Teacher, grads together in song

June 16, 1996|By Glenn McNatt

SIXTY YEARS ago Blanche Ford Bowlsbey became the first female teacher at the then all-male Baltimore City College, where she organized the school's first glee club and marshaled the boys' first productions of Broadway shows.

Fifty years ago Bowlsbey helped found the Alamedian Light Opera Co., a group of City College grads returned from World War II who wanted to keep making music under the baton of their beloved "Mrs. B." (The name Alamedians comes from the street City College sits on.)

Ten years ago, 150 of Bowlsbey's "boys," most of them then in their 60s, put together a reunion and surprise 80th-birthday party for their former music teacher.

"They flew in from all over the country to attend that tribute," recalls William Almquist, a retired businessman who took his first music class at City with Bowlsbey in 1938.

"That evening we all picnicked and reminisced with singing in her den," said Almquist. "Next thing you know, somebody said, 'Hey, we could put on another show.' "

Not only could they, they did. "So that began a series of 10 more shows," Almquist, now 76, remembered. "This year's will be the 10th anniversary of that reunion."

Bowlsbey, who turns 90 this year but seems nearly as spry as the day she left City College in 1959, will again wield the baton in a program of show tunes, hymns and choral classics.

Last week she was rehearsing her boys -- many of whom are grandfathers now -- at Govans Boundary United Methodist Church for the Quadruple Anniversary of Golden Days Gala concert June 23 at Westminster High School in Westminster. A flier announcing the event contains a tongue-in-cheek reference to Bowlsbey's "last" musical show.

"That's sort of a joke," Almquist says. "I don't think she's anywhere near being ready to stop yet."

And why should she? After 60 years of teaching thousands of Baltimore youngers, of directing musical theater, of being honored by illustrious alumni -- like Baltimore chief Circuit Court Judge Robert Hammerman, former Lt. Gov. Melvin Steinberg and former Gov. William Donald Schaefer, who presented her with a Governor's Citation -- and of seeing proteges like Spiro Malas and Johnny Mann go on to successful careers in the classical and pop-music worlds, Bowlsbey's nonstop activity has been a fountain of youth.

"I've always been enthusiastic about what I was doing," she says. "And if you're enthusiastic for something, it's contagious."

An accidental career

Bowlsbey became a professional musician almost by accident. Orphaned at a young age, she received piano lessons from a neighbor and later learned to play the pipe organ at church. To earn extra money she also played the organ on weekends in Baltimore's movie houses during the great age of silent films.

"I had played since I was a youngster," Bowlsbey recalls, "but by the time I was a sophomore in high school I was planning on taking the commercial course rather than the academic course because I thought the only way I could make a living was by becoming a secretary."

A visit in 1921 by then-state supervisor of music Thomas L. Gibson to Elkton High School, where Bowlsbey was a student, changed all that.

"Someone told him I could play the piano," Bowlsbey recalled, "so he came in and said would I play something. I said, 'Sure, what key do you want it in?' And he said, 'What key do you play it in?' I said, 'I can play it in any key you want,' because, you see, I didn't know that was considered unusual."

Gibson listened for a few minutes as the young pianist effortlessly transposed pieces from one key to the next. Then he asked her what she planned to do after high school.

"When I told him I was going to be a secretary, he said, 'Over my dead body -- you're going to be a musician!' And he arranged everything with my guardians and helped me get a scholarship. Originally he wanted me to go to Towson State University; I ended up attending Western Maryland College.

"The thing is, if he hadn't come along, I never would have become a music teacher," Bowlsbey mused. "I just would have stayed a small-town musician, playing in churches and things."

Bowlsbey earned a degree in French and history with a minor in music at Western Maryland College in 1927. But she never taught a day of French. She was an elementary-school music teacher until her marriage in 1929, when she quit working.

"I didn't plan to go back, except I was asked to help out occasionally when they needed a music teacher somewhere. But they kept calling me back, and what I thought would be only a few days turned into the next 39 years."

She was assigned to City College in 1935 and taught there for the next 24 years. She left the high school in 1959 to develop the music curriculum for Baltimore Junior College, now the Community College of Baltimore, then taught full time at the junior college until her retirement in 1969.

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