Music has played a significant role at Westmont from its earliest days. Helen Catherwood, the daughter of Trustee W.W. Catherwood, joined the faculty of Western Bible College part time in the fall of 1939. She took over the choir, which consisted of 30 students from a total student body of 70. Over the next seven years she left her marks on choral music at the school. A graduate of Biola in 1934, she earned a Ph.B. from Wheaton College.
Dr. Emerson, who played the cello, was a strong supporter of music in a Christian liberal arts college, and when he came as president, he determined to build a strong faculty in the area.
John Hubbard, who later taught music at Westmont, heard the choir in Oakland, Calif., and testified, “I was very impressed with the quality of the students and the excellent performance, the spiritual atmosphere that prevailed, and so I talked to Helen afterwards. I said, ‘How do you get these kinds of results?’ I remember very clearly that she said, ‘Well, we do a lot of praying.’ After I came to Westmont and saw how she worked with the choir, I realized that there was a good deal of hard work and many other things that went into it besides prayer.”
John Lundberg, who became a longtime music professor, also heard the Westmont choir on their first tour of the Pacific Northwest in the spring of 1941. He said: “I was so impressed with that choir. She did a wonderful job. Boy was she good.”
Marilyn Danielson Stevenson ’53 testified to the impact of the choir. “I heard the choir sing in Bend, Ore., in about 1942 or 1943,” she recalled. “All those subsequent years I thought that was where I would like to go, so I came in 1949.”
Virtually all the students who sang in Catherwood’s choir testify to the tremendous impact she and her music had on their lives. Nancy Tyler Salverda ’46, recalls, “The type of music she chose and the quality and the finesse just inspired you to do your best. Not all of us in the choir had trained voices, but she inspired you do your very, very best, and the choir tours were just like heaven. To be with her and share the gospel in music in different churches was one of the highlights on my life.”
Undoubtedly the most significant tribute came from Richard K. Biggs of the American Guild of Organists. After the choir sang at one of their conferences in February 1943, he wrote, “May I express to you on behalf of the American Guild of Organists our deep appreciation for the beautiful singing of your choir at our recent recital. Everyone was inspired by your artistry. Personally, I wish to say that seldom have I heard a choral group which satisfies me as does yours. You have mastered your art, and your singers possess a freshness quite without parallel. The great faith which you and they possess will carry you to the very top. It seems to me that choral art in its present form lives again with your choir. ”
Editor’s Note: This article is an excerpt from a history of music at Westmont by Paul Wilt, professor emeritus of history and former college archivist.