By Donald Ketzler
As I sit down to reminisce about my High School years it again strikes me how, in your youth, a handful of people have been the meaningful ones who have influenced your life journey. It is as though they provided you with insights and knowledge for the journey but then they leave and it’s up to you, your inner self and your memories of their teachings to make your own trip.
What a trip it can be. If you think you are the one who is in control of the trip, think again. You will be presented with both good and terrible situations that you would never have dreamed could happen to you.
Well, that’s enough armchair philosophy from an 82 year old geezer. On with the story.
I loved High School. Nowadays I’d probably be labeled a “Geek”. The only subject that didn’t come easily was math.
Mrs. Burleson, in her quite, patient manner tried to explain the mysteries of algebra and calculus but I only ended up with an appreciation and respect for those who made sense of it all.
Latin and French and other studies- no problem.
Aside from studies there was the social life. We had proms (in the Grange Hall) in our junior and senior years. The boys invited the girls to one and vice versa for the other. I can’t remember which was which. In either case the boy bought a corsage for the girl and escorted her to the dance after picking her up at her home and being dutifully checked over by her parents.
Also during the year the Junior and Senior classes put on plays (again at the Grange Hall). For those taking part there was much work and anxiety in memorizing the lines and when the rehearsals were over and the night arrived to present the play we were all of one mind wondering if we were going to be able to pull this off. Some performed like pros and loved it. Others forgot their lines and stood there mortified. But when it was all over we were all happy and relieved. In fact I was so happy and relieved that I kissed a girl for the first time. Then I was really happy.
Sports were really limited then. We did not have enough boys in the whole school who wanted to play football to field a football team so there was none. There was a boys’ basketball team but it was handicapped by the fact that there was no gym so they had to practice in town halls and grange halls with low ceilings that presented a problem when you played in a real gym. I played for awhile and learned how to try for a basket with an almost straight shot (no arch). Very tough. I still remember a game in a town where the hall had the usual low ceiling but in addition, being on a cold winter night, the heat was turned up high. The only problem was that the heart source was a black wood- burning stove that was close to red hot. And the stove was in a corner of the playing floor. God help anyone who lost control of his pursuit of the ball and landed in that corner.
We did have a cross country team that I was part of that did pretty well competitively partly because we were good runners but also because we had an advantage on home meets. We knew the secret of our course. Run like hell ahead of your opponents down the lane that led to the B&M railroad tracks and once you got there let up and stay on the side of the tracks. Good luck to anyone who tried to pass you by getting up on the tracks and pass by pacing the span of the ties and good luck to anyone who tried to pass to the right dealing with the crushed stone banking. The coach didn’t suggest this strategy and probably didn’t know of it.
With the war over and the return of my music teacher from the army he decided that I could learn no more from him but should continue my studies with his teacher in Boston, Harris Shaw. This I did and it became one of those special life changing events. I still vividly remember that first meeting. His studio was in the Back Bay of Boston in a building since replaced by the Back Bay train station. At this time it was a building that you entered thru an archway into a courtyard surrounded by music studios. When you entered you heard singers, pianists, violinist issuing a cacophony of sound. A cacophony yet an overwhelming inspiring sound that I will never forget.
He agreed to be my teacher and the lessons and hard work began. He was a wonderful music teacher but more than that he became a mentor and dear friend.
From that time through my years in high school I took a Greyhound bus from Portsmouth to Boston every Saturday for my music lessons. In the process I learned much of the culture that Boston offers thanks to Harris. Who by the way had been a boy from Thomaston, Maine with a musical talent that had carried him all the way to Europe where he studied with some great musicians of the time.
Among the fondest of my musical experiences in Eliot involved Lanier’s Inn.
I became part of the Lanier’s Inn experience through the Clark family. Colin Clark was a classmate and I had a crush on his cute red head sister, Beverly. Mrs. Clark taught a course in number knitting at Lanier’s (don’t ask me to explain what this is). On summer evenings we youngsters learned English Country dances outside on the green. I was attracted there because of Beverly even though I have two (or three) left feet when it comes to dancing.
One summer they had a Polish gentleman as a guest who offered to give weekly lectures open to the public on the piano music of Chopin. Now this was a time of no CD’s etc. so he needed someone to play the music that he lectured on. (He didn’t play the piano). I was asked if I could and would do this. I said “Yes” and then began a summer of hectic study and performance of Chopin’s piano works. It was a good experience. I can’t say that with one week’s lead time they were all great performances but it was done and people enjoyed it.
Getting back to High School I have to speak of the teachers. As I recall they were all dedicated but Mrs. Obrey stood out as a great teacher. She taught. She inspired. She challenged , She was a disciplinarian when discipline was necessary. To me, and I imagine many others, she was one of those people who you remember all of your life.
Mrs. Obrey had a brother, Admiral Knowles, who had retired and was in the process of renovating an old house located in the Rosemary Hill section of Goodwin Road. This was on the other side of Great Hill from where I lived on Brixham Road.
One day Mrs. Obrey told me that the Admiral needed a helper in his renovating work from time to time. She asked me if I would be interested. Always ready to earn a few dollars I said “Yes”. I had no idea what being a helper meant but I soon found out. I fetched material and tools, held lumber while he cut it, cleaned up at the end of a job while he did all of the carpentry work. He smoked a corn cob pipe, ala General Douglas Mc Arthur, and constantly had to pause in his work to reignite it. Gradually he let me do some of the easy carpentry work and without my really knowing it he was teaching me the proper way to use tools, how to measure carefully and accurately and other basic rudiments of carpentry that have stood me in good stead in my adult life.
I remember how Mrs. Knowles was always there when we took a break offering ice cold lemonade on a hot day and hot cocoa on a cold day. Plus she usually had some kind of tempting snack.
One summer they had a house guest. I don’t remember if she was a relative or a friend. She was a professor of organ music at Oberlin College and was enrolled in a master class for organists that were being held at the Methuen, Mass. Organ Hall.
Many people, even those living there, don’t know that the hall located in the heart of Methuen houses one of largest and greatest pipe organs in the country. This five manual instrument was built in Germany, shipped to Boston and installed in the Boston Music Hall, (the precursor of today’s Boston Symphony Hall). It was not moved to Symphony Hall rather it was bought by an eccentric millionaire named Searle. He had all of the stone walls and castle- like buildings built in Methuen for his European style “kingdom”.
Searle was an organ buff who decided to have a Baroque style building constructed specifically for the Boston Music Hall organ. While this was being done the organ sat in pieces on a railroad siding by the building site.
World famous organists ran and taught the master class program there. Once a week there was a concert presented by one of them that was open to the public. I was invited to accompany the Knowles’ guest to one of these concerts. (I can’t help but think that Mrs. Obrey, behind the scenes, had something to do with this) In any event, I went and was astounded. What an instrument! What a sound! What great music!
Little did I know that many years later I would be presenting several programs there and on other occasions accompanying the Andover Choral Society in Mozart’s “Requiem” and Mendelssohn’s “Elijah”
I’ve wandered away from Eliot High School in my writing so here we go back.
During our senior year we all worked hard to help pay for our senior class trip to Washington. With the help of teachers and parents we did it. Our chaperones on the trip were Mrs. Obrey, principal Parker(?) and Mr., and Mrs. Clark. We went by train, stayed at a nice hotel, and took in the sights and occasionally when we were exhausted managed to get some sleep.
There was some turnover of teachers at the school and during our Junior and Senior years Ed Buffington taught. He was a recent UNH grad who loved to sing. He had been in the UNH Choral Group and decided to start a choral group at Eliot High. I was a willing draftee for the accompanist job so here I was once more, back with the singing that had started in the one room schoolhouse in East Eliot.
In the spring of my senior year Ed came to me and asked what I was doing about going on to college. I said that I had no plans. He immediately said, “Next week we are going to go to UNH and see what we can do about that”
The next week off we went. He had made an appointment with Karl Bratton, the head of the music department who was also the choral director that Ed had studied with. Ed introduced me. Professor Bratton asked me to sit down at the piano and play for him. I played something and when I had finished he said, “O.K. you’re accepted. Be ready to accompany the men’s chorus when classes start in the fall” I was dumbfounded. No SAT’s, No questionnaire. No essay, Ed smiled.
My last contact with my Eliot friends was the summer before I started college. I had a weekly half hour slot on WHEB where i played classical piano music. The announcer was a young man who, like Ed, was a recent UNH grad. He convinced me that I was going to love UNH. He was right.
I asked some of my high school classmates to join me at the station for the last broadcast. They did and it was a great going away present from them and Eliot.