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Published: Saturday, 5/23/2009

Sounds like school spirit; singing their alma mater brings students together


On some days, the morning announcements at Libbey High School begin with a little soul music. On others, it s classical or country western.

But it wasn t any of those that got senior Julis Mosely out of his seat singing one recent day, waving one hand in the air and adding little yelps from time to time. It was the school s alma mater.

"It really expresses how we really feel about the school when we sing it," the 18-year-old said. "Sometimes I just go through the school and sing it."

Filled with lyrics linking life-long friendships and school colors, alma maters have long been a means of stoking school spirit, most notably during commencement ceremonies at this time of year. At some schools, however, what was once a rousing chorus has become a distant echo.

"I think they ve died out some from the late 60s or early 70s," said Oliver Boone, executive director of the High School Band Directors National Association.

While circumstances vary regionally, cuts to music education have taken their toll, forcing band directors to prioritize. Often that s meant focusing less on performing the alma mater in order to squeeze in essentials like the national anthem and halftime show, he said.

Not every school has someone as high-profile as, say, Ohio State University football coach Jim Tressel insisting that players sing "Carmen Ohio" after games. The consequences of that affect the school at-large.

"If you re not playing the school alma mater, you re not tugging at the heartstrings. And when you tug at the heart strings, you get school spirit," Mr. Boone said.

Schools with strong traditions of singing their alma maters at gatherings other than just graduation already know that. Consider Whitmer High School, where the lyrics are painted on the field house wall and each pep rally ends with students emptying the bleachers to sing, voices and arms raised together.

Whitmer High School junior Evan Back ends his singing of the school s alma mater with a flourish. The lyrics to the song are on the wall behind him. Whitmer High School junior Evan Back ends his singing of the school s alma mater with a flourish. The lyrics to the song are on the wall behind him.
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"To me, it symbolizes the past people who have been here, the past groups that have put their love and devotion into Whitmer, as well as us," said Evan Back, a junior. "It kind of brings together the whole Whitmer family."

It was that feeling of pride that Greg Taptich wanted to capture when he wrote the lyrics for the song at St. John s Jesuit High School. The 1972 graduate wrote the lines True to you we ll always be, / Our hearts filled with loyalty to a melody written by his band director father as part of an English assignment at the time. Today, his words resound at every rally, assembly, or sports contest, win or lose.

It s the kind of thing that makes an impression. Toni Kelly, a 1981 graduate of St. Ursula Academy, remembers singing her alma mater at all school assemblies and masses. As an adult, she continued singing it to her children when they drove past the school on Indian Road.

"They would start singing it when they d see the school, almost like a lullaby," she said.

Alma maters have struggled to remain relevant at other schools. Just ask students like Brad Kruger, a senior at Bowsher High School who asked: "Do we even have one?"

Libbey High School senior Julis Mosely sings the school s alma mater, which opened the morning s announcements. Libbey High School senior Julis Mosely sings the school s alma mater, which opened the morning s announcements.
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Yes, for the record, but the school s song, which dates back to the 90s and is played at graduation, didn t really catch on with students who seem to prefer the drumline and dance team at school assemblies.

"Here it just never seemed to be anything that s all that important to the kids," said assistant principal Christine Coleman.

Until five years ago, Libbey High School had an even greater problem. No one even knew what the song was. It took some digging to rediscover the anthem written in the 1920s by Della Williams Paine, sister to the school s first principal and then record a version. Now it s played most mornings over the public address system.

"Not only do our students know it, our custodial staff knows it, our secretaries know it," said Kimberly M. Caldwell, assistant principal of activities at Libbey who led the quest to revive the alma mater.

"I went to Woodward High School, and I can still sing my alma mater to you. I m old school. I wanted them to have a similar relationship," she said. "It links the present with the past hopefully the present with the future as well."

Sometimes it may feel like an uphill battle. Alma maters tend to have slow, lilting melodies, a stark contrast to the flashier, more bombastic fight songs. Still, they don t deserve to be tossed aside as remnants of another era; they re part of a school s identity, according to James Dowdy, president of the Ohio Music Education Association.

"It s all part of what makes the school unique," he said.

Dylan Moore, student council president at Springfield High School, appreciates that. The song is played at football games and graduation, the words are up on the wall in the field house, and it s been formally taught to incoming freshmen for the last couple of years. Even if most kids don t know the words yet and by his estimate they don t it s important to keep trying.

"It s just one of those things where if you know it you feel more connected to other students," the junior said. "If you know the alma mater, that s really saying, hey, that s what Springfield is all about."

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