Music blurred color lines for McCollum
By ASHLEY MORRIS
Although in his mid-80s, Youngstown College alumnus Everett McCollum still remembers the social taboo that existed between white and black students in the 1950s.
“Everyone knew their place,” said McCollum “They knew where they would be welcomed, and they knew where they would not be welcomed. It was understood where your place was and there were no altercations as a result.”
Notwithstanding the racial divide between black and white students, McCollum said he never experienced any discrimination or prejudice. In fact, he said faculty members were in awe of his raw musical talent.
“I was never denied anything,” he said. “My teachers saw unusual talent in me. In those days, you didn’t become ‘close’ friends, I put a quotation mark on that word. I had close black friends, but I didn’t have any white friends. Yet, they were friendly with me and I was friendly with them.”
McCollum knew he had a natural gift for the piano by age 5 and so did members of the community. Using money he earned from playing at events, he would buy music to teach himself jazz and classical.
“The first music lesson I had, I taught myself,” he said. “I would hear music on the radio and memorize it. Any function that required a pianist, I was invited to play. There was no set fee they just gave me $5, or $7, or $10.”
Realizing his true vocation, in 1953, McCollum majored in piano performance under the mentorship of Henry V. Stearns in the Dana School of Music.
“He took me under his wing and guided me,” McCollum said. “That’s how I became educated in music. It was through his prodding. He was an old gentleman, who walked with a cane, and I’m now an old gentleman walking with a cane.”
After graduating in 1958, McCollum went on to earn his master’s degree from Westminster College in New Wilmington, PA. Like his mentor Stearns, he decided to develop the love of music in people by becoming a teacher, albeit he still wanted to perform. He even had the opportunity of performing alongside the jazz musician, Jimmy Lunceford.
For 32 years, he worked as a teacher and principal in Youngstown City Schools. He had also been involved with the productions of several Broadway musicals.
“I enjoyed teaching more than I did performing,” McCollum said. “Performing was nice and that was a natural thing. But teaching was an experience of taking a child or an adult or a young teenager knowing zero about music and teaching them the fundamentals and bringing them up.” While there, McCollum was known for taking on large Broadway-style musical productions, such as “Oklahoma!” and “Bye
Bye Birdie.” Some students remember him clasping his hands at the beginning of every class, bowing and reciting the phrase, “Greetings and salutations dear hearts and gentle people.”
For 23 years, McCollum conducted the United Methodist Church choir, making him the first African-American to conduct an all-white choir in Youngstown. After taking the position, several members left in protest.
“I don’t see black and white,” he said. “I was just as comfortable there as I would have been at a black church. It was an enjoyable occasion.”
McCollum’s wife, Mary Helen, who died in 2008, was also a musician. They met while attending Youngstown College.
“We both majored in music so our interest was singular,” he said. “She had a boyfriend before me, and he was not musical in any way. He was a good friend, but as he used to say, I stole his girlfriend. She loved music, so I married her.”
Despite their mutual love for music, it never seemed to rub off on their four daughters, who now work in the fields of psychology and secretarial work.
“None of my children acclimated to music,” said McCollum. “Music was not their calling.”
McCollum said that he believes those who are attracted to music will hear the calling and flock to it naturally, rather than forcefully.
“We did not try to force music on them,” he said. “We let them choose their own. None of them were inclined to be musicians and I didn’t expect it, because mine was a gift.”