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Whitney Walton '40

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 40.

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 10th Form.

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 days.

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.

Discipline was 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.

The academics 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 military.

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.

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