Wharton celebrates 50 years of bringing music to the Mid-Shore
EASTON — Dr. William Wharton of Easton, affectionately known as “Dr. Bill,” has been playing music almost as long as he can remember. As an organist, choir director, college professor and community choral leader, he has enriched the lives of students, adults and community members on the Mid-Shore and beyond, inspiring others to make music an integral part of their lives. Easton’s Mayor Bob Willey has proclaimed Sunday, Sept. 17, Dr. William Wharton Day, celebrating Wharton’s 50 years as organist of St. Mark’s United Methodist Church in Easton. The church also is planning a large celebration that day to honor Wharton for his many contributions to his church and his community.
The Rev. Missy Rekitzke of St. Mark’s United Methodist Church said, “It has been a privilege and joy to work alongside Dr. Bill Wharton at St. Mark’s church. I’ve only been there for four years of these incredible 50 years, but I’ve seen the commitment and passion for music exude from Dr. Bill every time he sits down at the organ or piano. He leads us into the presence of God with his music every Sunday.”
Wharton, who was born in 1944 in Centreville, knew at a young age that he loved the music and hymns of his local church. Mary Bell Callahan, who is the friend who has probably known Wharton the longest, taught him music at Centreville Elementary School. She said he helped her teach music to the sixth-graders in the school. “Bill was teaching music before he ever learned how to teach music,” she said.
Wharton’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 he loved hymns and church music, Wolcott encouraged him to take organ lessons at Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore beginning in his 10th-grade year of high school. Something clicked. Soon, Wharton began playing the organ part-time for churches around the Centreville area. He went to Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., where eventually he majored in music.
It was during his college years at Trinity 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 Wharton later met in 1970 while in Paris, France. After finishing college, he decided to attend the School of Music of Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., to get his graduate degree in church music, which included organ, choral work, voice, harpsichord and conducting. It was there, 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 Wharton returned home in 1967, he worked for his father’s veterinary 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 the Rev. Harold Davis, the pastor of St. Mark’s at the time, and asked if he could see the organ. Davis said the organ usually remained locked, but he allowed Wharton to play it because of his experience. Within 30 minutes of hearing his talent, Davis offered him the part-time job of church organist.
Because the pay was low, in addition to his church organist job, Wharton found a full-time job teaching music to seventh- and eighth-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.
By 1975, Wharton decided to take a sabbatical from teaching to go full-time and get his doctorate degree from Catholic University in Washington, D.C. This would be the first of two life-changing sabbaticals in his career.
Wharton’s college professor and mentor, Waters, had 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.
In 1977, Wharton returned to work as an elementary school music teacher at Cordova and Tilghman elementary schools, while continuing to work on his doctorate part-time and serving as St. Mark’s organist.
After Wharton finished his doctorate at Catholic University in 1979, he got the full-time job in 1980 of overseeing the Music Department at Chesapeake College in Wye Mills. He stayed at Chesapeake College until retiring in 2003.
Throughout this time at the college, he continued his parttime job as the organist at St. Mark’s and stayed active in the community music scene.
Wharton formed and supported a musical group of singers and instrumentalists called Abendmusiken, which means “evening music” in German. The group performed more than 100 concerts from 1968 to 1995, incorporating many singers and instrumentalists from the community, such as church and Easton High School choir members, and a number of local soloists.
Wharton said, “Abendmusiken provided me the opportunity to perform and expand upon what I did on Sunday mornings, and encourage church music participation in the events.”
Local vocalist and voice teacher Gail Aveson of Easton, who met Wharton in 1971 between her years in college, took voice and piano lessons from him during the 1980s. She began performing with him in his community concerts and credits him with giving her the confidence to become a voice instructor.
She said, “I credit Bill with giving everyone a chance to sing in the community, not just those who had the best voices.”
Between 1991 and 1994, Wharton was the accompanist for the local music group, the Miles River Musicales, which presented Broadway music around the region. Aveson sang with this group and eventually Wharton accompanied her as a soloist in many local concerts.
She said, “We have been joined at the hip making music for many years. He is like family to me.”
In 1996, Wharton 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.
“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,” he said.
When he returned from his travels, Wharton 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 Wharton loves most is playing the organ — its sounds and literature.
“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,” he said.
The church’s memorial pipe organ is what initially attracted Wharton 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 2,400 pipes of numerous lengths controlled by a console of manuals and pedals.
According to Wharton, the church has struggled with acoustic problems in the church since the organ’s installation in 1962. By 2008, following Wharton’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.
“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,” he said.
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.
As Wharton reflects on his 50 years at St. Mark’s, he said, “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.”
Rekitzke, of St. Mark’s United Methodist Church, said, “Our church has been blessed beyond measure by the many gifts that he has so graciously shared with us over the years. To put it simply: ‘We love Dr. Bill.’”
During the 11 a.m. service Sunday, Sept. 17, St. Mark’s United Methodist Church will honor Wharton with a musical celebration.
The service is open to the public and all are encouraged to attend. A reception will be held afterward in the church’s gathering area.
Bill Wharton is pictured today with the Tellers organ console, which has been digitized for more flexible playing, such as transposing the musical key to meet the needs of the congregation, the choir and the soloist, and making it easier for guest organists to save their organ settings for their performances, as well as the ability to record and playback.
Bill Wharton conducting the Easton High School Choral Group in the 1970s.
Dr. Bill Wharton and a musical group of singers and instrumentalists called Abendmusiken performed more than 100 concerts from 1968 to 1995 throughout the community.
Bill Whartonis pictured in 1973 with the Tellers organ at St. Mark’s United Methodist Church in Easton.