Neville Ethelbert Ottley
1914 - 2010
Neville Ottley, a lyric tenor, was esteemed for his singing wherever he lived, becoming known as "The Sweet Singer of lsrael" in his native Trinidad and the Caribbean. He was also a skilled carpenter, mechanical engineer, mathematics teacher, and college administrator who positively affected the lives of many who knew him or heard him sing.
Neville was born in Trinidad, on May 17, 1914, the last of three children and younger of two sons of Joseph Ethelbert Ottley, a performer on numerous orchestral and folk string instruments, and Ethel Millicent Tait, a seamstress. Neville's father left home when Neville was very young, and he was raised by his maternal grandmother, Mary Connor, from age seven, when his mother died. He was orphaned at age eleven and a Mrs. Smith cared for him for a short time. But when some members of her family mistreated him, she worked with one of her friends, a Mr. Williams, a Seventh-day Adventist, to help Neville escape to his family in Port-of-Spain, who cared for him in his teenage years.
He had been christened as a baby and confirmed at age twelve in the Anglican church. Following his introduction to the SDA church, he was baptized at age seventeen. He began working while still a child, worked as a teenager at a sawmill, and then attended the Royal Institute for carpentry where he also studied mechanical engineering, and architecture. Following graduation, he taught at the Royal Victoria Institute in San Fernando, Trinidad.
As his voice had matured, Neville had become known for his singing and musical gifts, the latter an inherited legacy from the extended Ottley family on both his father's and mother's side. In 1943 he married Myra Eloise Grosvenor, a teacher and talented contralto he had met at age eleven when the children's choir she was in from the church at Port of Spain had sung at his church in San Fernando. With his gift for creativity and mastery of woodworking, Neville made all the furniture in their home.
In 1945 Neville enrolled at Emmanuel Missionary College, now Andrews University, in Berrien Springs, Michigan, where he paid his way by working as a full-time carpenter for the school. He was able to bring his wife and toddler daughter, Nevilla, to the U.S. in 1947. While at EMC he sang in the school's choral groups, as a soloist, and with his wife, who studied piano with Perry W. Beach.
While on campus, he also assisted with a pilot production of a children's radio program that became the Your Story Hour broadcast. Additionally, he successfully started a campus protest that led to the integration of black students and the end of discriminatory practices such as letting black students enter the cafeteria only through the back door. During this time the Ottleys had three children: Nevilla, born in Trinidad, and Marjory-Ann Geraldine and Myron Samuel, both born in the U.S. Beginning at this time, when they were living in a Quonset hut, and thereafter, the Ottleys would always have a piano in their home.
After Neville completed a B.A. in 1949, the family resided briefly in South Bend, Indiana, and Chicago until 1952, at which time they moved to California. Nevilla would later write about their years in California:
My father attended Loma Linda University and the University of California Riverside, studying physical therapy and taking voice lessons in the bel canto style from Frank Tavlioni. He presented a classical recital at the UCR to great reviews and also concertized up and down the West Coast, accompanied by Seventh-day Adventist pianists Darlene Franke or June Simms. He taped a solo recording with Chapel Records, but for some unknown reason, he kept the master, and it was never released as a record.
During that time, he and my mother served as Junior Sabbath School leaders in the K Street Church of San Bernardino, and he led the Children's Choir at the Riverside Emmanuel, now the Kansas Avenue, SDA Church. The children of the choir sang in three parts as did his own children, who became known as the Ottley Trio (beginning at ages 4, 5, 8 years old). During this time Neville and Myra's fourth child, Ruby Selma, was born. She joined the Ottley Trio several years later when her brother's voice changed.
Neville became affiliated with the Ace Drill Bushing Company as an industrial engineer, where he worked for over seven years. He was a member of and soloist with the company's choir, Ace Choral Ensemble, a group that frequently sang in area churches. He was also a frequent speaker and singer as a soloist and with his wife and four children in SDA churches.
In 1959, after seven invitations to teach at Caribbean Union College, now the University of the Southern Caribbean, the Ottleys returned with their family to the Caribbean. He initially taught mathematics, quickly proving his ability to help students understand the complexities of advanced math and directed the college choir. He then left to serve briefly as Sabbath School Secretary of the South Caribbean Conference and then returned to the college as Vice President for Finance, one of the top two positions in leadership at the school at that time. During his time in that position he improved the physical plant, in some instances designing the buildings that were added to the campus.
In addition to his singing and that of his family, Ottley became known for his worships and spiritual leadership, help for needy students, and support for and interest in students who, like himself, had come from deprived and parentless backgrounds. In his eight years at the school he gave freely of his time and talents and helped create a foundation for the successful university that exists today.
After leaving Trinidad in 1968, he taught for a year in St. Thomas and then the family returned to the U.S. in 1969, where they settled in Washington, D.C. He worked as a bio-statistician at the United Planning Organization until he retired in 1979. He also continued to sing and conduct choirs and was a member of the National Choral Society under Francisco de Araujo. He gave recitals and sang frequently in church and for special occasions into his late 70s, and his children and grandchildren would become widely known for their musical activity.
Nevilla later wrote about the role her father and mother played in the lives of her brother and sisters, their children, and numerous others:
My father continued to "teach" and play with the children whom my mother was raising as a day care provider till about 2000. She would observe, "What he did not receive as a child, he gave to the children, building a tree house for them in the yard, making sure they had swings." They showed the children how to plant and care for a vegetable garden. They planted "seeds" that will continue to grow into eternity.
He is remembered as a strict yet loving father. He was widely read, and had a very large library of religious, scientific, and story books, not comics by any chance, but books with a moral to the story or Bible stories, as well as dozens of musical records, sacred and classical.
He had a way of bringing to life all the lessons they were studying. If it was the stars they were learning for Pathfinders, he would take them and their neighborhood friends, the Franklins, out for a walk around the block where they would pick out the constellations for themselves. His "adopted" children throughout the decades knew that they could depend on him for assistance in a variety of things - advice on their own lives, on raising children, on financial planning, home repair, anything. He was literally Dad to dozens and dozens of people throughout his life.
He was part of a long line of musicians and singers. In his ancestry there are and were major musicians in the Ottley, Taitt and Connor lines from as far back as the 1600s. He sang for numberless weddings, often singing "The Wedding Prayer." We went to many musical performances in California and Trinidad, including those of the King’s Heralds quartet and Del Delker. He and my mother took me and my piano teacher, June Simms, and her oldest daughter, Karen, to hear the legendary contralto Marion Anderson sing and to hear the noted duo pianists Ferrante and Teicher.
My parents nurtured our talents, and all four of us and our children have served and continue to serve as singers, conductors of choirs, orchestras, and/or steel bands, and educators. They were most encouraging to me as I started a music school that has now served the Washington, D.C., community and abroad for almost four decades. All of us and our children and grandchildren are serving the Lord, like my father, and expect to see him when Jesus returns.
Neville's son Myron S., who has a Ph.D. in biology and works at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as a biologist and toxicologist, has been active as a choir director from his teenage years to the present. His most recent group is the MetroSingers, a well-known professional choir that has traveled extensively in the U.S. and abroad and has recorded three DVDs and three CDs and appeared on 3ABN.
Daughter Nevilla E. Ottley-Adjahoe has made music teaching her lifework. She began giving lessons in 1962 and eleven years later established the Ottley Music Studio, now known as the Ottley School of Music. ln the studio and school's nearly forty years of existence numerous students in the program have studied, graduated, and then become famous for their successes in music.
A 1971 B.Mus. graduate in piano at Andrews University, she subsequently completed an M.A. in organ and an M.Mus. in conducting at Catholic University in Washington, D.C. Her piano students have consistently been rated very highly in the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music and in the National Guild of Piano Teachers auditions and examinations. Many have now studied at or occupy positions at over a dozen well-known universities in the U.S. and the Caribbean.
Daughter Geraldine (Gerri) Caesar, a nurse, is a singer in the MetroSingers. She is also a cello pan player and an arranger and teacher, presently working with the Metropolitan Symphony Steel Orchestra ll. She was formerly a teacher of the OMS Steel Band.
The youngest daughter, Captain Ruby S. Anderson, USNR, a nurse, is a singer. All three of her children have been musically active.
Neville and Myra were residing in Hyattsville, Maryland, when he died on January 25, 2010 at age 95. She died the following year on December 5, 2011, at age 97.
Sources: Nevilla E. Ottley-Adjohoe, "…Then, My Heart Will Go On Singing: The Story of Neville E. Ottley," a manuscript forwarded to me by Nevilla in 2012. This was the primary source for this biography: Lael Caesar, "Songbirds and Pioneers, The Ottleys of Trinidad," Adventist World, NAD, May 2012, 38,39, a source for important details; Darlene Franke, Ace Drill Bushing, "Missionary-minded Music Lovers, Come," Pacific Union Recorder, June 8, 1949, 5; Ottley School of Music website; Family Music History, http://ottleymusic.org/about_new2.php?WEBYEP_DI=14; Andrews University, Alumni Today Directory, (Berrien Springs, MI, Publishing Concepts, Inc., 2018), 639; Social Security Death Index, 1935-2014 and 1935-2014, Ancestry.com.