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Music at Maple Mount rekindles emotions 50 years after it began

Kellie Ashby McClanahan grew up in Owensboro, but now lives in Helena, Montana. She drove 1,700 miles in two 12-hour days to return to Maple Mount on June 9, 2024, to attend the Music at Maple Mount reunion.

“It was the call to come back,” she said. “This was my childhood. I was here from the fifth to eighth grade.” The two-week camp each summer taught her to improve as a singer and violinist, and gave her a proper education in the arts. But it was the friendships she made that brought her back.

“Maple Mount is ingrained in my childhood,” she said. “There was music constantly. I remember saying, ‘I play violin, would maybe a cello want to play with me?’ And suddenly four other people were around me. I ended up with a wonderful group of friends.”

Those types of stories abounded June 7-9 as dozens of former participants in the camp returned to Maple Mount from around the country. The reunion was one of the ways that the Ursuline Sisters of Mount Saint Joseph are celebrating 150 years since arriving at Maple Mount. It also marked the 50th year since the first year of the camp.

Clinton Miller attended the music camp from 1988-90, first as an eighth-grader. That summer the students put the works of Robert Frost to music.

“I thought, ‘Wow. I’m in a real choir now. The education was nothing I could have received elsewhere,” he said. Miller later was part of the Atlanta Symphony, got to sing at Carnegie Hall and throughout Europe. He now works as a church musician in Findlay, Ohio.

“I would never have gone into music without this camp,” he said.

Before the weekend was over, he bought a memorial brick from the former Mount Saint Joseph Academy and Center that was deconstructed in 2023. The building was the hub for the students who stayed at the camp. He plans to place the brick on a shelf of mementos from places he sang across Europe.

“This will be first because this is where it started.”

The camp was the brainchild of James and Julie White in 1975. James White was chairman of the Music Department at Brescia College in Owensboro, the school founded by the Ursuline Sisters. The camp ran for two weeks at the convent at Maple Mount, with acclaimed artists coming in from across the country as faculty.

One such artist was pianist Michael Coonrod, who taught for 46 years at the prestigious Interlochen Arts Academy in Michigan. Coonrod and his wife Jean worked the camp for 18 years, and returned for the reunion.

“Where can you go where the faculty is required to sing with the students?” Coonrod said. “I taught in the Madonna Room with a 9-foot Steinway grand piano. It meant a lot to be here with my wife, and to get to play with Jim and Julie.”

Jean Coonrod, who taught cello, said the camp was a special place to let all the students be treated equally.

“Some of the kids didn’t fit in at school. When you have a camp like this, everyone is wearing the same shirt, no one knows who is rich or poor,” Jean Coonrod said.

Heather Day Lane was a shy 16-year-old when she came to music camp in 1988.

“I had the best time of my life,” she said. She had never sung anything besides choral music when she sang the jazz number “God Bless the Child” at the camp. As an adult, she sang in her own jazz trio. She drove from Nashville to attend the weekend.

“There was something that said I had to drive here. This was a special place,” she said. When given the chance to perform at the June 8 Alumni Concert, she once again sang “God Bless the Child.”

Bryan Heath knew he wanted to make a career in music once he came to his first camp as a high school freshman. He earned his doctorate in trombone and now plays professionally in the Louisville Orchestra.

“When you think of the top five moments in your life, a couple of them happened for me here,” he said.

Emily Malone began with the camp in 1993 after the fourth grade, and stayed until the end on the staff. She sang a stirring version of “How Can I Keep from Singing?” during the Alumni Concert.

“My goal was to take over for Jim and Julie one day,” she said. “This camp got me ready for the Governor’s School for the Arts and for college. I brought my wife on Saturday, I wanted her to understand why I am the person that I am. Music at Maple Mount had more of an influence on me than anyone other than my mother.”

One of the most famous alumna of the camp couldn’t attend, but he sent a message via video. Many participants gathered around a phone to watch the video from Kevin Olusola, who is on tour as a member of Pentatonix. He wanted to let everyone know that he was thinking of them and how important the music camp was to his development as an artist.

Planning for the reunion began in June 2023, with the Whites and Karen Higdon, their assistant from 1996-2005, working with Dan Heckel of the Ursuline Sisters staff. At the conclusion of the final concert, Higdon produced printed copies for all the alums with the names of the 1,431 people who came to Music at Maple Mount – students, faculty and Sisters who helped.

The alumni gathered the first evening, June 7, on the Owensboro riverfront, then spent the weekend at the Mount. They took part in line dancing led by Sister Elaine Burke, the longtime assistant at the camp. They also did a scavenger hunt, filled out a music theory test (for fun), and practiced, practiced, practiced for performances on Saturday and Sunday. In between they found time to rekindle old friendships, explore the grounds, make s’mores in the park, and reconnect with the Sisters who volunteered at the camp.

On the final morning, some participants gathered in a circle to tell their stories of what the camp meant to them.

Elaine Wright attended when she was 9 and 10, playing the cello.

“Being able to be at the Mount at that age was important,” she said. “When I attended Brescia, it felt like home.” She moved away for 20 years, but for the past eight years has been back teaching at Brescia. She thanked the Whites for their commitment to bringing quality music to Owensboro.

“Julie and Jim have been one of the most elegant, iconic couples in Owensboro,” she said.

The weekend was at times emotional for the Whites. James White told the group gathered in a circle, “I look at you each in the face and say, ‘we couldn’t have done it without you.’”

Following the Alumni concert on Saturday, Julie White said, “I think we’ve been surrounded by love sweet love this afternoon. I couldn’t be more grateful that you’re all here. It means the world to Jim and me.”

The Aloha Choir, consisting of alumni and faculty, concluded the weekend singing the “Hymn to Joy” and the traditional closing song from the camp, “May the Lord Bless You and Keep You.” Julie White summed up the weekend with one final sentence.

“We always felt like it was a slice of heaven coming to Maple Mount.”


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