We all could learn a lesson or two from Mary Louise Miller Spang, Class of 1933.
She overcame great adversity in her life, forging her own path after divorcing her husband in 1946, at a time when divorce was still a damaging social stigma for women, and working to support two young children on her own while pursuing her passion for music at Juilliard.
From 1946 until around 1959, Spang, who was an art major at Wheaton, was a prolific composer and published poet. Her musical career was cut short in 1959 when she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, which led to her decline and death in 1975 at age 64.
On Dec. 6, 2013, she had her long-overdue chance in the spotlight. The Great Woods Chamber Orchestra honored her during a concert by performing one of her musical compositions for the very first time. The orchestra debuted Spang’s “The Selfish Giant,” a musical interpretation of the children’s story by Oscar Wilde, in the Weber Theatre.
“Each section in ‘The Selfish Giant’ corresponds to a scene in Wilde’s story,” noted Delvyn Case, assistant professor of music and orchestra director. “The music is very colorful, depicting the giant by using the timpani and brass, and the children with the piccolo and other woodwind instruments. The composition uses beautiful, rich harmonies reminiscent of jazz, though the style of the piece is certainly classical.”
The concert’s theme, “Wizards, Witches and Fairies,” music inspired by mythical creatures, was very much in keeping with Spang’s playful spirit.
Spang’s daughter Elizabeth Ericson remembers her mother as a joyful woman who wrote plays and songs for her children, filling their lives with amusement, according to Wheaton College Archivist Zephorene Stickney.
However, Ericson had never heard her mother’s compositions performed. She donated her mother’s musical scores, as well as photographs and a written reflection on her mother’s life, to Wheaton’s Marion B. Gebbie Archives, hoping that the music would someday be performed.
The performance of her music was part of a collaborative project that began in 2012. Stickney and assistant archivist Megan Wheaton-Book have been working with their student assistants to create an online showcase celebrating Spang that is now online.
It includes a biography and reflection written by Spang’s daughter, a gallery of photographs, a list of Spang’s works, and the text of Oscar Wilde’s story “The Selfish Giant.” Thomas Van Duyne ’14, a music major and student archival assistant, has been developing the online exhibition for the past year, while Kimberly Hurst ’15 processed Spang’s collection.
“In the fall of 2012, Zeph and I were discussing under-utilized collections and how we could use technology to highlight them in a digital exhibit,” said Wheaton-Book. “When Zeph mentioned the Spang collection, I knew that this was the one we should focus on. She is an exceptional example of the type of student that Wheaton helps create. She didn’t fold under pressure, and she gave back to her community. The take away from Ms. Spang’s experiences is that life is precious,” said Wheaton-Book. “You have to spend your time on things that make you happy.”