Remembering Joyce Schwinn and a happy holiday tradition
I'm really not sure what inspired me to make that unscheduled stop; but, sitting here in the newsroom, I'm glad I did.
Just about an hour ago, I was on my way to the Honesdale High School gym to take basketball preview pictures ... just one of the many missions that will comprise my winter sports season.
It was a typical December evening in Wayne County. Snow fell from a battleship grey sky, accompanied by an icy north wind that made Terrace Street feel a bit like the Arctic Circle.
I parked my car in the circle, grabbed my camera bag and sprinted for the door. Once inside, I stomped the snow from my boots, pulled off my gloves and checked my phone.
I was early for once. It would be another 15 minutes before the Hornets were ready for me.
So, I took a leisurely stroll up the stairs and paused for a moment before the trophy case. It's a great way to spend a few minutes, gazing back in time at faces which remain forever young.
Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed one of the auditorium doors was slightly ajar. Without even thinking about it, I walked over, eased it open and slipped quietly inside.
The cavernous room was dark, save for a couple of lights near the stage.
I was alone with my thoughts, which quickly gravitated to a long-cherished memory...
There are countless traditions associated with the holidays; but for me, one in particular stands out … and it centers on this very auditorium.
Each year in mid-December, Honesdale High School hosts its annual Christmas concert.
It's been three decades since I last sat here and soaked in one of those performances. But, I can still hear the happy echoes of that simpler time and those festive songs.
Standing there in the dark, I closed my eyes and watched as an image arose in my mind.
The stage was still there, but the seats were filled and a familiar figure strode gracefully across the stage.
She was dressed in a gossamer gown, a smile illuminating her face, a folder of music clutched to her chest. The applause died down as she stepped up to the microphone and addressed the audience.
A sad smile of recognition crossed my own face as the image became clearer. It was the late, great local musical legend herself: Joyce Schwinn.
Joyce Schwinn was a larger-than life presence at Honesdale High School.
I can vividly remember her laughing with my mom in the teacher's lounge ... chatting amiably with my dad in the cafeteria … scurrying to the music room with an armload of sheet music.
Mrs. Schwinn was as dedicated a teacher as you're ever likely to meet and my generation was blessed to have her gentle influence in our lives.
However, since my focus in high school revolved around sports, I think it only appropriate that I allow someone more qualified than me take up the narrative at this point.
If you really stop and think about it, there are very few genuinely good people you're lucky enough to encounter through the years.
Beth Murray is one of those people in my life.
We've known each other since grade school and I can say this without fear of contradiction: Beth is a good friend, a good daughter, a good mom and a thoroughly good person.
Beth has dedicated her life to music and educating children. She currently teaches at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte, inspiring another generation of American kids to embrace music and theatre.
So, when contemplating this Christmas Wanderings, I couldn't think of a better person to talk about Joyce Schwinn.
"She was an artist and a teacher," Beth said.
"Mrs. Schwinn was a storyteller and a mom and a straight-up silly-serious soul. She made music. She inspired others to make music ... even (and especially) those who were most certain music was not theirs to make
"In this alchemy, she created magical, welcoming spaces. Accompanied by Joyce Schwinn, every singer sounded swell.”
At the end of each holiday concert, Mrs. Schwinn would turn to the crowd and give a brief history of “Christmas in a Small Town.”
She'd then invite any alumni chorus members in the audience to come up on stage and join in singing.
It never failed to be a memorable moment. The house lights would come up as hundreds of people craned their necks to see who was heading up to the stage.
Members of the current chorus would make room on the risers, offering a place for alumni to stand, sharing their music and a smile.
“Every voice felt welcomed in her chorus, especially at Christmas time,” Beth said.
“When the intro to Rick People's 'Christmas in a Small Town' crept across the apron at HHS's annual holiday concert, alums of all ages stood, not to applaud, but to join the choir ... again.”
It Can Last Awhile
The lyrics of 'Christmas in a Small Town' seem as though they were written especially for Honesdale.
Rick Peoples, a man who also composed hit songs for Tanya Tucker, Reba McEntire and Tammy Wynette, penned this little gem in the mid 1970s.
Where exactly Joyce Schwinn came across it is a story probably lost in the mists of time. However, the fact remains that she did discover it and promptly turned the song into a Maple City classic.
One of the stanzas has been playing in my head ever since I stood at the back of the auditorium and took that little trip down Memory Lane.
I'll close my column with those words, but not before wishing you and yours a very Merry Christmas from all of us here at The Wayne Independent!
“Christmas in a small town, snowflakes falling down; Lovers walking hand-in-hand with new friends that they've found.
“People saying 'How ya doin?' Strangers share a smile; Seems to me it's such a shame, it can't last awhile.”