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home : news : news April 29, 2016

10/25/2013 2:33:00 PM
Life after Graduation: Mary Carpenter Davis

by Connie Bickman

Note: This column features "hometown folks," specifically Cannon Falls and Randolph High School graduates - of any year - and their unique or interesting careers and lives since high school. If you know of anyone you feel would make an interesting feature, email cbickman@gmail.com - their email address must be included.

It's 6:30 a.m., in Northfield. Mary Carpenter Davis (formerly Carpenter-Ladwig) heads to her full-time job as St. Olaf College's performance librarian. At 4 p.m., she'll hike over to Bethel Church for a one-hour rehearsal with the Northfield Youth Choirs' Treble Choir, then back to St. Olaf where she'll rehearse with more Northfield Youth choirs until 9:40 p.m.

It's a typical Monday for Mary, who graduated from Cannon Falls High School in 1969 - "a vintage year," she noted.

To say that Mary, who currently lives in Northfield, is a busy woman might be an understatement. Since 2001 she has been a full time performance librarian and copyright administrator for the music department at St. Olaf College. She is also the staff accompanist and composer in residence for the Northfield Youth Choirs; is a private piano teacher; and has been an organist at Church of the Redeemer in Cannon Falls since she was 15-years-old (with about eight years off for college and family).

Other directions which have served Mary well include short excursions into nursing, real estate appraisal, and secondary English teaching. But music kept calling her back, even though she admits it's a challenge to make a living as a musician. "In the end one plays to loving what one does and thinks of it as a calling."

Mary said that she grew up in Cannon Falls during times when members of a community really looked after each other.

"My dad was a bricklayer and in those days there weren't enclosed winter working spaces, so winters were tough. Local merchants floated us for the winter, knowing my mom and dad would pay them back. I've always had an aversion to credit, and I think it might stem from knowing how difficult it was for my parents to be in the position of owing money. In following years, my parents were often on the giving end of things. This taught me that as a member of a community I would always be cared for and it also taught me to respond to others when their needs meet my abilities."

An example Mary notes was when their houses in Cannon Falls flooded in 1998. She, along with her parents, were surrounded by a thousand helping hands, not just for a week, but for several weeks. "City officials and the Cannon Falls community were there for us."

Mary continued, "I loved growing up in Cannon Falls, and while my fondest memories are of family, my memories of the town include pick-up softball on summer mornings at the East Side Park followed by an afternoon of swimming at the pool where the Veterans Memorial now stands. I grew up with bonfires, marching band, skating on the river and Lake Fredrickson, Easter Egg hunts on chilly spring mornings and Easter hats from Lea's Ready-to-Wear.

"I recall the smell of the gym in the old elementary school, chili with cinnamon rolls (a Cannon Falls special!), Jeannette Burch manning the library when it was located in the old fire hall on Mill Street, Jeanne Holien helping us at the post office, and Uncle Toddy delivering our mail.

"Dear Helen Holland of Scofield Drug always had a kind word and a generous heart. We could buy penny candy and comic books at The Corner Cafe and the Northside Store. We went fishing and had picnics on both the north and south sides of Lake Byllesby before the counties developed it.

"I have memories of The Maid Rite, where Fat and Lou dished out their special beef concoction and amazing chocolate malts. I went bowling with my parents when the bowling alley was located below Scofield Drug and boys were pin setters. I also remember the horrible smell of my brothers when they came home from working at the pea vinery, along with the buckets of shelled peas that took gallons of water to clean, but were so worth the effort, as were my mom and dad's garden and the produce they shared."

Mary's parents were Joyce and Eddie Carpenter. Her family was among the original settlers in the area: the Carpenters and Scofields. Her brother, Ed (Butch), died when he was 21 in a car accident. Her brother Carl (Bill) - CFHS 1964 - lives in Austin, Texas with his wife, Sue. He's retired from SAS Institutes, where he worked on both hardware and software projects.

As a "tweener," Mary thought she wanted to play in a piano bar. "My mom took me to MacPhail for lessons with a crusty old guy who taught me to read a lead line and play 'My Wild Irish Rose.'

"I'm grateful that my parents recognized my love for music when I was very young, and I can't think of how my family could have been more supportive of me in my career. My own family is grown, now, and thanks to technology we keep in touch on a daily basis."

Mary's oldest daughter, Charlotte Ladwig, lives in Charlestown, RI, with granddaughter, Jocelyn. Charlotte is studying architecture and works at the New England Institute of Technology. Mary's daughter, Allison Thomas, a pharmacist with CVS, recently moved to Lakeville from Connecticut, where she and her husband, Seth Thomas (CFHS 2003) are raising their daughter, Grace.

Mary shared the story of how one of her most popular compositions, "I Will," came to be: "Three days before my dad died, in 2005, a song came to me, first the music, and then, little by little, each time I would get up with him in the night, the words. The Northfield Youth Choirs sang it at his memorial service. My daughters still refuse to sing it because it makes them cry. I never intended for it to be a sad song. It's really a love song and it's been sung at weddings, in concerts, as well as funerals. But, it does move people to tears."

She said she came out of Cannon Falls "unformed" and she is still "unformed," explaining, "Joy and curiosity wake up with me in the morning, and if I am able to be of service to someone during the day, to make music with someone or to help others make music together, I have met my goal. I believe that when setting goals, we need to have a target, but we need also to be open to the scenery around the target and what that might offer. I like to keep the target in the background."

Taking a look at Mary's list of achievements, you can understand why she said, "These days, a career often doesn't last very long, thus, people will experience many careers in a lifetime. That sounds pretty exciting to me!"

After graduating from Augsburg College and continuing her education at UW River Falls, she's gone full speed ahead. She taught piano in the Cannon Falls Area for several years and enjoyed the collegiality of the Cannon Falls Area Piano Teachers. She stressed that the community is lucky to have such a group among them. Mary was on the faculty of the St. Joseph's School of music, and a member of several chamber ensembles, including L'elegance. She provided live music at the St. James Hotel shortly after it opened, where at one reception for the board of the Mayo Clinic both Paul Volker and Chief Justice Warren Burger offered to sign the music she was playing.

In 1993 Mary joined the music faculty at Shattuck-St. Mary's School in Faribault, as the staff accompanist and piano teacher. In 1994 she began playing for the Northfield Youth Choirs' Cantamus, which at that time was the oldest choir in that group. She has been with the NYC ever since and now accompanies the Concert Choir, Treble Choir and Anima. Mary is also their composer in residence. They recently returned from a 10-day tour in England where a highlight for Mary was having two of her compositions sung in a solo concert at Canterbury Cathedral.

In Red Wing, 2005, Mary soloed with the Cannon Valley Regional Orchestra at the Sheldon Theatre. She also mentioned that she did a brief foray into rock music with the Cannon Falls band, Loose Cannons. "They were so kind to let me play with them!" she stated.

When asked if she has any "heroes" she's looked up to during her musical career, Mary said, "Charlotte Marvick Donhowe, after whom my older daughter is named, has been high on my list of heroes. In spite of a somewhat tragic personal life, the details of which I only read recently in a book about her family, she raised five very successful children by herself. She was on the piano faculty at St. Olaf College, and she was my piano teacher during high school. For me she epitomized blending two lives, teaching and parenting, into one beautiful effort.

"Cora Scholz is another hero, and I realize now, for the same reasons. Cora, founder and former artistic director of the Northfield Youth Choirs, is energetic, thoughtful, musical, generous . . . and did I say energetic?"

Mary has served on both the Cannon Falls Library Board and the Cannon Falls School Board. She continues to write music, mostly for treble voices, teach, accompany and work at St. Olaf. She is also working on starting a choral program through UPeace, which would promote creating choirs in at-risk countries - "peace" and "harmony" mean the same thing. She said she is hoping to retire from St. Olaf in three years and spend more time composing and visiting family, but somehow I don't see her slowing down much.

Recently Mary was the recipient of an award from the American Choral Directors Association for her work as a choral composer and accompanist, "an honored social and recognizable sign of achievement." After receiving the ACE Award, someone told Mary that her thank-you speech moved them to tears. She quipped, "I do that to people."

As far as making the right career choices in her lifetime, Mary easily responded, "I love that my jobs surround me with music and musicians. I can't think of a more inspiring or nurturing environment. I was born to be a musician."

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