Flower of Beauty
Alumni singers carol to raise money for scholarships.
It would be easy to center a story on Suzie Parker Nichols, BS Ed ’68, a singer who while traveling in 1985 saw a choir dressed in Victorian-era clothes, returned to mid-Missouri, recruited other Mizzou alumni and founded her own costumed a capella group — a group that has since caroled every Christmas season to raise $82,000 for music scholarships at MU.
And that would be a good story. Five of the eight founding members of The Missourians, including Nichols, were members of University Singers, Mizzou’s top choral group. These days, for a charitable donation of $250, Nichols assembles an ensemble she has carefully chosen and painstakingly rehearsed to perform from a memorized repertoire of 45 songs. The close harmony they sing, unaccompanied, is demanding work, even for the professional musicians among them. All concert proceeds, except what’s necessary for costumes whose construction is beyond the group’s sewing talents, have funded travel and other needs for dozens of University Singers members over the decades.
“In the beginning, most of us were music teachers. We didn’t have a lot to give, and we thought of singing in The Missourians as a way to give back,” Nichols says.
But give back to what, exactly? University Singers? Yes and no. This is where the center shifts from Nichols. For, more than anything, the group’s core and its motive force is their teacher, the late Tom Mills, who directed University Singers from 1952 to 1977. Mills, who died in 1995, had been a national leader in American choral music, says David Rayl, who directed University Singers from 1990 to 2002. “One of the extraordinary things about him was the way he could foster strong connections. It was not just between him and his singers but also among the students themselves,” Rayl says.
He had his ways. For instance, everyone had nicknames, says Nichols, aka Suziebell. Paula Gee, BS Ed ’73, recalls how, in nervous moments before performances, Mills sometimes sketched a face on the thumb and index finger of his right hand. When he raised the hand to conduct, that tiny comic countenance entertained and calmed the group.
Mills, by telling stories of his youthful rites of passage in the rural Arkansas of the 1920s and ’30s, drew generations of students into the emotion of his own musical world. Back then, says Mills’ son, Tom Jr., BS Ed ’71, M Ed ’73, tent revivals were common across the South. “My father and some of his music friends went to these meetings, which were mainly attended by black people, and that’s where he heard spirituals for the first time. He loved them.” And Mills told stories of the chain gangs that sometimes worked the railroads in his town. “They would bring the prisoners out, and they’d start driving spikes. They’d get a rhythm going with those hammers, and before you knew it they were singing. My father loved the harmonies and the message of those songs. He talked about such things in class and made people more aware of where these songs came from,” Tom Jr. says. From that living tradition, his father collected at least one of the spirituals, “Now Let Me Fly,” and arranged it for his choirs for whom it became a sort of theme song.
The other signature piece for Mills’ choirs was “Flower of Beauty,” a lyrical and unabashed love song that includes this stanza by Sydney Bell:
I know she walks in the
evening down by the riverside,
And the grasses lean to kiss
her robes who soon will be my bride:
More dear to me her little
head than earth or sky or sea!
She is my slender, small
love, my flow’r of beauty, she.
“Flower of Beauty” was special to Mills, who was never one to hide his love for his wife. “There was something about how Tom conducted that song,” Nichols says, “and I remember thinking, ‘We’re singing about Pansy Mills, and I hope somebody feels that way about me some day.’ ” It seems that, in his teacherly way, Mills loved his choirs and looked after them as though they were his musical bride. “He was a big believer in singing from the heart,” Nichols says, “and I’ve tried to carry that on.”