John Wesley and Elma Leone (Lee) Fish Rhodes
1907 - 1997 1907- 1992
J. Wesley Rhodes, singer and conductor, spent most of his career conducting choral groups in Seventh-day Adventist schools at both the academy and college level, before serving in academic administration for five years at the end of his career. During the 1940's and 1950's, he was the director of choice for General Conference Sessions and Youth Congress mass choirs.
John Wesley Rhodes was born in Mt. Pleasant, Iowa, on March 25, 1907, the youngest son of Isaac Newton, a 70-year-old Civil War veteran, and Anna (Annie) Eudora Dingee Rhodes. After graduating from Oak Park Academy in Iowa, he attended Union College, where he pursued a degree in music. He was a member of the first a cappella choir at Union College and paid his way through college by directing music in the First Baptist Church and singing on the radio.
While at UC, he met Elma Lee Fish, a talented pianist, who had completed a music diploma in piano at UC in 1925 at age eighteen. Elma was a gifted musician who had been born in Sheridan, Wyoming, on June 30, 1907, the only child of Herman A. and Iva Lucy Leech Fish. When William Morey, director of the music program at UC, accepted a position at Emmanuel Missionary College in 1927, both J. Wesley and Elma travelled with him to EMC, where they married on September 10, 1929, and graduated in 1931.
Rhodes was hired as boys' dean and music teacher at Bethel Academy, later Wisconsin Academy, where both he and Elma taught music until 1937. From 1930 to 1937, they worked in evangelism with her accompanying and assisting as needed in the services. Following a year at Battle Creek Academy, they taught at Lodi Academy in California, where he served as choir director and boys' dean from 1938 to 1940. At that time, he became principal and choir director at Modesto Academy, staying there until 1943, when he accepted an offer to do the same at Fresno Academy. He left FA a year later to be choir director at Pacific Union College.
Elma, a skilled sight reader and teacher, had assisted her husband during their work at the four academies, where she not only accompanied soloists and his choirs, but taught piano. Her accompanying skills became legendary. When, in the early 1940's, a blind xylophone performer lost his regular accompanist because of an emergency, Rhodes filled in on short notice, having only one chance to rehearse with him on music she was literally sight-reading. A reviewer, unaware of the circumstance, praised both the performer and the accompanist.
She had also sung in her husband's choral groups, a practice that continued when he became choir director at Pacific Union College and later at Union College. At both colleges she became known as the "choir mom" and with her gift of perfect pitch provided the pitch for a cappella choral numbers.
Rhodes arrived at PUC at the beginning of Noah Paulin's final year. When Paulin, chair of the music department for many years and a living legend on that campus retired, Rhodes' presence in the department and direction of the choral program were stabilizing factors during a time of transition. In his eight years at PUC, Rhodes raised the level of performance in the vocal and choral area and established its a cappella choir as a truly unaccompanied vocal ensemble
He introduced the concept of mixed positions (intermingling voice parts within the choir rather than separating them into sections) and chose a sophisticated level of music. He introduced the choir to Russian liturgical music, which led to a memorable experience later recalled by his son, Kenneth, a baritone who sang for many years in his father's groups:
The Don Cossack Chorus came to PUC in the 1940's and presented a concert. It was inspiring to hear them, but what happened at a reception after the program became a vivid and lasting memory for my father and for others who were there that night. As we gathered afterwards, our choir sang a Russian liturgical work in Russian for them. They were surprised and obviously moved to hear music of their homeland being sung for them. They then joined with us and we sang several songs together in Russian. It was a deeply moving experience for all of
While Rhodes was at PUC, he arranged a song by Ira D. Sankey, "A Song of Heaven and Homeland," for choir with input from Elma. During one of their tours in Southern California, they sang the arrangement on the Voice of Prophecy radio broadcast. Many choir directors from across the country inquired about it and then purchased and performed it. It continues as a favorite number when PUC alumni gather today.
Rhodes had completed an M.Mus. at Northwestern University in 1947. Four years later, he left to chair the music department at Union College and conduct its choirs. During his nine years there he formed a select group named the Unionaires, which was an immediate success. The group continues today as the premiere choral group at UC, noted for its tradition in outstanding singing. Rhodes enjoyed serving as an administrator at various schools earlier in his career and more recently as chair of the music department at UC.
In 1964, having completed an Ed.D. degree at Columbia Teachers College in 1957, he accepted an offer to serve as academic dean at Oshawa College, a junior college then and a high school called Kingsway College now, located near Ontario, Canada. In 1963 he was invited to serve as chair of the graduate council at Walla Walla College, a position he filled until his retirement in 1969. While there, he also conducted a choir in the college church.
The Rhodeses had three children, Carolyn Jeanne, Harold Leverne, and Kenneth. Carolyn (Bisel) who had recently been doing graduate study in music at Columbia University, moved to WWC with them in 1969 and taught voice in the music department for two years, before leaving for more study and a distinguished career in music as a soloist and teacher at PUC and Andrews University before her death on February 27, 2005, at age 66 (see her biography at this website)..
Following retirement, the Rhodeses moved to the Portland, Oregon-Vancouver, Washington, area, where he directed choirs in several churches and she assisted on the organ when needed. He finally fully retired and they were living in Camas, Washington, near Vancouver, when Elma died on November 20, 1992, at age 85. J. Wesley died five years later, on December 10, 1997, at age 90.
Sources: Social Security Applications and claims Index, 1936-2007, Ancestry.com; Isaac Newton served as an officer (Sergeant and Lieutenant) in the Civil War from October 1861-November 1964 and was for a time a POW: U.S. Civil War Soldier Records and Profiles, 1861-1865, Ancestry.com; John Wesley Rhodes-Facts, Alexander Family Tree and 1910 U. S. Federal Census, both at Ancestry.com; "Rhodes Appointed Music Department Head," Northern Union Outlook, June 19, 1951, 3; Central Union Outlook, June 2, 1925, 3; Iva Fish obituary, North Pacific Union Gleaner, September 23, 1980, 23; and Elma Lee Fish Rhodes obituary, North Pacific Union Gleaner May 3, 1993, 34; Iowa State Department of Health, (Marriage License), September 10, 1929, Ancestry.com; "Rhodes Appointed Music Department Head," Northern Union Outlook, June 19, 1951, 3; The Lake Union Herald (1930-1937) has frequent references to their participation in evangelistic meetings, See June 19, 1951 issue, 5 and 6, for an example; "Lodi Academy," Pacific Union Recorder, June 22, 1938, 3; The Journal of True Education, June 1942, 31 and October 1943, 27; Kenneth Rhodes (Son) interview by Dan Shultz, following the death of his father in 1997; Personal Knowledge, I taught at Union College from 1968-1979; "In Brief," Central Union, Review and Herald, August 29, 1957, 25; Canadian Union Messenger, September 14, 1960, 298; "New Faculty," North Pacific Union Gleaner, March 11, 1963, 8; See Carolyn Rhodes Bisel Biography at this website; Washington, Death Index (J. Wesley), Ancestry.com.