Slim, gray-haired Nellie Glover, always prim and proper, sat in the front row, just to the left of the conductor, nodding her head to the music and trying not to wince when students hit wrong notes.
As music supervisor for Akron Public Schools, she considered the May Festival at the Akron Armory to be the highlight of every year, the culmination of countless hours of practice, instruction and theory.
She steadfastly believed that music had the power to uplift society and change the world, a tall order for young instrumentalists who were only a few years removed from learning to tie their shoes.
“This opportunity to study music is not given with the thought of making professional musicians, but to create better minds, better citizens and better living,” Glover once explained to an Akron reporter.
Born in 1878, she was the daughter of Nathan L. Glover, a pioneer in Akron music education. Superintendent Samuel Findley hired him in 1872 when there were only 35 teachers in the district. He taught two days in Akron and traveled by horse to Doylestown, Kent, Ravenna, Wadsworth and Wooster to give lessons in other schools.
There were no music textbooks, so Glover wrote exercises in blank books and copied them on blackboards.
“There are a number of students who went to my father who insist that he could throw a piece of chalk straighter than anybody they had ever seen,” Nellie Glover recalled years later. “My father demanded the attention of every student in the class when he was teaching. He couldn’t work unless he had everybody’s interest. If someone was looking around, he would pick up a piece of chalk and throw it at him and he seldom missed his mark, I guess.”
Nellie Glover learned to play an upright piano with her siblings Carl, Max and Mary at their home at 203 E. Mill St. Their father taught private lessons there, too, so the house was always filled with song.
Studies in New York
She graduated from Akron High School in 1895 and studied music at Ashland College, Buchtel College and Columbia University. In New York, she studied voice with Herbert Wilbur Greene and was an accompanist for dance classes at the School of Dramatic Art at Carnegie Hall, playing piano for Broadway stars Ethel Barrymore and Clara Bloodgood.
Returning to Ohio at the turn of the century, she taught music in Barberton, Cuyahoga Falls, Kent and Hudson before joining Akron Public Schools in 1914 — as assistant music supervisor to her father.
Glover Elementary School, which opened in 1918 on Hammel Street, was named for the elder instructor, who delighted in touring every room. He was 79 when he retired in 1921 after 49 years of instruction in Akron. By then, the city had 35 schools and more than 800 teachers.
The school board promoted Nellie Glover to succeed her father. Every morning, she left her home on Mill Street, caught a streetcar to work and attempted to uplift society through musical education.
During the jazz age, it wasn’t always easy to change the world. Some children were more interested in syncopated rhythms than classical music.
Glover said Akron’s patriarchs were partially to blame.
“When a father goes downtown to buy a musical instrument for his son, he sees the shiny saxophone with all its trappings, and he usually takes it home,” she lamented to the Akron Times-Press in 1928. “This is partly because of its bright trappings, but largely because the father feels he would like to give a few puffs at the saxophone himself.”
She also didn’t want to see too many trumpets. If one boy bought a trumpet, every boy wanted one, she said. There was a pressing need for cellos, violas and stringed basses.
Glover worked diligently to establish orchestras at every school in the city.
“At least we call them orchestras,” she said.
She hoped that children would gain an appreciation of good music by hearing more of it. If everyone could only learn to play, music would naturally become better, she reasoned.
Glover only wished that the United States could follow Europe’s lead in promoting music education, citing Germany’s love of symphonies and Italy’s fondness for operas.
Operas would never gain widespread popularity here, though, until we corrected a few “defects,” she predicted.
“They must be sung in English and there’s no reason why they shouldn’t be,” Glover said. “English is a lovely language. And they must be made shorter. No opera ought to run longer than an hour and a half. We Americans are restless.”
May Festival established
Glover’s crowning achievement in the 1930s was to establish the May Festival at the Akron Armory. The annual concert — then two days long — featured more than 1,000 child performers singing and playing their hearts out. Always, Glover sat near the front to offer moral support.
“We will feel recompensed if we think that many of our young musicians have acquired an avocation, if they have discovered an art which will amuse them and perhaps sometimes entertain their friends,” she explained rather loftily.
For the first decade, the guest conductor was Guy Fraser Harrison, a suave Englishman who led the Rochester Civic Orchestra. At one concert, he impetuously gave the never-married Glover a kiss on the cheek. Girls swooned and shrieked in the audience.
Among Glover’s star pupils were future opera singers Helen Jepson, Mary Van Kirk and Bill Miller.
“They still come back to see me,” she said.
Much to her surprise, Nellie Glover and her late father, Nathan, were the subjects of a musical tribute at the 1947 May Festival. A choral group had secretly arranged to perform two of Nathan’s compositions: Dreamland and Wind of the Western Sea.
Akron Superintendent Otis C. Hatton pointed out Nellie Glover to the audience and she received a standing ovation.
Unbeknownst to all present, it was Nellie Glover’s last May Festival. She was stricken with a serious illness the next month and tendered her resignation in July 1947, bringing an end to 75 years of Glover music supervision in Akron Public Schools.
Her successor, Ralph Gillman, the future Akron superintendent, was an inspired choice, putting his stamp on music education and guiding the May Festival for more than a decade before switching to administrative duties in 1959.
Nellie Glover was 71 years old when she died Aug. 12, 1949. Even in retirement, Glover remained a staunch supporter of the arts and bristled when people tried to belittle the cultural success of her hometown.
“Despite what people say, Akron — an industrial city — ranks high among musical cities in the country,” she told the Beacon Journal in one of her final interviews.
“Of course, they don’t pay as much attention to it in the schools as they used to now that they have such crowded programs. But those who have followed the course of music through the years know how musical Akron really is.”
Beacon Journal copy editor Mark J. Price is the author of The Rest Is History: True Tales From Akron’s Vibrant Past, a new book from the University of Akron Press. He can be reached at 330-996-3850 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.