By Jim Glidden
There’s a memorial service at Union for Professor Hugh Allen Wilson on Friday, May 20 that I intend to attend. Hugh taught music and voice at Union from 1962-1996, so his time was before that of today’s students. That’s a pity. I’ll tell you why, and I devoutly hope one of your own teachers comes to mind.
For Hugh Wilson, excellence was a way of life. As an organist and harpsichordist performing all over the world, he was voraciously exacting and demanding of himself. As head of the music department and director of the Glee Club, he was exacting and demanding of his students and singers. You didn’t take a class with or from Hugh. You studied or played or sang for him, and you quickly learned that perfection, although never to be reached, was expected.
[pullquote]Hugh taught me that excellence—in any endeavor—is something one owes to oneself. But more than that, Hugh taught me that the pursuit of excellence brings joy.[/pullquote]
More than any teacher or mentor or boss I’ve ever had, Hugh taught me that excellence—in any endeavor—is something one owes to oneself. But more than that, Hugh taught me that the pursuit of excellence brings joy. I really mean that. As I got to know Hugh, saw him practice, saw him perform, saw him teach. I saw that this man constantly demanded excellence of himself. Incredible focus. Maximum effort. Devotion, commitment, dedication, and work. He did it over and over until he got it right. Never a doubt, never a question. You see, for Hugh, the very struggle to achieve excellence in all he did was an act of joy. He didn’t preach this; he showed it. I’ve seen and heard Hugh’s organ concerts in Memorial Chapel, that loveliest of buildings, and have been astonished at his art, his mastery, his brilliance, his flair. At those moments I also saw his joy and his humility, for he knew he was blessed, and he was grateful for being able to get the absolute best out of himself.
Watching Hugh Wilson, I realized—we all did—that to sing for this man meant that I had to get the best out of myself. I had to concentrate and work to the utmost of my ability. Anything less would have been worse than letting Hugh down; it would have been letting myself down. Further, I came to understand that working and concentrating, with a maximum of devotion and commitment, in order to sing as well as my (modest) talents would allow me, brought an inner joy—satisfaction and humility—which I have carried with me ever since.
Hugh was also one of the funniest and most delightful guys I ever met, and I’m grateful to have been close to him until he died. Everybody who knew him remembers his “cackle.” He was always ready to shock and surprise. Once we were about to sing at Symphony Hall in Boston with the BSO. We had practiced endlessly and we knew our music cold. But in rehearsal the night before our performance, Hugh could see we were tight and nervous. The following day, in razor-pressed black tie, he stepped up to the podium, and with his back to the audience, he cast a withering, steel-cold glare across us. Then suddenly, with a truly maniacal grin, he pulled open his coat and displayed to us the most ridiculously shimmering purple and pink and day-glo vest under his jacket you could imagine. The vest did its job—all 50 of us cracked up, and we sang beautifully.
Hugh Allen Wilson was the best teacher I ever had. Because of what I learned from him, I can tell you that excellence is within all of us. It’s just waiting to be discovered and tapped. There is profound joy in the intensely hard work necessary to its extraction. Hugh taught me that. I fervently hope that you, in your time at Union, will find a teacher who inspires you, as Hugh inspired me and many like me, so long ago.
So here’s to you, Union Students, and here’s to Hugh Allen Wilson: BRAVO!