Melvin A. Johnson
Melvin Johnson, now retired and living in College Place, Washington, has been involved with Adventist music for over sixty years. An accomplished musician capable of playing the violin, Viola, and cello as well as the clarinet, bassoon, and trombone, Johnson began his musical journey dreaming of being a good fiddler. Born into a musical family in Salem, Oregon, Johnson grew up on a farm in western Nebraska. Although he was fascinated with fiddling, his father and mother had other ideas, and at age 10 he began study on violin with a German violinist in a nearby town.
Johnson enrolled as a music major at Walla Walla College, now University, in 1941, where he studied until he was drafted into the army. Following his discharge two years later, he completed a B.A. in violin at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon, and an M.Mus. in music education at Columbia University. While at CU, he played in the Riverside Symphony, CU's professional orchestra. He was teaching at Broadview Academy in Illinois when he was offered a teaching position at WWC in 1951.
His first college orchestra program featured a 30-member group and attracted a record-breaking crowd. In addition to conducting the orchestra that first year, he also taught classes and 25 lessons at the college, directed the academy and grade school instrumental program, participated in the Walla Walla Symphony Orchestra, and presided over a music festival. He later talked about that experience:
I remember feeling totally exhausted at the end of that year. I stood for long periods of time since there were so many groups to conduct. I had 17 rehearsals each week. My assignment that first summer was to paint [a typical assignment for teachers in the summers at that time in Adventist education]. After that year I tuned pianos in the summer instead. I also tuned them during the school year, in addition to my teaching.
Johnson left WWC in 1955 to teach in the Seattle area. In 1958 he accepted a position at Union College, where he conducted the orchestra, taught music in the lower grades, and played in the Lincoln Symphony for the next eighteen years. While at UC, he began to have problems with his vision that made it difficult for him to teach. Subsequently, he returned to College Place, Washington, in 1982, where he quickly developed a thriving piano tuning business and served as WWC's official piano tuner. A sought-after tuner, he still continues to work occasionally on pianos.
Throughout his career, Johnson has played his violin or viola in orchestras. While a student at WWC in the 1940's, he played in both the school group and the WWSO. When he returned to WWC as a teacher and then again later as its piano tuner, he played with the WWSO. Finally, in 2003, because of increasing problems with his vision, he retired from the orchestra after playing for 32 years.
Through the years, Melvin and his wife, Pansy, provided opportunities in music for their three children, Roger, Melva Lou, and David. All of them play orchestral string instruments and have played in the WWSO. Additionally, Roger's wife, Dalene, presently continues to play in the orchestra and in the family string quartet.
Today, Johnson plays cello once a week for residents of a College Place nursing home and viola in the family string quartet. He has always had an interest in mechanical things and in his spare time likes to repair children's toys.
Sources: Interviews, 7 January 1991 and 2004; Articles in the Walla Walla College school paper, The Collegian, during his time as teacher at the college, 1951-1955; Personal Knowledge.