Next weekend, Goshen College will celebrate the birthday of Mary K. Oyer, a former GC music professor, who turned 90 on April 5.The birthday celebration is an opportunity for the college to celebrate a life well lived, but also to pay tribute to Oyer for her legacy after the 40 years of service. Even though she retired almost 30 years ago, people still remember the great teacher she was.
“She is a genius,” said Dr. Debra Brubaker, a professor of music at GC. “You talk to her for five minutes, and you feel smarter because of her knowledge and the joy that she shares it with.”
In addition to being a college professor, Oyer has acted as a church musician, cellist, hymnody scholar, hymnal editor and more.
Oyer’s passion for music started at an early age.
“I had a feeling for music when I was very young,” Oyer said.
Her family could not afford to pay for piano lessons for her, as her family suffered the effects of the Great Depression.
“Faculty people or their wives gave me piano lessons for free, so when I was in kindergarten, I started playing the piano,” Oyer recalled, saying how grateful she was that she grew up in a community like Goshen.
After getting both her master’s and doctoral degrees at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Mich., she began teaching music at Goshen College in September 1945. However, her teaching extended far beyond Goshen College. A Fulbright scholarship and sabbatical leaves allowed her to travel to 22 African countries such as Liberia, Ghana, Kenya, Botswana and the Congo.
“She did a great work gathering hymns around the world, researching their origins,” Brubaker said. “She was also very good at teaching those hymns to people.”
During her trips, Oyer recorded a lot of music. Today, she has 150 cassette tapes of music from around the world.
Lisa Horst, a GC graduate, is working to digitize that music to make it more accessible and more conservable.
To honor Oyer’s work, the Music Department and Music Center are inviting students, professors, faculty and the entire Goshen community to attend the special celebration, and to share that legacy with those who may not know about the richness of the knowledge she left behind.
The activities of the celebration will take place on Friday, April 19 and Saturday, April 20. On Friday, there will be a concert in the Sauder Hall at 7:30 and it will be free for GC students and $5 for non-students.
On Saturday the schedule will be as follows:
1:00 p.m. Hymn sing with Dr. Debra Brubaker, music professor, Rebecca Slough, dean of Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary, and Kevin Vaughn, Goshen College organ instructor
2:30 Mary Oyer and the ethnomusicologist Dr. Roderic Knight will talk about “Musical Instruments as a Window to African Culture”.
4:00 Lisa Horst and Mary Oyer discuss and explain the “Mary Oyer African Music Project”
5:30: African-themed meal in College Mennonite Church Fellowship Hall ($25 for other people and $15 for students).
7:30: Celebration program in Sauder Concert Hall. Mary Oyer will share some of her journey, followed by the GC Women’s World Music Choir and hymn singing and many other performances.