From a very young age Bill Wharton, of Centreville, knew he loved music, but not just any kind of music. It wasn’t the music of Patti Page, The Mills Brothers and Percy Faith who were on the music charts of the early 1950s, but instead it was the church music and hymns of his local church and Broadway songs. In those days Bill was always beyond his years in his interests and abilities when it came to music and that continues today.
Mary Bell Callahan, who is the friend that has probably known Bill Wharton the longest, taught him music at Centreville Elementary School. She quipped about how Bill helped her teach music to the sixth graders in the school, “Bill was teaching music before he ever learned how to teach music.”
Bill’s parents recognized his abilities and allowed him to take piano lessons from Margaret Wolcott, the church organist at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Centreville. Because the organ was a logical progression from the piano and because Bill loved hymns and church music, Margaret encouraged Bill to take organ lessons at Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore beginning in his 10th grade year of high school. Something clicked.
Soon, Bill began playing the organ part-time for churches around the Centreville area. When it was time to go to college, however, although Bill loved music, he didn’t think he could make a living playing music. He went to Trinity College in Hartford, CT to study to be a stock broker. He recalls, “I hated my economic classes and loved my music classes, so I went on to major in music.”
During college, Bill worked part-time as an organist and helped with Sunday School and Choirs. In the summers, he also worked at Hartford’s YMCA Camp Jewell, leading music and drama activities. It was during his college years that his love for the organ grew under the tutelage of renowned organist Clarence Waters. Waters had studied under the famous French organist, composer and teacher Marcel Dupré, who Bill later met in 1970 while in Paris. Upon finishing college, Bill decided to attend the School of Music of Northwestern University in Evanston, IL to get his graduate degree in Church Music, which also included organ, choral work, voice, harpsichord and conducting. It was here, while working as an organist at the Anglo-Catholic St. Andrew’s Church in Chicago, that he became acquainted with liturgical congregational singing, something he still enjoys today.
When Bill returned home in 1967, he worked for his father’s veterinarian practice. He had heard about a new Tellers organ being installed at St. Mark’s United Methodist Church in Easton while he was away at school. He called Reverend Harold Davis, the pastor of St. Mark’s at the time, and asked if he could see the organ. Reverend Davis said that the organ usually remained locked, but he allowed Bill to play it because of his experience. Within 30 minutes of hearing Bill’s talent, Reverend Davis offered Bill the part-time job of church organist. Because the pay was low, Bill found a full-time job teaching music to 7th and 8th graders at Easton Middle School. After one year, he moved to teaching choral music to students in grades nine through 12 at Easton High School where he remained until 1976.
His first memories of St. Mark’s United Methodist Church are strong. Besides having a fine organ to play and a strong choir to accompany, he recalls, “I was struck that the church building is unique in that it does not sit square with the street – as also came later with the orientation of the YMCA building next door. It is powerful to me that both buildings sit across the street from a school.”
By 1975, Bill decided to take a sabbatical from teaching to go full-time and get his Doctorate Degree from Catholic University in Washington, DC. This would be the first of two life changing sabbaticals in his career. His professor and mentor, Clarence Waters, played a recital at the National Shrine at Catholic University and introduced him to Conrad Bernier, the head of the Organ Music Department at Catholic University. He finished the doctorate in 1979, taking part-time classes while continuing to serve as St. Mark’s organist and teaching in the Talbot Schools.
Bill comments, “Conrad Bernier was one of the finest teachers I had ever come across in my career. He never missed a lesson the entire time I was at Catholic University.” He adds, “He also taught me to reflect on my preparation time and asked me what I learned at the end of each lesson or class. I applied this type of questioning with my students over the years as part of the learning process I taught.”
In 1977, Bill returned to work as an elementary school music teacher at Cordova and Tilghman Elementary Schools for three years before getting the full-time job in 1980 overseeing the Music Department at Chesapeake College in Wye Mills. He would stay there until retiring in 2003. Throughout this time, he continued his part-time job as the organist at St. Mark’s.
At Chesapeake College Bill loved teaching because of the variety of the courses he taught – music appreciation, piano, voice, organ, fundamentals of music, music theory and contemporary music. One student who Bill taught at Chesapeake College in 1987 was Debra Smith. She recalls, “I met Bill when I signed up for his voice class at Chesapeake College. This was the beginning of a teacher/student relationship and a wonderful friendship which exists today.” She adds, “Over the last 30 years, Bill has invited me, as well as others, to sing at St. Mark’s Church performing solos, singing in the choir and singing in concerts.”
Bill formed and supported a musical group of singers and instrumentalists called Abendmusiken, which means evening music in German. The group performed over 100 concerts from 1968 to 1995, incorporating many singers and instrumentalists from the community, such as church and Easton High School choir members, as well as soloists like Debra Smith and others. Bill comments, “Abendmusiken provided me the opportunity to perform and expand upon what I did on Sunday mornings and encourage church music participation in the events.”
Debra adds, “Bill’s loyalty to St. Mark’s Church, his community and those of us who loved to sing or play an instrument is so widespread. He touched so many lives giving them encouragement and opportunities. He could always relate to all ages. I observed him leading the day care children at Chesapeake in song. They loved it!”
While Bill enjoyed providing motivation to students who wanted to pursue music, he most enjoyed teaching “fence sitters,” students who were not convinced about the values of music study and classical culture. He explains, “The group I wanted to affect were those students who didn’t know much about music, but who were curious.”
In 1996, Bill took his second sabbatical while teaching at Chesapeake College and travelled around the world, visiting Thailand, Indonesia, Burma, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, India, Egypt, Italy and Holland. He recalls, “I had as many musical experiences in each of these countries as I could over my three-month journey. It was a profound experience witnessing music, dance, drama, art and cultures of these diverse countries.”
When he returned from his travels, Bill played educational organ concerts in all five counties served by Chesapeake College, sharing his cultural experiences with his audiences. In addition, he added a world element to all his courses at Chesapeake College. His sabbatical opened doors for him to expand his musical offerings in the community even more, including St. Mark’s music concerts which continue today with the support of the Talbot County Arts Council and other groups.
But what Bill loves most is playing the organ – its sounds and literature. He reflects, “I identified very early on, after sitting through Evensong with King’s College Chapel Choir, experiencing the playing of great organists like Watters and Dupré, and hearing the inspiring instruments in monumental churches and cathedrals, that I was a church musician! In this role, I seek to offer a visitor coming into a worship service an opportunity to become inspired through sound, moods and the thrill of participation. This may impact their ultimate experience in church.”
The church’s memorial pipe organ is what initially attracted Bill to St. Mark’s. The organ was built by the Tellers Company in Erie, PA specifically for the chancel at St. Mark’s and contains nearly 2400 pipes of numerous lengths controlled by a console of manuals and pedals. According to Bill, the church has struggled with acoustical problems in the church since the organ’s installation in 1962. By 2008, following Bill’s 40th anniversary as organist at St. Mark’s, the church had raised enough money to revoice or replace the reed pipes in the antiphonal and chancel parts of the organ and digitize and upgrade the main organ console.
Bill states, “While the chancel organ from Tellers was all new work, the antiphonal organ in the balcony was from the first Methodist Church in Chestertown. Acoustically the antiphonal organ is what makes St. Mark’s organ so unique. The new and rebuilt reeds help to give the overall organ an amazing sound!”
By digitizing the main organ console in 2008, the organist can transpose the musical key to meet the needs of the congregation, the choir and the soloists. It also has made it easier for guest organists to use their own individual setups in playing the instrument more easily.
Reverend Gary Moore, Pastor at St. Mark’s UMC from 1999 to 2011 when the organ was upgraded and now a Visitation Pastor at St. Mark’s UMC, recalls, “Bill is a very special person to work with – he is very talented, very committed and the best part, he is easy to get along with. It was a joy sitting so close to him and the organ in the chancel when I preached at the 11 a.m. service each Sunday. It was my time to worship with him and I had a front row seat.”
When asked about the congregation’s love of Bill, Reverend Moore quips, “The congregation always said to me that I couldn’t do anything around the music unless I talked to Dr. Wharton. I think his talent and faithfulness to St. Mark’s over the past 50 years has earned this respect by all who know him.”
As Bill reflects on his 50 years at St. Mark’s, he chuckles and says, “I was given a very humble place to serve where many good things have happened. I am just a keyboardist impacting the common man and woman’s musical experience in life.”
On Sunday, September 17, 2017, St. Mark’s United Methodist Church will honor Dr. Bill Wharton with a musical celebration at the 11 a.m. service. The service is open to the public and all are encouraged to attend. A reception will be held afterwards in the church’s Fellowship Hall.