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Former Students Give the Gift of Music for Retired Professor’s 90th Birthday

Oct-10-2014

It all started with a handwritten note.

The note, which contained a wish for a happy new year, wasn’t why it meant so much to Glenna Murphy.

It represented her memories from 1975 to 1979 in Eastern Illinois University’s Music Department, and especially her memories of the author, Catherine Smith.

Smith, a music professor emeritus, dedicated her career to musical education and taught for almost 40 years at EIU in piano performance.   Murphy, a Tuscola resident, was one of Smith’s many students throughout the years.

“I knew I needed to do something for her,” said Murphy, an EIU alumnus, after she read Smith’s note earlier in the year.

With Smith’s approval, Murphy decided to organize a celebration for Smith’s 90th birthday. The celebration wasn’t going to be about cake and streamers, but about music and Smith’s former students.

The piano recital, with more than 20 students and colleagues of Smith’s scheduled to perform, will begin at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 18 in the Dvorak Concert Hall in Doudna Fine Arts Center. The performance is open and free to the public.

To Murphy, the recital is a chance to show Smith what she spent days in her office teaching each one of her students – her passion and dedication to music.

It’s no surprise that Smith can’t wait to hear her students perform again, but Murphy said the alumni are anxious and excited to perform in front of a mentor, who always challenged them to succeed.

“She always pushed me to excel on the piano, wanting me to practice four hours a day, six days a week,” said Murphy, reminiscing fondly. “She always knew when I didn’t practice.”

Back in the late 70’s, Murphy remembered the first time she met Smith. In a scholarship audition, Murphy played the piano in front of Smith and another professor.

After the audition, they ate lunch in the Martin Luther King Jr. University Union together. “She was so kind and interested in me,” Murphy remembered.

Even years later, Smith recalls Murphy as a talented young pianist with “good hands.” Her recollection of Murphy is only one example of the plethora of knowledge the retired music professor still keeps of her students.

“Dr. Smith does not forget a student,” Murphy said.  “She took to heart each and every one of us.”

Even after her retirement, Smith kept in touch with her students. Her students have worked as instructors and performers in music, and they have kept music a central part of their lives. Right now, Murphy serves as a liturgist and pianist at St. Charles Borromeo Church in Charleston, and she is eager to play on Saturday.

Smith was a member of the piano faculty from 1949-1986 and served as a chairwoman for the keyboard area for many years. She’s considered to be one of the first women in the United States to receive a doctoral degree in piano performance from Florida State University.

Smith traveled throughout the world and performed with many European pianists and musicians. In her later years of tenure, Smith traveled to Asian countries to lecture and present recitals.

Smith was involved in the Charleston community and served on the committee that planned and built the Newman Catholic Center. Since her retirement, Smith lives in her hometown of Bloomington, Indiana.

The recital will feature solo performances, duets, two piano works and eight-hand pieces. EIU alumnus Ron Roberts from Huntsville, Alabama, will serve as master of ceremonies for the event.