Some Memories of
St. Thomas Choir School (1937-40)
My name is
Charles Whitney Walton known in Choir School as Whitney. I entered the
Choir School in the fall of 1937 age 10 years old. I was recruited from
Ridgewood, New Jersey by a friend of Dr. Noble who was the organist and
choirmaster of an Episcopal church in Paterson, NJ.
The fall of 1937
was when the Choir School at 121-123 W. 55th Street opened its new building
connected to the old building and fronting on 56th Street. The new
building contained the study hall, classrooms and a gymnasium/auditorium
on two floors. That year the school increased its enrollment from 30 boys to
During my 3 years
at St. Thomas, we slept in 2 dormitories on the 5th and 6th floors (no
elevator, no radios, TV and computers did not exist).
We were allowed
to go home after Sunday evensong and required to return for Study Hall at 7 PM
on Monday. I wonder if this is still the routine.
There were three
Masters: Charles Benham, Headmaster; Ralston Coles and Thomas E. Berry, two
sportsmasters who coached us in football, basketball and baseball, and the
housemother, Florence Atwater. Students started in the 6th Form (Grade). Many
left after 8th Form as their voices changed. My last year (1939-40) there were
four in 9th Form. I heard that a few years later the School had a student in
We wore two piece
suits with knickers. Only students in 7th form and over 5’7” were permitted to
wear long pants on school days. I was big enough for long pants. On
Sundays we all wore black knicker suits, black shoes, black knee high socks,
the dreaded Eton collars and black ties. We had only white shirts with banded
collars to accomodate the required stiffly starched Eton
collars that we wore for dinner and all day Sunday. The shirts accomodatefd
soft collars for school days. Neckties were one color - black even on week
As we arrived for
the evening meal we formed two lines for inspection by Mrs. Atwater and one of
the older boys to be sure our hands and fingernails were clean, shoes polished
and starched collars were free of water or other stains. Students who were
sloppy eaters were humiliated by being assigned to the Housemother’s table. The
older boys were privileged to be at the Headmaster’s table. And boys who did
not greet Mrs. Atwater with a cheery “Good Morning” on the way to their
breakfast tables were reprimanded.
maintained in the dormitories by older boys called Prefects with authority to
administer the hair brush to the backside of students who talked after lights
out or other minor infractions in the dorms. The Masters administered harsher
punishments when required. A Study Hall Prefect could issue demerits for
misbehavior in Study Hall. Over 5 demerits in a week meant being sent to bed
early on Saturday night. More than a higher number of demerits, I forget how
many, resulted in the additional penalty of early to bed without dinner.
Dr. Noble was a
strict disciplanarian in choir as well as a wonderful teacher. All 40 of us
sang the two Sunday services. A smaller nunber took turns singing at weekday
services during Lent. When we returned from Summer vacations, Dr. Noble would
listen for cracking voices. He heard mine crack so in my last year, I was
removed from the end of a front row and placed in the secnd row.
We did not travel
far from the City but a select group of older boys did sing at an occasional
wedding or funeral service and sang each year at Christmas time at Elizabeth
Arden’s salon on Fifth Avenue receiving monetary compensation and gifts to take
home to our mothers. Money accumulated for extra appearances was paid to us by
check when we graduated and in some cases was a few hundred dollars.
were excellent. We had Latin in 7th and 8th form, French in 8th form, Algebra
in 8th form with the regular doses of English, Geography, History, Hygeine plus
music theory classes on Saturday. The academic level was so advanced that
several of us from Ridgewood were able to skip
9th grade and enter Ridgewood High as Sophomores.
The education and
discipline learned at St. Thomas
has been a constant factor throughout my life. By skipping 9th grade I
graduated from Ridgewood High in 1943 at 16. Because of the War, I entered the University of Michigan in the summer of 1943 and
graduated in 1946 at age 19. Then on to Columbia Law School which was running
an accelerated program for returning veterans so that I had my law degree at
the young age of 21. Due to a 5th grade knee injury, I did not serve in the
Married in 1948,
the personal neatness learned at St. Thomas meant that my wife of 60 years has
never had to pick up my clothes or bath towels.
I credit St.
Thomas with providing me with the opportunity to receive an education at a
young age and a disciplned approach to my studies leading to the career as a
corporate legal counsel that I pursued for over 40 years.
Retired in 1992, we are now living in a
continuing care retirement community in a suburb of Tucson, Arizona. My wife
and I did visit the Choir School in 2003. The young man who conducted our tour
was rightfully proud of the magnificent facilities.