Vaneese Thomas '74

Video: [9 min 47 sec] | Download

President Chopp, dais guests, ladies and gentlemen......

44 years ago this September I entered Swarthmore College as a young and eager freshman.

I was eager for new ideas and experiences and at the same time, I was scared to death!

I was very close to my mother and didn't know how I'd get along without her. I was also very insecure and shy. I know those of you who know me now are saying "You? Shy?"

Yes, I was very shy.

I used to sit in Tarble behind a screen and play the piano not knowing there was a group of students listening on the other side. I'd come from behind the screen and be in shock. That taught me many lessons: one, that my musical gifts were powerful and that they were also appreciated.

I met my life-long friend, Carolyn Mitchell, here at Swarthmore. She is another prodigiously talented musician with whom I sang at many concerts at the college. She, James Batton and I comprised a trio that performed consistently for our tenure here. With their help and support I came into my own as an instrumentalist and singer.

Another important part of my musical and spiritual growth at Swarthmore came as the result of the elitist and probably racist perspective of some of the professors.

The Class of 1974 entered Swarthmore in an environment of racial tension and an adjustment to new policies adopted due to the upheaval on Swarthmore's campus the year before. I belonged to the largest class of African Americans to enter the college up to that time and with us came new challenges for everyone at the college.

I joyfully joined the college chorus that year under the direction of interim director Michael Korn. The chairman of the Music Department was on sabbatical and returned the following year. I quickly learned that I didn't agree with the chairman's narrow idea that the only music that had validity was Western European music.

Music from our own country that was not classical was of no importance and we could not expect to perform any other styles or genres in the college chorus. I was upset at this turn of events and I left the college chorus. But out of adversity was born a tradition that's lasted to this day, the Swarthmore College Gospel Choir.

As students we used to sit around any piano on campus and sing gospel music. James Batton and Terence Hicks grew up singing and playing gospel music and we were fortunate to have them as a part of us. I learned soooo much from them regarding gospel chords and direction. After they graduated the torch was passed to Cheryl Sanders and to me and we became officially a choir. There is currently a student choir and an alumni choir.

I want to thank the faculty and staff who supported us then and gave us enough love and understanding to shine and grow. I want to especially thank secretary Gretchen Bowen who took me into her heart and into her family and comforted me when I missed my own family. I also grew to love Dean Gil Stott who helped this Southern black girl discover that I couldn't generalize about Northeastern white academics. He was one of the warmest and most loving humans I've ever met. He invited me into his home and I felt welcome at his dinner table. He and his wife even played at our farewell concert senior year. My family got larger and my circles wider while I was at Swarthmore. My experiences here prepared me for the world in which I now live. I write songs that reflect my faith, my relationships and my upbringing. Swarthmore is always present in those songs and I'm grateful.