John Wesley Rhodes
1907 - 1997
J. Wesley Rhodes spent most of his career conducting choral groups in Adventist schools at both the academy and college level. During the 1940's and 1950's, he was regarded as an outstanding Adventist choir director and was the director of choice for all of the General Conference Sessions and Youth Congress mass choirs.
Rhodes was born in Mt. Pleasant, Iowa, youngest son of a 70-year-old Civil War veteran. After graduating from Oak Park Academy in Iowa, he attended Union College, where he pursued a diploma in music. While at UC, he met Elma Lee Fish, a talented pianist, who was completing a degree there. They both transferred to Emmanuel Missionary College, now Andrews University, where they married in 1929 and graduated in 1931.
Rhodes was hired as dean of boys and music teacher at Bethel Academy, where he taught until 1937, when he accepted a position at Battle Creek Academy. During the summers of 1930-1937, he served as a singing evangelist. In 1938, he accepted a position at Lodi Academy in California, where he served as boys’ dean and choir director. Rhodes became principal and choir director at Modesto Academy in 1940, staying 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.
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 the a cappella choir as a truly unaccompanied vocal ensemble. Throughout his years of college teaching, his wife sang in his choirs and, with her perfect pitch, provided pitches for a cappella choral numbers.
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 us.
While Rhodes was at PUC, he arranged “A Song of Heaven and Homeland” for choir. 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 the arrangement and then purchased and performed it. It remains a favorite number when PUC alumni gather today.
Rhodes 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 had 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 in Ontario, Canada. In 1963 he was invited to serve as chair of the graduate division at Walla Walla College, a position he filled until his retirement in 1969. While there, he also conducted a choir in the college church.
His daughter, Carolyn (Bisel), who had recently been doing graduate study in music at Columbia University, moved to WWC with them and taught voice in the music department for two years before leaving for more study and a distinguished career in music.
Following retirement, Rhodes moved to the Portland, Oregon - Vancouver, Washington, area, where he directed choirs in a number of churches. He finally fully retired and was living near Vancouver when he died from complications arising from a heart attack, five years after the death of his wife, Elma.
Sources: Information provided by Kenneth Rhodes, son; Lake Union Herald, 7 September 1927, 8; Golden Cords, 1927 Union College Yearbook, 24; North Pacific Union Gleaner; 11 March 1963, 8; personal knowledge.