Sixty years ago, 21 Georgetown College students started a venture that shaped their future and was a campus fixture for many years to come.
Many may not have known what Wordmasters, a speech choir, even was when it started. But for many students who gathered for a reunion, the group was a chance to express themselves and their frustration on the turbulent social times of the 1960s.
The alumni performed some of their old pieces, told current students about Wordmasters, reminisced and honored their advisor, Dr. Edwina Hunter Snyder. Bill Farmer, president of the group in 1970, said when Wordmasters started, San Diego State was the only other choir in the country, and Georgetown’s group traveled the country performing in churches and schools, and several participated in a tour of Europe.
“It was oral presentations using light and dark voices,” said Maggie Mills, one of the reunion organizers and a member of the Class of 1969. “We memorized pieces, used movements, soloists recited their sections. It was a lot of poetry and prose and featured serious and fun works.”
Barry Lewis, Class of 1972, told the gathered students in the Georgetown College Lab Theatre that speech choir was a mix of “poetry slam, performance art and good theatre.
“It was a major part of campus from 1959 to 1976. About 200 students participated over the years, and those that are here this weekend are mostly from the middle years (late 60s),” he said.
At the Lab Theatre, the group performed many of their favorites, including works from T.S. Eliot like “The Hollow Men,” “The Old Woman,” “In Just Spring,” “Come Sweet Death” and other pieces.
But many of the members talked fondly of Dr. Snyder and how she influenced their lives by giving them a voice during Vietnam, Kent State and the political upheaval that marked the decade.
“Dr. Snyder and Wordmasters made language come alive,” said Roy Barber. “I’m a singer and speaking words this way really grabbed me. In the late 60s and early 70s, we did several pieces around the Civil Rights movement and anti-war pieces.”
Lewis said Dr. Snyder embraced the times to give the students a chance to express themselves. Several members said they would spend time before rehearsing about what poems mean in the times they were living in. After the Kent State incident where Ohio National Guardsmen fired on unarmed protesting students, killing four, several Wordmasters left Georgetown to participate in vigils and protests at the UK campus.
“Many of the works we did became the language of protest,” he said. “We were able to express ourselves in familiar works.”
Jim Applegate, who was in Wordmasters from 1970-72, said the group gave many students exposure to other lifestyles and cultures they likely had not seen before.
“This was a chance for me to learn empathy and accept and understand one another as people,” he said, adding that one particular experience that stood out for him was on a tour of the South.
“We did ‘Come Sweet Death’ and I was watching the audience in this deep South church and thinking, ‘I hope they let me come home with them after hearing this,’” he said, noting that on these tours students would stay with local church members. “But the thing that really jumped out at me, was that while we were going to people’s houses, the members of our group that were people of color had to go to a motel because of the rules and culture.”
Snyder’s daughter Wendi Jo recently moved back to Georgetown. Her mother passed away last year after evacuating their home because of the Santa Rosa wildfire. Wendi said they escaped and got to the Bay area, but her mom passed shortly thereafter.
“It has been a wonderful weekend. I don’t know if it was intentional, but her birthday was (April 4), so this is just an emotional day, but a happy day,” she said. “I grew up in the Theatre and knew all these people as a child. But this is why I came home…Georgetown is home.”
She said the influence her mom had on the students was no accident.
“I was raised to see no color and be inclusive,” she said. “I can remember her teaching to listen and absorb other opinions. She sowed the seeds of change.”
After leaving Georgetown, Dr. Snyder became a preacher and went all over the world, but she never stopped having time to talk to her former Georgetown students.
“The students were her life. She was very modest and never realized the impact she had on their lives,” Wendi Jo said.
Steve McClain can be reached at email@example.com.