The following homily was delivered by the Rev. Walter Edmonds '67 at Dr. Walter McIver's memorial service on Sunday, April 27, 2003. Rev. Edmonds is a graduate of Lycoming College and a student of Dr. McIver's, as is his wife Peggy '69. Both of their sons, Charles '98 and Matthew '02, also graduated from Lycoming and sang in the choir.
Rise Up, O Flame...Show to Us Beauty
It was July, 1958, and we were gathered on the back steps of Rich Hall for the 6:30 Vesper worship. Beulah and Walter were there as the music leaders for Christian Outreach Week, which was sponsored by the Central Pennsylvnania Conference. We had sung a few warm-up songs like Let Us Sing Together and All Things Shall Perish from Under the Sky. Then one of the McIvers introduced for the first time the Native American song Rise Up, O Flame, a round that I have loved ever since my first hearing.
Rise up, O flame; by thy light glowing.
Show to us beauty, vision and joy.
That week was my introduction to the McIver family. One night Beulah, Walter, Bill, and Bob sang together for one of the evening programs here in this chapel. Walter conducted our afternoon "choir experiences" during that week and Beulah accompanied him, playing organ for the services as well. It was at the close of that week that Walter gave me some advice that marked the beginning of a mentoship that I will hold dear forever. He said, "Walter, go home and take some organ lessons, and begin to expand yourself." I did. That marked the beginning of decades of teaching and advice that Walter George McIver imbued in Walter George Edmonds, much of which still shapes my present thinking and conduct.
It would be three years later that I would matriculate at Lycoming, chiefly because of the influence of this man. And it would be three weeks later that I would switch from being a history major to a music major, with Walter's very inciting observation: "If all you want to do is music, then you should head off to a conservatory; but if you see music as part of a bigger picture, then we will work with you at Lycoming to make the most of your time and energies as a music major in a liberal arts setting." That he did, along with Glen Morgan, Barbara Dissinger, Mary Russell, and Jim Shaffer.
I must say here and now that Lycoming faculty, particularly Walter, offered to me the "beauty, vision, and joy" which is at the heart of living, and the heart of the Gospel. There is no one in my life who helped me more to understand a living, resurrected Christ, who calls His sisters and brotheres to live in faithfulness to an abba Father. There is no other who made the spiritual connection to music, and the depth of music to the human soul so revealing than Walter. It exuded from his frame. It was carved by his hands. It was nobly spoken from his lips. It was directed from his eyes. And it breathed into everyone in its presence the power of the Holy Spirit.
I can remember many instances where the choir community – or better yet, the choral "Body of Christ" - was transformed by Walter's discipline and spiritual pursuit. In Ralph Vaughan Williams' stunning setting of the words of Walt Whitman in Toward the Unknown Region, Lycoming Choir stepped into a mystery that defies description or commentary. As we set in motion the text "Darest thou now O soul, walk out with me toward the unknown region, where neither ground is for the feet nor any path to follow," we entered a holy sanctuary. When at last we sang, "Then we burst forth, we float, in time and space O soul, prepared for them, equal, equipt at last, O joy! O fruit of all! Them to fulfil O Soul," our eyes were weeping, our hearts bursting, our fellowship binding.
Again, I remember an evening, a second or third night on a tour, when we were singing at a small rural church where some of us might have felt we weren't required to give our all. We had been singing the Brahms motet Warum ist das Licht gegeben dem Muhseligen (Why has the light been granted to those in misery...to those who long for death that does not come?). Walter felt we needed to reach further into both the text of Job and the demanding music of Brahms. I remember his "chastening and hastening" that evening, reminding us that we had as much responsibility to sing well for the "back woods" congregations as for the big city cathedrals; in truth, maybe even more calling to do so. I also remember that night after singing the Brahms and coming back at the break into the Sunday School room where we had gathered earlier. We were in euphoria, spiritual ecstasy, truly overcome by what had occurred in the beautiful singing of Brahms that night. It was nothing short of a miracle, for we had never come close to the unity of its redemptive text and engaging chromatic leaps until we sang in that "little brown church in the dale."
If there is a Walter McIver to be remembered forever, it is the man who taught "Don't live in the dull gray band. Don't let others determine who you are by accommodating their sicknesses and poor choices. Misery does not love company. Choose daily who you will serve. And when it comes to the arts, even music: music is never an end in itself, but always a means to an end." For some of us, these words of Walter McIver are stamped on the left-hand side of the brain and will never be purged. However, on the right side of the brain, we hold the tunes of O Waly Waly, King's Weston, Sine Nomine, and the soon to be sung Slane, as McIver favorites, and therefore our favorites.
Graduating from Lycoming in 1967 never changed one thing in our relationship, for Walter was always visioning something new. The Mystic Summer Singers in the late '60s and '70s brought the whole McIver family to Mystic, Connecticut, where one year we did excerpts from Mendelssohn's Elijah. Walter read scripture at our wedding in Mystic in June of 1970. Lycoming Choir came several times to Haddonfield, New Jersey, where I was first appointed in ministry. And the Elmira Street residence was a place where Peggy and I laid our weary heads down on a number of occasions, especially after talking till one o'clock in the morning about the world and all its issues. Who can forget the hospitality of that home, where something chocolate would invariably appear? Who can forget stretching out on the floor to watch Monday Night Football with pretzels and pop?
Beulah and Walter were a team in so many ways that certainly must have been shaped by their mentor, John Finley Williamson, the founder of Westminster Choir College. Their attitude, intention, and fortitude were centered on strong faith, tireless service, and obligation to make the most of what God has given. From that creed they never departed. And as a paradigm for living, their examples proliferated the Gospel of Jesus Christ to literally thousands. We are here today as witnesses to that truth. And for many of us, it was Beulah's special prayer list, if you know what I mean, that brought some uncanny results in our lives.
We remember Walter's retirement and the festivities that marked that momentous hour. We remember his last official conducting of the Lutkin Benediction. We remember the 50th anniversary celebration of Lycoming Choir, when Fred Thayer and Walter jointly conducted one of Walter's favorite works, the Fauré Requiem. The memories are strong and long, and they serve to make us better people.
Walter was devoted to family all his life. We would trek anywhere to see his children and grandchildren perform. Driving all over to be with those he loved was almost like therapy, and nothing pleased him more than to be behind the wheel heading in the direction of an event or performance where a family member or respected friend was involved. Even in these last years with dear Lillian, pilgrimages were kept, journeys were completed, and Walter was always looking joyously forward to more.
Well, the final journey has arrived and Walter is off again. Only this time it will be a little longer until "we burst forth, and float in time and space." "The ties are loosened," to claim Whitman's poetry one more time, and Walter has lived a life that has equipped him well for the fulfillment of his soul. We cannot hold him back. We never could. And as we acknowledge his departing spirit, we ask simply that what remains of Walter in us will continue to usher in the "beauty, vision, and joy" that was ours with him.
Peace, my longtime mentor.
Peace, my surrogate father.
Peace, my good friend.
Peace, my brother in Christ.