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6. Feed Old Passions


Acclaimed singer Vaneese Thomas ’74 has come a long way since 1970, her freshman year at Swarthmore, where she says she had a “miserable” time dealing with the racial polarity on campus as well as the College’s legendary academic rigor. Her campus experience was saved, however, by singing.

Yet, according to Thomas, neither she nor other black student singers at the time were comfortable participating in the College Chorus—and Peter Gram Swing, then chair of the Music Department, saw little value in performing gospel music—so the black singers founded their own choir. Thomas, the late James Batton ’72, and Terrence Hicks ’73 took turns accompanying about 35 singers on the piano.

“Anywhere there was a piano, we’d gather and sing,” Thomas says. “We all came from different church backgrounds but were all raised in the gospel tradition. Singing together became our sanctuary. We didn’t need the College Choir, because we had our own—and we needed that bond.”

Each semester, the new Gospel Choir performed on campus to a packed house—“standing room only, people in the aisles,” Thomas says. “The campus loved it!”

By the time Thomas graduated, the choir was more than 40 strong. With a teaching job in the Philadelphia area, she continued to serve as its accompanist until 1979.

In 1986, when the Gospel Choir celebrated its 15th anniversary, Thomas and other former members returned to campus to support the campus choir.

“We realized how much we loved and missed it,” Thomas says, “and that’s how the Alumni Gospel Choir was born. We used to come back to perform on campus more than we do now—life gets in the way—but we come at least once a year. And those from areas close by come more often to sing with the campus choir and support them in any way we can.”

Even today, Thomas says, black student singers still seek and find refuge and comfort in the Gospel Choir.

Next year, the student and alumni gospel choirs will sing together in celebration of their 40th anniversary on campus, and the alumni choir will travel to China in May as part of an international performing arts program sponsored by The Brockman Institute.

“We’re looking for folks to join us, if they wish,” says Thomas. Contact her at


• The Swarthmore Warders of Imaginative Literature (SWIL), a science fiction club, has an extensive social network that has been connecting hundreds of alumni since SWIL’s founding in 1978. Electronic channels now keep members informed of online discussions or events. The club organizes group vacations to places including Alaska and Acadia National Park, Maine; as well as working trips such as one to carry out an environmental project in Louisiana. About 40 members publish a monthly group magazine—the most recent, their 336th issue, had 114 pages. In April, they celebrated their 32nd reunion, in honor of which they published a SWIL Alumni Cygnet. Want to know more? Contact Jim Moskowitz at

• Alumni Geoffrey ’71 and Cecily Roberts Selling ’77 both served as chairs of the Folk Dance Club while at Swarthmore. They’re still dancing. The Sellings and many other folk-dance alumni work to sustain the traditional English-Scottish Ball, held for the first time in their senior year and annually—usually in February—since then. Drawing large numbers of area dancers, tri-college alumni, and current students, “It quite fills Tarble-in-Clothier,” Geoffrey Selling says. With the help of dancers from the area, Swarthmore, Bryn Mawr, and Haverford alumni have also helped keep alive a Scottish and English dance class for decades, after it was dropped from the Physical Education Department’s regular schedule. It now meets off campus. Contact the Sellings at

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