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.