Music at Atlantic Union College

An Historical Overview

Dan Shultz


The oldest Adventist college still located at its original site, Atlantic Union College was founded in 1882, eight years after Battle Creek College (now Andrews University) in Michigan and a week after Healdsburg Academy (now Pacific Union College) in California. Named for the towns in which they were located, South Lancaster Academy (now AUC) and the school in California opened because of the difficulty in traveling from the coasts to Michigan.

Because Atlantic Union College, like other early SDA schools, was established for one purpose, the training of workers for the new church, music was viewed as incidental, useful only in so far as it could help spread the gospel. Even so, there were students, teachers, and principals from the beginning who had a larger vision for the role of music.

The third principal of the new school, Charles Ramsey, from the beginning of his leadership talked of the need to develop graduates who, in his words, would leave, "with consecrated and disciplined intellect and cultivated manners, to carry the truth to all classes, high and low, rich and poor." Unfortunately, while he was admired and loved by the students and teachers, his ideas were met with suspicion and a decreasing level of support from church leaders. As his third year ended, he vacated the principalship and left the church.1

Despite the disastrous outcome for Ramsey, he had set a direction that his successor, George Caviness, who was of the same mind, continued. Accordingly, starting in 1890, students were able to take music lessons in voice, piano, and organ.2 Music flourished and under the leadership of principal Frederick Griggs, who served for eight years from 1899 to 1907, an actual music department was established.3

Edna S. Farnsworth was chosen to head the music program when it was established in 1904. Only twenty years old and a recent music diploma graduate, she would provide a thread of musical continuity at the college for the next 33 years. Unassuming, and gentle, Farnsworth performed often, accompanied frequently, and taught large numbers of students in piano lessons and music classes, all the while being readily available as a friend of the students.4

From the beginning of the school, singers and vocal groups had played an integral role in worship and on high occasions. However, beginning in 1929 with the arrival of Harry Hadley Schyde, choral music would reach a level unmatched by any previous program. Schyde, a noted singer on NBC radio in New York City who had studied in Paris and Berlin, had presented a lyceum at AUC in May of that year. The school, impressed by his performance and outgoing personality, invited him to come and teach.

During the next six years he and his choirs performed frequently to great acclaim. With his deep resonant voice he was a popular soloist and was often featured on nearby Boston radio stations where he became known as "The Messenger of Cheer."5

In those early decades of the century there were also ad hoc orchestras and bands, led by a succession of students and faculty. These groups performed in occasional concerts and at events such as the school picnic in 1918, when the band played from one of the streetcars as the student body traveled to a nearby park. Three of the leaders of these groups, Donald Haynes, John J. Hafner, and Harvey Davies, would later become influential leaders in SDA music.6

This casual approach to instrumental ensembles changed in 1937 with the arrival of Hungarian-born violinist Bela Urbanowsky. A student of internationally noted teacher Eugene Ysaye in Belgium, he had played in Paris for famed composer Georges Enesco. The composer, impressed with his playing, invited Urbanowsky to return to make music with him. He did return and, while there, was recognized by the French government for his part in bringing good music to the public. It was shortly after this that he met and married his wife, an Adventist, adopting her church as his own.7

For the next nine years, he thrilled the campus with his virtuoso solos and work with the orchestra. His musical ability, coupled with a fluency in five languages, made him a favorite personality on campus. His engaging manner and performances in the surrounding area, like Schyde's earlier in the 1930s, significantly enhanced the school's image in the community.8

Located as it was in New England where the work progressed more slowly than in the South, Midwest, and West, enrollment at AUC has at times been smaller than at SDA colleges in these other regions. Accordingly, the progression in name from academy to junior college to college and to subsequent accreditation lagged behind that at some of the other Adventist schools.

In 1922, four years after declaring itself Lancaster Junior College, the school was renamed Atlantic Union College and began offering four years of college classes. While it received accreditation for a Bachelor of Religious Education degree in 1926, it would not be fully accredited until 1945.9 That status, coupled with the end of World War II and the influx of returning veterans, whose study was funded by the government, caused both the enrollment of the school and music participation to increase dramatically.

During and following the war years the music program had a succession of music teachers, including Lorne Jones, Alfred Walters, Astrid Wendth King, and Harold E. Mitzelfelt, who were there only briefly before leaving to serve in the war, continue their education, or accept other positions.10

One youthful teacher, however, Virginia-Gene Shankel, a violinist and pianist who had come in 1946 with King, would continue into the early years of the next decade. She married Harvey Rittenhouse while there, and then returned two decades later to establish and lead The New England Youth Ensemble.

Wilbur Schram, a musician with fifteen years of experience as a band and choir director, was hired in 1949 to teach in and chair the department. During his four-year tenure, an annual music festival for academies in the region, which had started in 1948, was strengthened and expanded.11 Also, during that time, Morris Taylor, an accomplished student pianist, completed his degree and then taught for two years before being drafted into military service.12

In 1953, the addition of two new teachers, Ellsworth F. Judy and Melvin West, set the stage for a new direction in music for the school. Both Judy and West, who had pursued graduate studies in excellent schools, were interested in establishing a rigorous music program with high standards. To that end, performance expectations were raised and opportunities for students to study with members of the Boston Symphony were made available.13 And, in the spring of 1954 when AUC was authorized to grant its first professional degree, a bachelor of science, a degree in music education was created, providing a practical option for music students.

Judy's work with the band was particularly noteworthy. His insistence on authentic performance of the best and latest in band repertoire set a benchmark for subsequent directors. It was a tradition continued by Lennart Olson, Rick Starnes, and Earl Rainey. Additionally, Judy established the first ongoing woodwind quintet at an Adventist college, a group that toured extensively.

Instrument resources were upgraded with the installation of a three-manual Moller pipe organ in 1956 in Machlan Auditorium, a 1000-seat performance facility with a large stage that had been completed in 1955. The need for a new instrument had become obvious given the artistry of West, the large number of students he attracted, and the availability of an adequate space. The students' success in raising funds for the instrument was rewarded with an extra day of vacation. The more successful fund-raisers gained free admission to a concert given on the instrument by organist Virgil Fox, well-known and flamboyant performer of that era.14

Yet other additions to school instruments came about in an unusual way. In 1955, the college band and a male quartet from nearby South Lancaster Academy appeared on Heartline, a popular television program. Both groups performed a number, and then selected members from the band were quizzed.

They all provided correct answers and won $500 for the group. A caller to the program donated a horn, and then the Ames Brothers, a well-known popular vocal group who performed later in the same show, contributed an oboe. All of this was witnessed with great excitement by the college students who watched the program on a rented television in Machlan Auditorium.15

The choral program, which had had most recently been directed by George Greer from 1952 to 1954 and Lyle Jewell for three years, was stabilized and revitalized with the arrival in 1957 of Norman J. Roy, a charismatic and gifted conductor. In his first year there, he established the Aoelians, a select choir that under his leadership in the next sixteen years created a tradition in choral excellence that lingers today as a legend at the school.16

Margarita Merriman, another important addition to the music faculty, came to the campus in 1959 from Eastman School of Music where she was completing a Ph.D. in music theory. While there, she had studied with composers who would become noted writers of the 20th century.

During the next four decades Merriman, superbly qualified as a theorist/composer and pianist, would teach, chair the department for six years, and serve as Honor Core Program Director for another six, all the while continuing to compose and play her cello in the orchestra. Additionally, her convictions about academic integrity insured the program's validity during the many changes that occurred in those years. Merriman's record in years of service in Adventist higher education AUC, both prior to and following official retirement, is matched only by that of Warren Becker and Paul Hamel at Andrews University and Alan Thrift at Avondale College in Australia.17

Throughout the 1950's and most of the 1960's, the enrollment and number of faculty increased at the college. Financial problems, however, began to surface as the 1970's approached. Additionally, racial tensions in the school escalated, in part due to the civil rights movement that had blossomed in the 1960's.

Both challenges led to adjustments in life on the campus and in budgeting as the 1970's began. Reductions and changes in faculty occurred which adversely affected all campus programs, including music.18

Jon Robertson's arrival in 1972 revitalized the music program. The first African-American to chair the department, he was an accomplished musician who was completing his doctorate at the Juilliard School of Music when he accepted the position. Although only at the college for a brief time, he proved to be a strong, creative, and charismatic chair.

He envisioned a sophisticated multi-faceted program that would require a distinctive and spacious facility, one larger than the small college administration building that had housed music for the past twenty years. As a condition for his coming he requested and got the Thayer Mansion, a nearby larger and historically famous building owned by the college.

With that accomplished, he set about to establish a comprehensive conservatory-style music program that would, along with the college program, include an extensive preparatory music program. He expanded the staff by hiring qualified musicians living in that culturally rich region. The refurbished mansion was renamed the Thayer Conservatory of Music.

Finally, in the fall of 1974, Robertson presented The Thayer Conservatory Orchestra to the public in an inaugural concert that stunned and excited the community and college. A large symphony orchestra, staffed with qualified students and musicians from the region, TCO under Robertson and his immediate successor, Mark Churchill, provided many memorable performances of major orchestral works in subsequent seasons.19

Another group, The New England Youth Ensemble, organized and conducted by Virginia -Gene Rittenhouse, was also briefly part of the Conservatory program. This widely traveled group would continue to be associated with AUC until the 1990's, when it relocated to Columbia Union College.

Robertson's initiatives and inspired leadership transformed the music program, creating an ongoing vibrant, interactive force in the region. His departure in 1976 created more than the usual amount of concern about the future of the music program and the orchestra.

While the worst fears about the orchestra were almost realized with its near collapse in 1983, it would continue under Frances Wada, newly appointed conductor. More recently, the AUC Chamber Orchestra provides an important orchestral performance outlet for the music students and others on the campus and in the community.20

After Robertson's departure, the college music program experienced times of uncertainty as leadership changes occurred at the college and in the department. Merriman became chair in 1979 and served until 1985. During her tenure she began the to prepare the program for possible membership in the National Association of Schools of Music.

Her successor, James Bingham, continued the process and in 1991 the department achieved accreditation with NASM, a distinction held by five other SDA music programs and only half of the college and university music schools and departments in the United States. Additionally, under Bingham's leadership, his choral groups and the New England Youth Ensemble, directed by Virginia-Gene Rittenhouse, began a program of national and international touring and performance in high profile venues, such as Carnegie hall, unmatched by any previous groups at AUC or at any other SDA college or university.

The last decade of the 20th century was an unsettling one for AUC. Declining enrollments, coupled with mounting debt, made the school's future uncertain. In spite of these problems, a small pipe organ was installed in 1992 in the college church, a structure built in the 1980's, and a major renovation of Thayer Hall, the facility in which music was housed was undertaken at the end of that decade. At a mandatory ten-year review of its program by NASM in 2001, the department successfully retained its accreditation. 

The first decade of the 21st century was troubling for the school, the president leaving in 2003 under a cloud, his administration accused of racial discrimination and financial mismanagement. The school was deeply in debt and enrollment was below that needed to support a meaningful program.  Despite million-dollar donations and valiant attempts on the part of two presidents with successful experience at two other SDA colleges, stability was uncertain and the school was placed on probation by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges in 2008.  Two years later AUC lost its accreditation. When an appeal in the following year failed, the school closed its doors on July 31, 2011, and laid off almost all of its 120 employees.

The ending of the music department with the closure of the school was a blow to the college and its music alumni.  If the success of a music program is validated by its graduates, however, AUC can be justifiably proud of its record. For over a century, many of its graduates and students have achieved fame as performers and recognition for their contributions at all levels of music education. Despite closure of the school in 2011, the Thayer Performing Arts Center  continues to offer music instruction for community students of all ages.  



1 Myron F. Whetje, And There was Light, Volume One, 1882-1928, The Atlantic Press,1982, 63-84.

2 Whetje, 85, 104.

3 Whetje, 148.

4 Whetje, 149, 156, 182, 228; The 1929 Lancastrian Yearbook; The Lancastrian, 27 October 1932, p.3; 8 February 1935, page 1; 15 May 1937, p.3. Farnsworth's reason for departure as stated in the last reference was to complete a music degree. It is probable, given the school's push for accreditation and the need to have teachers with degrees, that her "leave of absence" was unavoidable. She did not return. Following completion of her degree, La Sierra College hired her where she taught for another 22 years.

5 The Walla Walla College Collegeian, 21 October 1937; 10 October 1937; The Lancastrian, 25 October 1929, page1.

6 Whetje, 213; The Lancastrian, 24 January 1930, page 1; 30 September 1932, page 3; 5 May 1933, page 1; 21 December 1933, page 1; 26 January 1934, page 1; 24 September 1934, page 4; Personal Knowledge.

7 The Lancastrian, 4 March 1937, pages 1,2.

8 The Lancastrian, 29 April 1937, page 1; 6 May 1938, page 1; 17 February 1939, page 1; 17 November 1939, page 1; 2 February 1940, page 1.

9 Whetje, 201, 202, 217-219; The 1942 Minuteman, "Sixty Years of Service," an historical overview of AUC.

10 The Lancastrian, 8 April 1949, page 1; The 1947, 1948, 1949 Minuteman.

11 The Lancastrian, 8 April 1949, 22 April 1949, 7 May 1951

12 The Lancastrian, 11 December 1953, page 1.

13 Whetje, 241; The Lancastrian, 3 July 1953, Personal Knowledge.

14 The Lancastrian, 24 January 1956, 10 February 1956.

15 The Lancastrian, 8 May 1955, page 1.

16 The Lancastrian, 23 August 1957; Whetje, 243; IAMA Notes, Spg/Sum 1999, pages 8-13; Personal Knowledge.

17 Whetje, 251; Margarita Merriman Interviews, March 2003; Personal Knowledge.

18 Whetje, 248; Personal Knowledge.

19 Whetje, 251; The 1975 Minuteman; Adventist Heritage, Spring 1994, Yet With a Steady Beat, Blacks at AUC, Joan Francis, pages 31,32; Margarita Merriman Interviews, March 2003; Interview, Ellsworth F. Judy, 13 March 2003; Personal Knowledge.

20 IAMA Newsletters, Summer 1987, pages 29-33, reprinted from the Nashoba Valley Magazine, March/April 1987; Margarita Merriman Interviews, March 2003.


Myron F. Whetje, And There was Light, Volume 1, 1882-1928, the Atlantic Press 1982. The author also provided an overview for 1929 to 1982.

The Lancastrian, 1920s -1950s

Interviews with Margarita Merriman, March 2003

Personal Knowledge (I attended AUC from 1957 to 1961and graduated with a B.S. in music education in 1962).

Adventist Heritage, Spring 1994, a special issue focused on several aspects of Atlantic Union College's history (overall background, not a specific source for this overview).