Monday, October 24, 2011

Until We Sing Again

Last night at 9:32 PM, a great man and a dear friend died. His name is Clem Boatright -- and he is one-in-a-million.
Clem, in a photo from John Leynes

I first met Clem in the spring of 1995. We had moved to Brevard to my parents' house after a disastrous time in our lives. We were there for only 6 months, but during that time we worshiped at Covenant Presbyterian Church in Hendersonville. I hadn't sung much challenging music in about five years, and my voice was out of shape, but I decided to sing in the church choir.

Clem was the choir director. At that time he was in his 70s, and had already enjoyed a long, successful career as a musician and director in both church and academic settings. He is such a happy, unaffected man that I was completely unaware I was in the presence of a genius.

(I've worked closely with several musical geniuses in my time. God has been good to me in that regard. Bill Wymond, a musical mentor during my teens and twenties, and Ira David Halvorsen, my college piano instructor, both fit into the "genius" category.)

We moved after only 6 months to Iowa, and later to Alabama, and I lost track of Clem. Until we moved in with my parents again, after yet another family disaster. By this time, a new church had been born in Brevard called Cornerstone Presbyterian, and my parents were attending there, so we did too.

And who was holding the baton in front of the choir? Clem, of course.

How happy I was to find him again. This time, I sang under Clem's direction for two years. He was long past "retirement," but had never stopped working. And how could a man whose whole being is suffused with music, ever stop making music? Never! By this time, Clem was in his early 80s. His body was wearying slightly, but as soon as the music started and the folders were opened, he lit up like a neon sign.

I had never sung under anyone like Clem. He was totally unstressed by the musical/performance experience. He was always happy (in spite of physical infirmities), and had such an intuitive connection to the music, and a perfectly formed imagination in how it should sound, that we singers trusted him thoroughly. When Clem looked at a soloist, grinned, lifted his eyebrows and hand, and gave you that look that says, "I'm certain you can do this. Aren't you? Go for it!" -- then you simply did what he asked, and found yourself able to do it. He knew your exact capabilities better than you knew them yourself.

As a very-out-of-practice soprano, my voice needed strength and range. I'd always been just a good church soprano. Clem turned me into a high, powerful soloist. Before I moved away agin, we sang "When Thou Comest," ("Inflammatus" by Rossini) in English, with our little choir.

Here's Leontyne Price, with orchestra, singing the piece in Latin. I got to do that! Up to a high C! But it was only because of Clem, who believed I could do it.

We moved back here to Brevard two months ago. Cornerstone has a new music director because Clem suffered a heart attack early this year and has been unable to direct. How I miss him! But it's a selfish missing, because I long to sing under his directorship, for me. His daughter Lynn has been caring for him, and in a desire to give some rest to her, I offered to come sit with Clem when she might need to go to town on errands.

Oh my.  Little did I know that the greatest blessing was yet in store for me! Three times I came and sat with Clem, he resting and I crocheting, listening to great music from his career, talking about many things. He told me about his childhood, his mother and step-father, his grandmother whom he cherished, his near miss with a career in dentistry, his service in WWII, his beginnings in opera and then his change to choral conducting, his early arrogance and later saving faith in Jesus, many escapades with his wife Carolyn. So many stories. I was so blessed to hear them! I wouldn't exchange those hours with him in recent weeks for anything. Clem would laugh -- what a happy laugh -- and grin like a boy. He is a consummate professional and gentleman, even in illness. In his death, I feel that we have lost so much we will never be able to recover, even with recordings and writings and so many thousands of singers impacted by this man whom we will never forget.

I saw him last, one week ago. I took Anna by for a visit. He was his laughing, friendly self. On Tuesday night Clem suffered another small heart attack, and he weakened after that, his heart unable to keep going. Now he is "in Paradise" with the Lord, as Jesus clearly says, and singing again. Actually, I bet he's already directing some group of singers.

I don't like using past tense verbs for people who have simply moved from this Earth to Heaven. They haven't ceased to exist. They're just in a different place. How sad is makes us to speak of our loved ones with words like, "he was." He IS. Clem exists as much today as he did yesterday. He is a genius of a musician. He is a lovely man, and a gentleman, and a kind friend with an infectious laugh. May he sing and sing, and not grow weary. And may he save me a spot with his back-row sopranos!


  1. What a beautiful story! And you're right...He is already directing and leading those to sing a new anthem! Trudi

  2. Thank you so much for taking the time to write and post this excellent insight into our high school music instructor, Mr. B. You have captured his essence so beautifully. He was a magical man who brought much joy into our lives. Joy that would live with us forever and make us all smile each time we thought about him. No other 'teacher' came close. He was unique and a blessing to us all.

    Tony Domenech, NBF Class of '65


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