by MaryAlice Bitts-Jackson
Flutist Harry Houdeshel ’40 was smitten from the moment he spied classmate Ruth Donahue ’40, and when she stepped into his checkout line at the College Bookstore, he wasn’t about to let the opportunity pass. He couldn’t chat with her then, so he slipped one of her textbooks behind the counter on the sly, hoping she’d return.
That creativity and determination were hallmarks of Harry’s remarkable life and career. Dickinson recently paid tribute to one of its most distinguished music alumni with a concert in Harry’s honor.
Raised in Bethlehem, Pa., Harry began to play flute at age 9, and by 12, he was a card-carrying professional—the youngest music-union member at that time. The Great Depression was on, and he contributed to the family economy by playing flute in silent movie theatres and jazz saxophone in nightclubs, chaperoned by his father. Harry also competed in regional and national competitions, earning first place nationally in piccolo and second in flute.
After the family moved to central Pennsylvania, Harry played first chair in the Harrisburg Symphony Orchestra (HSO). He maintained that position while at Dickinson, where he studied English and education, with initial plans to go into law. Dickinson did not yet have a music program, so Harry studied flute off campus; when opportunity arose to study with the Philadelphia Orchestra’s William Kincaid, he didn’t let a lack of funds hold him back. With help from a local women’s club and his HSO colleagues, Harry organized a benefit concert and raised $1,000—enough for a year of lessons. All this while playing varsity tennis, playing in Dickinson’s orchestra, being involved with Omicron Delta Kappa and Sigma Alpha Epsilon and working in the bookstore, the spot where he met his future wife.
It’s easy to understand why Harry fell. A vivacious transfer student from Upper Darby, Pa., Ruth earned the nickname “Skipper” because she often skipped across campus, and she shared Harry’s love of music and puns. She also was no stranger to the art world—her father, an engraving company professional and friend to N.C. Wyeth, brought Ruth to Wyeth’s studio throughout her childhood—and was supportive of Harry’s musical dreams. They married in 1943.
Meanwhile, there was a war on, and a draft. Harry auditioned for the U.S. Navy band in 1941, and he didn’t make the cut, so he planted himself outside the conductor’s office and asked for a second audition. This time, he was in. Harry spent two decades with the Navy band, completing 27 tours. He also performed regularly at the White House, rubbing elbows with heads of state and diplomats and bringing gala treats home for Ruth and their children, Pete, Jo Ann and Marc. Along the way, he befriended noted musicians Jean-Pierre Rampal and James Galway. He was soloist during President Eisenhower’s 1960 Goodwill Tour to South America, his final Navy stint.
Between tours and concerts, Harry earned a bachelor’s in music from Catholic University (1946) and a master’s from the Washington Musical Institute (1953). He led master classes after concerts and at summer music schools in Maine, and when he left the Navy in 1960, he went on to teach at Indiana University (IU). Harry also performed with the American Woodwind Quintet and established a woodwind department at the Banff School of Fine Arts.
Daughter Jo Ann Houdeshel Miller fondly remembers family summers in Maine and cross-country trips to recitals and concerts. She and brother Marc also accompanied Harry on a sabbatical trip to Europe, where Harry performed and studied in conservatories, bringing his teenagers along to see the world. His sabbatical accompanist was the cultural attaché to Spain. Harry retired from IU in 1986; in 2005, the university named a concert hall chair in his honor. He passed away in 2007.
Ruth also made a mark. An avid reader who played classical piano and harp, she worked in the personnel department at the U.S. Navy Yard during the war and then taught in the D.C. public school system before earning her master’s in education from IU. Ruth taught at the IU Speech and Hearing Center and worked for 18 years as a reader for the blind, recording more than 30 books for the Indiana State Library Talking Program. She also volunteered for the IU Art Museum. She passed away at age 96.
On April 23, Dickinson staged a concert in Harry’s honor. It also was the farewell concert for Mary Hannigan, who has taught flute at Dickinson since 2000, often performing on campus with husband Barry, a pianist. Besides the flute, Mary shares two notable commonalities with Harry: She met her spouse as an undergrad (the Hannigans met at Colorado College and will retire out West), and she holds the first-flute chair in the HSO, Harry’s onetime spot. During the concert, Mary completed that circle by performing “Sicilienne” by Gabriel Fauré, one of Harry’s favorites.
“We all grew up listening to stories about Dickinson, so this concert means so much to us,” said Jo, who traveled to Dickinson from Cincinnati, along with Pete (Salt Lake City), Marc (Maryville, Tenn.) and other family members, to attend the concert. “Somewhere, my parents are grinning ear to ear.”
Published July 12, 2016