Grace Maxson Wood McNabb Reith


Grace Reith played a pivotal role as a pioneer musician and music teacher in the Seventh-day Adventist church in the opening decades of the 20th century. A gifted child prodigy in voice and piano and later an acclaimed music student and performer, she had by the end of her life, become an accomplished performer who had inspired thousands and been an effective leader in the formative years of music education in the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
Grace was born in Walla Walla, Washington, on March 26, 1880, the eighth of nine children of James Franklin and Caroline (Carrie) Amelia Maxson Wood.  The Woods had settled in the Walla Walla Valley in 1859. While residing in San Francisco for nine months, beginning in autumn 1868, they joined the Seventh-day Adventist Church through the efforts of evangelists J. N. Loughborough and J. D. Bordeau. Upon their return to Walla Walla, they eagerly shared their beliefs and helped establish the first SDA church in the Pacific Northwest.
Carrie Wood was a highly regarded singer who had sung for two U.S. presidents and taught music in two schools in Walla Walla. When Walla Walla College opened its doors on December 7, 1891, she was its first music teacher, and her two youngest children, Grace and Edith, were in attendance.
Grace became known 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 in 1898, 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 Grace returned to the Northwest, she married D. C. McNabb on January 1, 2001.
She was invited to teach at WWC in 1902. Though only 22, her 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 1904-1905 school year started, she discovered that 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 the summer of 1907 as the school year ended, Wood married John Reith, who had completed his study at WWC a year earlier, on August 14. 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 college 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 and the first baccalaureate degree in music was awarded in 1916 to two students, not to be awarded again on a regular basis until 1935.
Reith left with her husband and their two daughters, Isabel and Caroline, for England in the summer of 1919 to prepare for mission service in Africa. To qualify 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. She agreed to do so and immediately left for the U.S., a trip remembered in later years with mixed feelings by her daughter Caroline:
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 and she taught at Stanborough College, later Newbold College, for two years while she studied at and graduated from both The Royal Academy of Music and The Royal College of Music in London, taking voice lessons 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 active in the area as both an accompanist and singer. As the 1947 camp meeting approached, she was asked to sing at the closing evening service on June 20. On that evening, however, the usual festive feelings of the ending of a week of visiting with friends and the final activities 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 her daughter Caroline:
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: Junkins-Coston Family Tree, Caroline Maxson Wood facts,; Doug Johnson, "Augusta Moorhouse: The Northwest’s First Adventist," North Pacific Union Gleaner, October 7, 1991, 6; Claude Thurston, 60 Years of Progress, The Anniversary History of Walla Walla College, (College Place, Washington, The College Press, 1951), 98, 103; Interviews with, and letters and other materials sent to me from Caroline Reith Eros (daughter) in April, July, August, and November 1990, on file with research materials associated with A Great Tradition, Music at Walla Walla College, 1892-1992. (Dan Shultz); Washington, Marriage Records, 1854-2013, January 1, 1901,; Walla Walla College Board Meeting Minutes, April 7, 1904. This and other later WWC board Meeting minutes are in the archives at Walla Walla University; Walla Walla College Board Meeting Minutes, November 7, 1904; Decree for Abandonment on file at the Spokane County Courthouse, April 1905; Based on listed salaries in Walla College Board Meetings for that school year; Washington, Marriage Records, 1854-2013,; Walla Walla College Board Meeting Minutes, January 12, 14, 15; Graduation program, North Pacific Union Gleaner, May 18, 1916 7, 8; Claude Thurston, 60 Years of Progress, 358, Alumni listings, Margaret Holden (382) and Estelle Kiehnoff (384), B.Mus. degrees, endnote 3; North Pacific Union Gleaner, May 19, 1921, 6; Helen Savage and Ruth Taylor, One Hundred Years of Newbold College 1902-2001, (Newbold College, Herald Graphics, 2001), 17, Teaching Staff/Faculty Listing for 1924-1926; W.I. Smith, "Music Department," North Pacific Union Gleaner, September 14, 1926, 3; Stanley Sadie, Editor, The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, (New York, Macmillan Publishers, 1980) Volume 7, 687; 1930 Mountain Ash, WWC yearbook; see also Eleanor Ball, "A Memory from Camp Meeting and Columbia Auditorium," The Pacific Union Gleaner, June 19, 1978, 15; "Death Claims Music Teacher," Walla Walla Union Bulletin, June 20, 1947; Obituary, Review and Herald, 27 November 27, 1947; Louise Kae Unruh, The Music Department of Walla Walla College, term paper for Literary Composition class under Thomas A. Little, May 25, 1943, also a source for Claude Thurston's book; WWC yearbooks, The Mountain Ash, and the school paper, The Collegian, during years in which she taught; scrapbooks created by Reith and her daughter, Caroline Reith Eros from 1856 to 1973.