned with her daughters to England and then traveled to South Africa with her husband, where he served as a medical missionary in Cape Town. When they later returned to England, he worked in the Adventist hospital at Stanborough Park. During this time she studied at and graduated from both The Royal Academy of Music and The Royal College of Music in London, taking voice under Plunket Greene, noted Irish singer.

On their return to the Northwest in 1926, Reith again led out in music at WWC for two more years, before requesting part-time employment in 1928. Two years later she retired, a passage noted in the college yearbook by a tribute describing her as "a role model of grace, dignity, and refinement."

Much of the department's growth and the successes of its students for three decades can be attributed to Reith's influence. For almost half of those formative years in music at the college she had served as head of the department, providing stability and inspirational leadership.

For the next seventeen years, Reith would be heard in the area as both an accompanist and singer. As the 1947 camp meeting approached, she was asked to sing at the opening evening service. On that June evening, however, the usual festive feelings of reunion with friends and the beginning of another camp meeting on the WWC campus were displaced by shock for those attending, and grief for the Reith family. The events would remain a vivid memory for one of her daughters:

In those days about twenty ministers would file out on the platform as the meeting started. She was the last one to sing prior to the sermon, the special music for the evening. Keylor Noland was playing a violin obligato and Ruby Jemson was accompanying mother as she sang “Casting All Your Care Upon Jesus.”

I had heard her sing this many times before and knew exactly when she would soften or get louder. As she was singing this verse, she kept getting softer and softer. I thought, "This isn't right." She didn't like to use a microphone. She reached out and put her hand on it, and then stepped back. I thought, "She's thinking she is too close to the mike."

A second or two later she stiffened and fell backwards. My father, a physician, and I both knew that it was no faint. All of the ministers rushed forward, but no one caught her and she fell to the floor. We both rushed up, and Dad, who was grief-stricken, did what he could. He realized it was a stroke.

She was carried back to the house. I believe all the ministers on the platform, except the speaker, went to the house. She only lived forty minutes. She never regained consciousness and will be singing when the Lord resurrects her.

On another June day, 49 years earlier, Grace Reith had graduated with highest honors from the Whitman Conservatory of Music. Her musical contributions to the church and college in that half-century had more than fulfilled the promise of those acclaimed youthful gifts.


Sources: This biography was published in the winter/spring 2003 issue of IAMA's magazine Notes, and is based on information from several sources, as listed in the book A Great Tradition, Music at Walla Walla College, 1892-1992, Dan Shultz, 1992, pp. 14, 21, 22, 23, 32, 41, 54, 55, 58, 62; WWC yearbook Mountain Ash, years in which she taught; Interviews with and letters from Caroline Reith Eros (daughter) in April, July, August, and November 1990; Eulogy given by Ralph M. Wood for Caroline (Carrie) Maxson Wood, Reith's mother, on 8 February 1902; scrapbooks created by Reith and her daughter, Caroline Reith Eros from 1856 to 1973, on file in Great Tradition book research materials in the Walla Walla University library archives. When research for the book was done, several versions of the  circumstances of Reith’s death were encountered.  The daughter’s was the most credible; “Death Claims Music Teacher,” Walla Walla Union Bulletin, 20 June 1947; Eleanor Ball, “A Memory from Camp Meeting and Columbia Auditorium,” The Pacific Union Gleaner, 19 June 1978; Obituary, Review and Herald, 27 November 1947.