Loving Lenoir's musical heritage

Oct. 11, 2013 @ 07:32 AM

Lenoir was built on music. At Tucker’s Barn in the late 1700s, area residents would gather for everything from voting to frolicking at the meeting place that would become the city of Lenoir.

The music that was played there must have stuck in the dirt and air, because it’s still there today, says J. Neal Isaac, organizer of Loving Lenoir 2013, the third annual celebration of the city’s musical heritage.

Lenoir has birthed many a great musician, Isaac says, mainly through the Lenoir High School Band, which was rated as superior for 42 years running, and in those decades produced musicians who would travel around the state and country to direct other bands, play in national orchestras and even lead the U.S. Navy Orchestra. The band itself played at the inauguration of Gov. William Umstead in 1953.

The New York Metropolitan Opera even made a trip down to Lenoir, just to sing with the Lenoir Band, Isaac said.

Capt. James C. Harper is perhaps the most renowned figure associated with Lenoir music and Lenoir High Band.

Harper, a Lenoir native, founded the Lenoir High Band after returning from World War I with the rank of captain. The band building at old Lenoir High was named for him, and he served on the committees that founded Caldwell Memorial Hospital and Caldwell Community College.

There’s something about Lenoir, there’s just natural talent here,” Isaac said. “We need to celebrate that, especially when the town is trying to reinvent itself, one of the things that has always been the same whether furniture goes out or Google comes in is the musical heritage.”

Loving Lenoir is all about remembering and honoring those people and that musical heritage that makes Lenoir treasured. This year’s event honors five Lenoir residents: Camilla Graeber, Ophelia Stallings, Ed Whitener, Jim Graeber and Bernard Hirsch.

Camilla Graeber was associate band director at Lenoir High School before becoming band director at Hibrithen in the 1980s. She led the band to many superior ratings and has since been inducted into the North Carolina Bandmasters Association Hall of Honor. 

Ophelia Stallings served as Lenoir High School band's secretary, starting her senior year in high school in 1944 and continuing all the way through 1980, an integral part of the band's machinery. She kept scrapbooks of the band, and even to this day, keeps up with Lenoir High alumni.

Ed Whitener, as William Lenoir Middle School band director, has collected 21 superior ratings in his career.

Jim Graeber, a LHS band alumnus, has gone on to make a career working with bands at various high schools, including Hibriten, winning many awards and superior ratings.

Bernard Hirsch followed Captain Harper to the office of band director at Lenoir High, where he directed from 1958-68 after taking music lessons in Chicago in the 1920s and directing the University of Michigan band for one year in the 1930s.

“We were blessed by being brought up in a town like Lenoir,” Isaac said, saying the city needs to “honor the teachers that gave so much and did so much for us and got paid so little.”

Loving Lenoir was started in 2010, at the 100th anniversary of the College Avenue Baptist Church, where a “bunch of people in their 50s raised in Lenoir,” as Isaac described, “pledged to get back together the next year.” Eventually the idea grew into the event it is today.

“We had grown up in Lenoir when the band and choral programs were so strong,” Isaac said, so getting back to their Lenoir heritage and getting back to their musical heritage went hand-in-hand.