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Pro­fessor Melville Chase had an important impact on Hillsdale’s music department. | “His­toric Hillsdale College” by Arlan K. Gilbert.

We love our pro­fessors here at Hillsdale. They are so self-giving and always ready to nurture stu­dents, even when we don’t under­stand how that C- helps our moral well-being. Pro­fessor Melville Chase was one of these incredible faculty members, with a teaching span few at Hillsdale could ever hope to match.

Chase was born in Maine in 1842, according to Hillsdale his­torian and former pro­fessor of history Arlan Gilbert in his book “His­toric Hillsdale College.” He was a Civil War veteran who fought with the 9th Maine Infantry. A tal­ented music instructor, Chase came to Hillsdale after the inim­itable Ransom Dunn, who was a preacher and pro­fessor at Hillsdale, traveled all the way to Maine specif­i­cally to request his ser­vices for the college.

Maine is quite a long dis­tance from Hillsdale, but Dunn was deter­mined to find the best of the best for his college. The pre­vious music directors left the college on very short notice after being told that Hillsdale didn’t have the finances for a con­ser­vatory-style music school. Dunn had two weeks to find a replacement, and rec­om­men­da­tions from the New England Con­ser­vatory of Music led him to Chase.

In her book “The First Hundred Years of Hillsdale College,” his­torian Vivian Moore explains that Chase was appar­ently so impressed with Dunn and the college that he agreed right then and there to come teach. In his excitement, Chase made the decision before telling his wife of the sudden plans. Whatever he ended up telling her must have been the right thing, because they packed up and moved to Hillsdale almost imme­di­ately after Dunn left.

As Hillsdale College’s fourth music pro­fessor, Chase taught piano, voice, organ, and harmony (which probably refers to music theory). While some sem­blance of a music cur­riculum was a part of Hillsdale from the beginning, it was Chase who truly built the entire department. Orig­i­nally, few music classes were taught besides piano and voice. Chase and his wife con­tinued these, but he also intro­duced theory classes, started the Beethoven Society, and orga­nized musical events. According to Moore, Chase helped design the second floor of the brand new Fine Arts Building, giving ample space to the ever-expanding arts pro­grams.

He was a mas­sively influ­ential figure on campus and a popular figure in the town. A com­mem­o­rative article written after his death tells how Chase attended every single com­mencement during his time at Hillsdale, to the delight of many returning alumni.

Gilbert wrote that at times, “[Chase] was the entire music department.” His first studio was a tiny room with an old upright piano. This was the only piano on campus, so Chase taught at home after 4 p.m. each day so his stu­dents could practice on his studio piano. He even hunted down and secured pianos in private homes around town for his stu­dents. He wore every hat in the department for some time before help was hired. Gilbert wrote, “By 1881, he had a teaching load of 95 instru­mental stu­dents and 95 vocal stu­dents.”

Chase did not receive a salary while he taught here and earned only what he made from student fees. His stu­dents loved him, even pitching in to buy him a gold watch in 1887, which he proudly showed off to people until the end of his life.

A man of immense talent and a passion for service, Chase studied Greek and Latin in his spare time and was the College Baptist organist for decades. He was a member of the National Music Asso­ci­ation and the Michigan Music Asso­ci­ation.

Chase’s motto was “Dig deep, build care­fully, hasten slowly,” and all of his practice sheets he gave to stu­dents were headed “Do not confuse practice with attempts at per­for­mance.”

Chase retired from Hillsdale after an aston­ishing 54 years. He remained pro­fessor emeritus of music until he died peace­fully in his sleep at the age of 98 in 1940. He is buried in the Oak Grove Cemetery here in Hillsdale.

There are so many more things that could be said about this mon­u­mental man. Every account of him describes him as engaging, kind. and con­sid­erate to those around him. He was a man full of life and energy, and a true blessing for this college. We are indebted to him for his incredible ded­i­cation to our beau­tiful school.

  • Alexan­derYp­si­lantis

    Truly a man who made great con­tri­bu­tions during his life.