A DISCORDANT NOTE. President Foster awarded diplomas to Reed's first graduates in 1915. Howard Barlow ’15 didn’t get one.
A DISCORDANT NOTE. President Foster awarded diplomas to Reed's first graduates in 1915. Howard Barlow ’15 didn’t get one.

Fanfare in a Minor Key

Howard Barlow ’15 was the heart and soul of Reed’s music program. The English Department didn’t approve.

By John Sheehy ’82 | October 13, 2021

By all accounts, Reed’s first commencement in 1915 was a joyous affair. As graduating seniors gathered before the rostrum of Eliot Hall’s back steps, the sun came out, beaming down on the assembled throng of proud parents and the college’s five founding trustees. News that Stephenson Smith ’15 had been awarded a Rhodes Scholarship helped to validate the college’s claims of intellectual rigor, as did the hard-won achievements of those in the first graduating class. Of the fifty students who had enrolled in Reed’s inaugural freshman class, 64% received their diplomas that day, a graduation rate that would not be topped for half a century. 

Among the robes and mortarboards, however, lay a discordant note. Howard Barlow ’15, the English major who had more or less singlehandedly run the college’s music program, did not receive his diploma when he walked to the podium. Instead, Reed’s president, William T. Foster, presented him with a consolation prize—a gold medal bearing the seal of the college. It was a demonstration of the college’s unsparing adherence to academic integrity. 

Perhaps, thought President Foster, too unsparing.

Barlow transferred to Reed in his sophomore year from the University of Colorado. His arrival was an indication that Foster felt something was missing in the nascent student body. Part of that had to do with the expectations that Foster, a thirty-one-year-old, first-time president, himself had created.

Barnstorming the country to promote the new college, Foster created a buzz by brazenly criticizing the common practice of admitting students “on condition,” meaning their academic deficiencies were essentially overlooked. Foster contended that accepting such “unfits” for the sake of securing tuition dollars reduced the college experience for all into little more than “a sheep-dip assembly line.”

Reed, he promised, would be different. Devoid of fraternities, intercollegiate athletics, and other “sideshows,” the school would forge its sense of community from a devotion to scholarship, expressed through independent thinking, tolerance of opposing views, free speech, and a relentless, painstaking search for the truth. That message was spelled out in the marketing materials, which advised prospective students that they must be “willing to work, and to work hard.

Thanks to Reed’s initial endowment from the estate of Simeon and Amanda Reed, Foster was able to guarantee that no student would be admitted “on condition,” nor any student turned away for inability to pay the $100 annual tuition fee ($2,500 in today’s currency). 

Because Reed’s trustees decided on a soft opening for 1911—quickly throwing up a downtown warehouse for temporary classes while the permanent campus was being built in Eastmoreland—there were no dormitories available freshmen year, meaning that the student body was largely restricted to Portland commuters, our students from out of the area willing to find boarding on their own. 

Foster received 263 applications for fifty slots in the very first freshman class. After personally interviewing each of the finalists, as well as their parents, ministers, teachers, and other intimates, he chose twenty-four women and twenty-six men. Described by one professor as “a thoroughly wholesome and unsophisticated lot,” the majority of students received financial aid; ten of them full scholarships. Although the gender balance was essentially even, men and women were to be taught separately, as a discrete college was planned for women on the new campus, along the model of Harvard and Radcliffe (the plan was ultimately dropped in 1914 due to financial constraints).

Despite his declaration to create the ideal academic boot camp, Foster soon realized there was something missing in his handpicked student body—something that would lead him to recruit Howard Barlow to Reed the following year. 

That missing piece was music.

Music was prominent at Reed’s opening convocation on September 18, 1911. Workmen, still applying finishing touches to the college’s temporary quarters at SW 11th and Jefferson streets, were asked to put down their tools as fifty wide-eyed freshmen made their way through the building debris to a small storeroom designated as “the chapel.” In a brief thirty-minute ceremony, trustee chairman Thomas Lamb Eliot offered an invocation, sociology professor Arthur Evans Wood, fresh out of Harvard Divinity School, read from scripture, and Frances Sheehy ’15 sat down at the piano to perform a musical interlude.

Sheehy was clearly an outlier among the freshmen. The daughter of an Irish painting contractor, not only was she the sole Catholic among the Protestant students, she was a decade older than most of them, and could have easily been mistaken for one of the college’s four professors, whose average age of twenty-seven was equal to hers. After graduating from Portland High, Sheehy had trained for two years at a Chicago music conservatory before returning to Portland, where she became a popular concert pianist and a piano instructor at Pacific University. 

Following Sheehy’s musical interlude, Foster addressed the students. “The future of this institution,” he told them, “is, in a peculiar sense, in our hands.” 

He wasn’t exaggerating. With only four professors, courses the first year were restricted to mathematics, literature and languages, public speaking, history, and College Life—an introduction to Reed’s values and study habits. Science courses were postponed until the second year, when labs would be available on the new Eastmoreland campus. 

School days began with chapel service at 8:40 a.m. Although not compulsory—Reed was nonsectarian—morning chapel became a popular ritual, with the crowd of students standing outside the small chapel as large as those jammed inside. The service consisted of a brief talk by Foster or one of the professors, followed by a classical piano performance by Sheehy, who served as the college’s defacto music director. To appeal to students who lacked formal musical training, she favored selections with strong melodies. 

Morning chapel service continued at the Eastmoreland campus when it opened in the fall of 1912 with just two buildings, the Arts Building (later renamed Eliot Hall) and the Old Dorm Block. At the new chapel’s dedication, Sheehy was joined on stage by Howard Barlow ’15, who had just arrived on campus from Colorado and formed the Reed Chorus, assuming from Sheehy the reins of defacto music director. Sheehy, accompanied by Barlow’s chorus, performed a song from the Wagner opera Tannhauser

With freshmen and sophomores now living on campus, Sheehy and Barlow decided to introduce to the chapel a Sunday vespers, or late afternoon prayer service, featuring works by Schubert, Mozart, Mendelsshon, and Handel. As word of the vespers spread, the student performances were opened to the public, drawing in as many as 500 music lovers from Portland. Soon Barlow was conducting regular concerts on campus featuring Sheehy and the Reed Chorus, raising Reed’s musical profile in Portland and inspiring students to lobby Reed to create a formal music department.

Foster had no problem with a music department, but most of Reed’s faculty members disagreed. They felt that the so-called applied arts—including music, dance, and drama—veered too close toward craft or pre-professional training, and therefore had no place at the “ideal college” Foster had recruited them to, with its uncompromising devotion to scholarship. There could be clubs, they declared, but no classes.

Music at Reed suffered another blow in 1913, when Frances Sheehy’s father died of a sudden heart attack the summer after her sophomore year. She left Reed to find work, landing at the Portland Symphony Orchestra. She eventually opened a prominent piano school in Portland, which she maintained until her death in 1953.

Meanwhile, Barlow dedicated countless hours to making music at Reed, singlehandedly organizing the vespers and directing the chorus for the next two years. Unfortunately, his studies suffered as a result. In the spring of 1915, the English department rejected his senior thesis. President Foster took the unusual step of appealing their decision. Surely, he argued, Barlow’s achievements in music were as original and valuable as any of the accepted theses. But the department refused to budge. 

Howard Barlow walked away from the stage that day in 1915 without a diploma, only the gold medal Foster had given him. One can only guess his state of mind, but his dedication to music had paid off in one way, at least—Columbia University had offered him a graduate scholarship. After serving as a sergeant in the US Army during WWI, he went on to a stellar career as a conductor. He led many national symphonies, including the New York Philharmonic Symphony, and served as music conductor of CBS radio and finally NBC’s Firestone Orchestra, whose show, the “Voice of Firestone,” aired on national TV every Monday night for almost two decades. Wielding the baton in a distinctive white tie and tailcoat, he was instantly recognizable to a generation of Americans in an age when televised concerts were touchstone cultural events.

But the story doesn’t end there. Many years later, in 1948, Foster (by then an economist based in Boston) was invited back to campus to deliver the commencement address. By that time, music was no longer considered a sideshow at Reed—Prof. Herb Gladstone had finally established a music department. Rising to address the college he had done so much to shape, Foster spoke on the theme of “Pay the Price and Take It.”

“Without freedom of speech,” he told the assembly, “there can be nothing worth the name of college. If students say nothing which meets vigorous opposition in the community, either the students are not thinking or they are not allowed to speak. If you wish to have a college worth the name, pay the price and take it.”

After his speech, Foster called Howard Barlow to the stage and did something he was not able to do when he had been president. On behalf of the college, Foster presented Barlow with an honorary degree.

Tags: Alumni, Performing Arts, Reed History