Not even cancer could have kept Professor Paul E. Oakley from directing Catawba College's 21st annual Service of Lessons and Carols this year.
Most of the almost 1,300 people who attended one of the two performances held December 2 and 4 in Omwake-Dearborn Chapel on campus weren't even aware of Oakley's personal battle. That awareness only came when Oakley took artistic license during the Dec. 2 event and turned from facing his performers to face the congregation and acknowledge several rows of his invited guests – local health professionals, Dr. Mark Wimmer, Dr. Emil Cekada and Dr. Jack Kribbs and members of their "excellent staffs," and his mother – all of whom are helping him fight his personal battle against the disease.
The tall, jovial 48-year-old joked that he was interrupting the flow of the performance, although he was not yet protected for such license by being a tenured faculty member at Catawba, to publically express his gratitude and let everyone know that world-class health care is available right in Salisbury. Calling himself blessed, Oakley shared his personal battle and victory with the audience. Many were moved and left the service with a new insight into the man who now serves as artistic director for the popular annual event first begun at Catawba 19 years ago by Professor Rosemary Kinard who retired last year.
Since being diagnosed with colon cancer last summer, Oakley has undergone surgery and is now taking bi-weekly chemotherapy treatments. He is jubilant that recent test results have been positive and his prognosis is "extremely good."
Catawba College's Development Director Carolyn Peeler had a bird's eye view of Oakley during the two performances. She was one of the seven readers during the service and was seated in the chancel, facing the congregation. She saw the positive reaction his students and community members who sang during the event had to Oakley's direction and left with a renewed appreciation of his talents.
"It was amazing to see," Peeler notes. "The whole time they are singing, he's encouraging them and smiling. After each song, he would mouth to them 'good job' or 'thank you.' They bloomed under his direction."
The number of performers taking part in the service has swelled in recent years to showcase the diversity of talent being fostered in Catawba's Music Department. This year, performers included the Catawba Chorale, made up of community members as well as students who sing in either or both the Catawba Singers and the Catawba Madrigals; the Catawba Wind Ensemble, conducted by Dr. Stephen Etters; the Catawba Children's Chorus, conducted by Randi Skaggs, and an outreach of Catawba's Community Music Program, directed by Dr. Julie Chamberlain; the Catawba Handbells, under the direction of Dr. Timothy Belflowers; and the Market Street Brass Ensemble.
Readers in the service, in addition to Peeler, included Katie Hill, president of Catawba's Student Government Association; Robert J. Casmus, head athletic trainer and instructor of physical education; Dr. Elizabeth Homan, interim chair of and assistant professor in the Department of Theatre Arts; Dr. Andrew A. Vance, Jr., professor of Modern Foreign Languages and Business Law; Dr. Edith Bolick, interim provost; and Dr. Craig Turner, Catawba's president. Dr. Kenneth W. Clapp, Catawba's chaplain and senior vice president, served as liturgist for the service.
And the People Said…
"When all the voices sang, it was like hearing angels." "It was wonderful and moving!" "I think this was the best Service ever." "They should really add a third performance because so many people want to come." "This marks the beginning of my Christmas season." "I've heard a Service of Lessons and Carols in England and Catawba's is better."
These were just some of the comments from those who attended one of the two performances which began each evening at 6:30 p.m. with a prelude of Christmas music. The service is based on the famous ritual that originated at King's College in Cambridge, England, which weaves beautiful carols of the season with scriptures or lessons, relating to the story of Christmas from the prophecies to the mystery of the Holy Trinity. A new addition this year was the reading of an excerpt concerning amazing peace from Poet Maya Angelou's "Celebration," read by Dr. Elizabeth Homan.
Catawba College senior Jennifer Osborne said of Homan's dramatic reading: "It was done so with such conviction and feeling that the audience was left hanging on to every line, every stanza. It was as if for a few brief moments all that was wrong with the world ceased to exist and the prevalent theme of PEACE resonated."
Music which was performed included "Arise, Your Light Has Come," "Climb to the top of the highest mountain," "Angels from the realms of glory," "Choose Something Like A Star," and "O come, all ye faithful." An unexpected musical addition in the prelude was a version of "The Rose/Lo, how a rose e'er blooming," made popular by Bette Midler and peformed by the Catawba Madrigals and mezzo-soprano soloist Melissa Alessi, a Catawba College student majoring in music business.
Oakley himself was even wowed by all of the elements which came together during the service. "The splendid acoustics and organ of the Omwake-Dearborn Chapel allow Catawba to offer our community the grandeur of performance in a cathedral-like setting with the intimacy of the beautiful stained glass windows, soft candle lights and elegant greenery. The sights, sounds, smells, and feeling of Christmas reverberate from the beautiful Chapel interior."
tickets, Tickets, TICKETS!
Free tickets for this year's performances were at a premium, with the Dec. 2 event open only to invited guests, including trustees, various board members of the College and faculty, staff and students, and the Dec. 4 performance open to the general public. This widely anticipated community event has played to full houses in recent years and after some with tickets to the 2007 service showed up and found no seats available, it caused planners to reassess available seating in the Chapel and to rethink how the event was advertised and promoted.
"More people wanting to attend than can be accommodated is a good problem to have, but it's something we need to look at seriously as we plan for future years," said College Marshal David Pulliam.
The Service of Lessons and Carols has traditionally been scheduled after Thanksgiving break at the College and before final exams begin. Due to the popularity of the event, a second night's performance was added half dozen years ago, but thoughts of adding a third night's performance to accommodate public demand is problematic. Most of the singers and musicians cannot commit the time needed for both rehearsals and a third performance date, and few at the College are willing to sacrifice the Chapel setting, its Casavant organ and its acoustics in favor of more seating offered in Keppel Auditorium of the Robertson College-Community Center.
College administrators will be weighing all of their available options as they help Oakley plan for 2009.
PHOTOS: Service of Lessons & Carols 2008