Community Foundation of St. Joseph County

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About Chris Wilson

Chris Wilson (left) with Beth Ann Carlson, Bruce Salzman, and Robert Rusk

For Chris Wilson, music was always one of life’s great joys.
    In 1965, Wilson was president of the senior class of South Bend’s John Adams High School. At the time, Adams had a music program that was known throughout the state for its bands, orchestra, and choral ensembles. Wilson, a multi-instrumentalist, played flute and piccolo with the school’s orchestra and alto sax with its popular dance band, and, later, classical guitar.
    He was also one of a select group of high school students who performed as regular members of the South Bend Symphony during the 1964–65 season.
    There were at least six: Wilson’s classmates Bruce Salzman and Beth Ann Carlson, both cellists; tuba player Robert Rusk (Adams ’66), percussionist Thomas Frederick (Riley ‘65), and violist Marie Parnell (Saint Mary’s Academy ‘66). As a flutist, Wilson sat in the same section as his teacher, George Opperman, known throughout the country for his handmade flutes and piccolos.
    At that time, the Symphony was still developing as an ensemble. Although it had been in continuous operation since 1933, the group found a permanent home only in 1960, when it moved into the Morris Civic Auditorium (now the Morris Performing Arts Center). That year, the season opened with a guest appearance by a young Canadian pianist with a reputation for both excellence and eccentricity—Glenn Gould, who performed Beethoven’s Concerto No. 4 in G Major for piano, Op. 58.
    The 80-some regular members of the Symphony, though, were less well known. The majority held “day jobs,” many with the music programs of local schools, and almost all were community residents. To help flesh out its ranks, the Symphony allowed a handful of talented local high school students to join in the late ‘50s, ‘60s and early ‘70s—provided, of course, that they could perform at the same level as their adult counterparts.
    By all accounts, it was a comfortable place for students to play. Edwyn H. Hames, the Symphony’s conductor from 1933 through 1973, treated the students the same way he treated the adult musicians.
    “Hames was as friendly and approachable as a conductor can be,” remembers Rusk, who played with the Symphony for two seasons. “If you could play the part, that was all that mattered. He was just interested in putting on good performances.”
    Like the adults, the students needed to get their union cards. The American Federation of Musicians Union Local 238 required all musicians who worked with the Symphony to become members, and the students did, paying their initiation fees and dues and earning paychecks.
    As the Symphony grew and changed during the later 1970s and ‘80s, it became less common to see students among its ranks. Today, only a third of members are area residents; none are students, although exceptionally talented young musicians such as violinist Thomas Huntington have performed with the Symphony as guest artists.
    The students who played with the Symphony in 1964–65 were serious about music. Rusk and Salzman worked as professional musicians as adults, both playing with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, and Wilson went on to pursue music at Oberlin College’s renowned Music Conservatory, and, as an adult, to perform with the Cache Valley Symphony in Logan, Utah. He also studied classical guitar under noted guitarist Christopher Parkening, and taught guitar, flute, and piccolo for more than 20 years in Bend, Oregon, before he was killed in a tragic car accident in 2004 along with his father, well-known retired surgeon and community leader James M. Wilson.
    Now, in 2009, it’s fitting that just a stone’s throw away from his former high school, the new Chris Wilson Pavilion at Potawatomi Park will provide a stage for other musicians—as well as actors, dancers, and other performing artists—to share the joy of their talent with our community.

—Originally published in ArtsEverywhere Magazine, Summer 2009