Mary Oyer died in Goshen on January 11, 2024, at the age of 100. Oyer was a professor emerita of music at Goshen College.Oyer moved to Goshen in August of 1924 at 16 months old, after her father, Noah Oyer, took a job as the dean of GC. She moved into a yellow house on Eighth Street, right across the road from campus.
Oyer graduated GC in 1944 and then began working at GC the following year where she would work until 1987. In those early summers she studied cello at the University of Michigan. In 1958 she would become the first string player to graduate with a Doctor of Musical Arts Performance degree from Michigan.
“She was talented enough to go into the mainstream musical elite,” said Rebecca Stoltzfus, president of Goshen College. Stoltzfus served as a student accompanist to the chamber choir for one semester when Oyer filled in as director.
“She would mince no words in telling me what to do. I remember one time she wanted me to do something differently than I had done … and she said, I want to see you notate that. She wanted to watch me pick up the pencil and write it into the score. So she was a little scary.”
Joe Springer, curator of the Mennonite Historical Library, has early memories of watching Oyer conduct the choir from the balcony at College Mennonite Church as a young boy.
“She would move as she was directing,” he said. “I remember being scared that she would fall over backwards … I don’t think she was ever really at risk, but she was up there.”
During her time at GC, Oyer filled a wide variety of musical roles. She directed choirs and taught strings. She spent extensive time in Africa, listening and recording music, much of which has been digitized as part of a collection. Outside of the college, Oyer worked on “Mennonite Hymnal,” a precursor to the 1992 “Hymnal: A Worship Book,” which she also worked on parts of.
Rebecca Slough, academic dean emerita at AMBS, met Mary Oyer in the early 1980’s and was close to her for the rest of Oyer’s life.
“I think she would want to be remembered as a woman who served the church,” said Slough. “Who loved the church, and found great joy in helping the church sing.”
Stoltzfus reflected on a conversation a few years ago, where Oyer recounted why she chose to continue teaching at GC.
“It was a deliberate choice,” Stoltzfus said. “The words that she used with me were, ‘I decided to come back down off the mountain’ … she had an extremely distinguished career in many ways, but it meant a lot to her to be with her people and to be teaching the arts with Mary Oyer.”
Perhaps her most famous endeavor, “fine arts with Mary Oyer,” as it was unofficially known, was a lower level fine arts course that educated college students on a variety of music, visual arts and theater.
“One of the things that we do in alumni events is we just ask people to name the most formative faculty member or person,” Stoltzfus said. ‘Her name comes up over and over again. And it’s about that course. And it’s that combination of challenge, fear and thrill of being in her courses.”
One way Oyer would test students was by “dropping the needle,” where she dropped a record needle midway through a piece and asked students to identify it and say what was happening in the piece at that moment.
Jeshua Franklin, executive director of the Music Center, said that “there have been a number of conversations about how we might honor her in the future. Whether very soon or down the road a bit, Mary’s legacy will certainly be commemorated in the Music Center and music department.”
Regardless of any future building renamings, Oyer’s memory will live on in the people who knew her.
Springer said, “I always found the visits to be very interesting and delightful … I found her to always be interested in the people she was talking to.”
From Slough: “She was a person many, many, many people respected. And she just had room in her spirit to just keep meeting people — and meeting them in ways that they knew they mattered to her.”
Stoltzfus reflected on Oyer’s legacy: “She was just ahead of her time. She was a formative force on this college, and I think it sort of set a trajectory and a prominence of the arts that is still a part of the Goshen College experience.
“I only have respect.”