Former students sing Mrs. B's praises


Centenarian Blanche Bowlsbey's passion for music was infectious

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Family and friends, many of them former students, gathered Sunday at Copper Ridge in Sykesville to honor Blanche Bowlsbey, who was crossing over into centenary status two days later.

They nibbled hors d'oeuvres and enjoyed slices of birthday cake with buttercream icing. The cake was decorated with a message that said what was on everyone's mind and in their hearts: "Happy Birthday, Blanche."

And because Bowlsbey had spent her professional life teaching music at City College and later at the old Baltimore Junior College, music performed by a number of her graying students, many now in their 60s, 70s and 80s but forever young at heart and in spirit, was also part of the afternoon fete and soon filled the party room.

"One of the things we did was break out into song and a lady from the office came out and said she hadn't heard such good singing in a very, very long time. And we said that's because we were trained by Ma Bowlsbey," said William E. Almquist, who began studying with Bowlsbey at City College in 1938. "Ma was strict. She wanted you to learn and understand what she was saying and teaching."

In addition to her classroom work, Bowlsbey, who was also called "Mrs. B," directed City's annual musical, established a mini-symphony orchestra, a junior orchestra, a string quartet and the glee club, and was always on the hunt for new talent to carry out these musical enterprises.

Albert Hall remembers his teacher well. "The football coach told me to try out for the team because I was big and he needed another lineman. I had been studying with Mrs. B, and one day during practice, she barged onto the field and went right up to the coach and told him, `This is one singer you can't have. He's the Glee Club soloist,' and she led me off the field."

Hall, who became a professional opera singer and then a choirmaster at a Roman Catholic church in Las Vegas, recently moved back to Baltimore.

"I was a good Irish tenor but would never have been in opera had it not been for her. She was an excellent teacher and always cared so personally about `her kids.' To this day, she still calls us `her kids,'" he said.

Hall also credits Bowlsbey with arranging for him to go to Peabody Prep to study music.

"I was just a kid from Northeast Baltimore, the son of a blue-collar plumber," he said.

It has been estimated that during her 24-year career at City, Bowlsbey taught some 20,000 students -- among them, Maryland Comptroller William Donald Schaefer, former Lt. Gov. Melvin Steinberg and Johnny Mann, founder of the Johnny Mann Singers.

"She was a fine lady, and I remember so well that you didn't play around in her class. There was discipline there, and when she came into the room she wanted our hats off -- we all wore hats in those days -- and our feet off the tables," said Schaefer, a member of the City College Class of 1939.

"And then she'd come down the aisle, stand by my desk, and then I would stand up. And while she banged away on the piano, I'd howl," he said.

In 1959, she left City College when she was hired to develop the music curriculum at Baltimore Junior College -- now Baltimore City Community College -- and continued teaching there until retiring in 1969.

"She meant everything to me, and at that time there was something inside of me that made me want to be a singer," said Spiro Malas, the Baltimore-born and -raised Metropolitan Opera star, who was then a freshman at the college. "So, I went into her classroom one day, and she said, `Sing something for me,' so I started singing, `Oh, give me a home where the buffalo roam.'"

Malas, who made his professional debut with the Baltimore Opera Company, has performed on Broadway and made his Metropolitan Opera debut singing with the legendary Joan Sutherland.

"It was Mrs. B who made me a success. She was such a big person in my life and I think of her often," said Malas, who was unable to attend the party, but said he planned to call her and sing "Happy Birthday," over the phone.

In addition to her teaching, Bowlsbey was a co-founder of the Alamedian Light Opera Co. in 1946 with City College drama coach Clarence DeHaven, and for the next 14 years directed productions of The Vagabond King, Naughty Marietta, The Desert Song and other classic operettas.

Many of her former students, just returned from service in World War II, joined the company that was named for the street where City College stands, to perform in its twice-yearly productions of operettas.

Judy Torme was a student in the 1940s at Eastern High School, and like the rest of the students there, went to City for music classes, which meant studying with Bowlsbey.

Torme performed with the Alamedians and later became a fixture in the pioneering days of Baltimore television when she was the regular singer on WBAL's The Brent Gunts Show, a daily variety show.

Torme, who was reunited with Hall at a City College reunion concert several years ago, now tours with him, giving performances at area retirement communities and nursing homes.

"It's quite unusual that so many are still faithful to their high school music teacher, but that's how we feel about her," Torme said.

Another Eastern student was Marion E. Almquist, who still visits her old teacher twice a week.

"It was her love of music and her drive that instilled a love of music in anyone who came to her class. She also taught her students how to listen to an opera or a symphony," Almquist said.

"She was orphaned early and was reared by an aunt in Elkton. She took a fancy to the piano and took lessons, and by the time she was 12, was a church organist," said her son, Leonard S. "Stan" Bowlsbey Jr., retired dean of the graduate school at McDaniel College.

In a 1996 article in The Sun, Bowlsbey explained her success in getting students interested in music.

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

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