Hood River, Oregon
We honor our mother, Alice Sedgwick, for carrying a love of life and wonder of the world around her and sharing it through music with everyone she knows. Born May 3, 1912 in Hood River, Oregon, she says she “came out singing.” From an early age Alice learned the twin arts of pure tone and “singing to the second balcony.” Her father, Otto Wedemeyer, a choirmaster and voice teacher, possessed a velvet baritone and was her first instructor. From her mother, Martha, Alice acquired the lifelong observance of perfect diction. These musical and literary instincts were the essentials for a life of expression and feeling.
Alice lived in Portland and attended Irvington School and Grant High School. She graduated from the University of Oregon. She was an outstanding student, and was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa. Although she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in business administration, she would have preferred to study the fine arts. The Great Depression propelled her to practical pursuits. Nevertheless, with business credentials and music tucked under her wing, she headed to Paris in the spring of 1939, where she got a temporary job in the U.S. Embassy.
Alice was befriended by other young women in their shared living quarters. Before long, she was singing French songs. As Hitler’s armies turned from Russia toward France, the embassy position moved to neutral Holland. In the relative safety of The Hague, Alice resumed her work in the U.S. Embassy, picked up some Dutch and, of course, more songs. Fleeing the advancing German army, her embassy group took a dangerous overland trek beginning in Switzerland, over back roads in France to the only French-Spanish border crossing, into Barcelona and ending in neutral Portugal where she worked at the embassy in Lisbon. By then all of Europe was singing the poignant “Lili Marlene.”
As the war progressed, Alice transferred to the London embassy. Almost nightly air raids took her to underground shelter where she helped as a volunteer. She was given the instructions to “Maintain an air of masterly inactivity until the professionals arrive.” She still loves to quote these words, and, of course, sing the wonderful songs she brought home when she returned to Oregon in December 1943.
After the war, Alice married Jack Sedgwick, acquired a Wurlitzer baby grand piano, and began her career as wife, mother, and business partner. Many of our earliest recollections involve that piano. Each noon, when we were children, a siren would sound, drawing memories from our mother of how people in England would dive under their grand pianos to avoid falling debris from bombs. The piano served as accompaniment to all the songs in the Fireside Book of Folksongs. We were always singing while she played the piano. She made us friends with “John Henry,” “Molly Malone,” and “Sweet Betsy from Pike.” She would get us to finish our dinner by the time she had sung the twelve verses of “Green Grow the Rushes.” When we had to go to bed in summertime while it was still light, she would sing the mournful “Bed in Summer” by Robert Louis Stevenson. She had a song for everything.
Growing up in her household included early days as a Camp Fire Girl. When Camp Namanu came into her life, camp songs flowed out from her mother, Martha, and cascaded over Alice. Namanu songs of work, play, repose, and worship continued to ripple from Alice down through two successive generations to the present.
In 1953 the Sedgwicks moved from Portland to The Dalles so that Jack could oversee a business venture there. For the five years we were there, music was a big part of life. We joined the Congregational Church, where Mother sang in the adult choir. She established a junior choir, which she directed. Her enthusiasm and confidence were so strong that she even got the boys in the back row to carry a tune. Music carried her through those difficult financial times, and her gift for words came in handy when she was a feature writer for The Dalles Chronicle.
Unfortunately, the baby grand piano did not follow us to The Dalles. Nevertheless, being the resourceful and life-long musician that she was, Alice took up the recorder. Duets with a partner were a big musical boost in the absence of the piano. She would sometimes sneak in a little practice after the choir had exited the church service. The music was known to drift up from the basement where they were playing, through the ductwork, and into the quiet sanctuary.
Alice maintained her beautiful singing voice. Songs from the church piano and choir kept it in good tune. She never forgot how to “sing to the second balcony,” as her father had instructed. She had a trumpeting “Whoo-hoo” that would ring out across the countryside to call us home.
The baby grand piano finally made it to The Dalles and music poured forth again. When we moved back to Portland in 1959, the piano followed us. Mother also inherited her father’s Mason and Hamlin parlor grand. That meant that our living room sported two pianos. She went right to work and found piano partners. For the next thirty-seven years our house was a festival of music.
During that time, Alice’s son, Bruce, and some of his friends, horsed around with the piano, took music and theory, and became musicians. Our family even joined in learning “Little Drummer Boy” for one of our Christmas caroling parties. Jack sang the bass “rum-pum-pums”; Bruce sang tenor; her daughter, Avery, sang alto; and Mother sang soprano. Our guests loved our caroling parties. They would start inquiring in October so they could reserve the date.
Throughout her ninety-six years, Alice has nurtured and shared the fullness of life through music with family, friends, and house guests. She still parcels her time with Joyful Notes and Wednesday Music Rehearsal at her home in the Terwilliger Plaza where she lives.
Written by: Avery Sedgwick Neilson