I believe in alma maters—not the schools, but the songs that are the eternal voices and echoes of those institutions. No songs on earth, save for the Star Spangled Banner, can bring about such a profound sense of who we are than those sung in a chorus of hundreds of thousands of people whom we have chosen to call “family.” No two people ever share the exact same memories or experiences of their college days, but the spirit that unites them is deep and eternal.
I helped to write my middle school song and recall each word of it. Likewise, as a member of the high school band and choir, I sang to the “glory and victory” of our fighting Spartans for many years. Still for me, those were songs of a time and place—of childhood and fleeting days. They have meaning, but a limited one.
When I was a student at Heidelberg College in Tiffin, Ohio, where I studied music education and was a member of the concert choir, marching band, wind symphony and orchestra, I probably performed their alma mater hundreds of times. The song has been sung by hundreds of classes, around this country and in concerts all around the world. Historical records indicate that the school song “Sweet Alma Home” was considered one of the most unique and beautiful alma maters ever written.
At my graduation and baccalaureate in 1981. I couldn’t get through the ceremonies. My eyes were filled with tears as we sang together for the last time. But it wasn’t really the last time. Heidelberg always had a tradition that when the concert choir performed in churches and concert venues anywhere they traveled, the last song in the concert was always “Sweet Alma Home.” Alumni in the audience stood to sing their part. From the pews of small churches and huge cathedrals the room was filled the layers of harmony from voices young and old. It was one of the most moving things to see—to realize that wherever you went, someone else understood exactly what those words meant.
In June, 2006 I returned to Heidelberg College, to celebrate our 25th reunion. For three days we laughed and cried as we revisited our years as music majors, having shared almost all our classes for those four years. It was a small school. Back then we had dinners at our faculty advisors’ homes; some students worked for the professors to earn spending money. Many of us pledged the Greek societies together. They say ours was a special class—there have been few as close-knit and like a family. And all of us sang the alma mater with special pride.
The alumni of the concert choir always perform at their respective reunions. Ferris Ohl, former department chair and director of the concert choir (and in his 90’s) stood to conduct the song, and I couldn’t help myself.. As soon as I heard the first notes of the introduction, my eyes grew moist and my throat tightened just a bit. I felt every word and note but I couldn’t sing. Even thinking about it today brings tears to my eyes. It’s about the tradition, about a chosen family, about love of a place we called home as we passed from childhood to become adults.
I attended the Ohio State University for my masters degree. The sounds of Carmen Ohio echo across that campus and out into the world. Ohio State is a big and powerful school, and thanks to its athletic success, the song can be heard many times throughout the year. When I hear that song played I get wistful and sentimental too. School songs truly connect us.
I imagine my own graduation in the “Shoe” with thousands of graduates and their families…so much grander and exciting than my undergraduate class of 134 or so—but with just as much pride and meaning.. Arms raised at the end of the song, each singer forms the letters of O-H-I-O with both pride and melancholy. You can see it at the end of a football game too. “Time and change will surely show, how firm they friendship O-HI-O!
I am now working on my PhD at an online school. Alas, no football teams or choir tours. No pledge classes or midnight beer runs (The drinking age WAS 18 when I was in school!) No all night study groups or spring break trips…and no alma mater. No special song to unite all the graduates of this school. No tearful reunions or memories to share, save for familiar names in common classes. It has a hollow and empty feel.
It makes me sad to think that as I near completion of this important and terminal degree, as I prepare for the possibility of new opportunities and career changes, none of it will ever compare to what I feel for the Heidelberg College class of 1981. A small group of people who genuinely cared for one another, who can still meet after 25 years and relate in a way that feels as if we never said goodbye. For that, I love you all. And I miss you.
Heidelberg Sweet Alma Home
Music by Professor F.A. Power
Words by J.E. Hartman ’96
Sweet Alma Home!
Where’er we be,
Where’er we roam,
On land or sea,
Our swift-winged memory
In yearnings (yearnings) backward flies to thee.
Sing Alma Mater, Heidelberg!
Sing till the vaulted heavens ring!
Sing till the gales on swiftest wing
Bear the song away!
Sing till returning echoes bring
Back again the lay!
(Sing till the echoes bring back the lay)
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