By Jim Kitchen
Reprinted with permission from Chiron Rising #62, June/July 1994, pp. 50-53.
It was a glorious winter afternoon in La Jolla [California] as I stood on the porch watching sunlight glint of the Pacific. I rang the doorbell. “Just a minute,” someone called. Soon a tall, courtly man opened the door, smiled and held out his hand. “Please come in.”
Surely this man wasn’t in his ninety-second year! His eyes seemed unclouded, his voice though quiet was strong and clear, his handclasp firm. We sat at opposite ends of a sofa. “Well, what do you wan to know about me,” Dr. Leslie Spelman asked.
I told him that I’d like to know how he started his musical career. “I didn’t choose music. Music chose me!” Before we went further, he asked me to call him “Pratt”, his middle name which he much preferred.
He leaned forward and began to talk in long, uninterrupted passages.
“I had a lot of encouragement and support. My grandmother taught piano and started giving me lessons when I was about five years old. As I improved, I played for evening services at church and later played an occasional recital.”
He paused for an aside. “I was raised in the Congregational Church and as was usual in those days, we had daily Bible readings at home and attended Sunday school and morning service every week. Father would discuss the pastor’s sermon at the Sunday dinner table, sometimes agreeing, sometimes not. He was strict but also broad-minded. In later years, I realized that I had never been taught anything I had to give up.
“Beginning in the fourth grade at the Covert, Michigan public school, I went from one room to another to play for the singing and so early on learned to sight read.
“As a teenager I played for different churches in South Haven, where we had moved so I could attend high school, and I was disgusted at the pressure and sentimentality of their alter calls some of the pastors made. They seemed so artificial.
“Instead of engaging in the usual friendships and activities of small town boyhood, I despised sports, read poetry, and dabbled in art. Although I knew I was different from the other town boys, I knew nothing about what we now call gay. However, I always had one special friend. In first grade it was Cecil with whom I exchanged notes. We kept in touch until Cecil’s death in ninety-three. In high school, it was Ruben. We were very close and shared out thoughts and feelings, but nothing physically sexual was involved in either relationship.”
His mother, formerly a teacher in a one-room school, reinforced Spelman’s self-assessment by frequently telling him, “You’re something special.” Having lost two children, she centered her love and aspirations on Leslie. She believed strongly in her son’s talent, and when she realized that Grandmother had brought him as far as she could, she arranged for him to study with a better teacher in South Haven, several miles away. Once a week while still in grammar school, he made the round-trip by train, music bad in one hand and twenty-five cents for lunch in a pocket.
“When the time for college came, again Mother prevailed. Father wanted me to go to Olivet, his alma mater in Michigan, to prepare for a ‘practical’ career. Several members of our family had already sought fame and fortune as musicians, only to fail. He wanted something more secure for me. Mother believed in my gift for music and insisted that I be given the best opportunity to develop it. She won and I went off to Oberlin College in Ohio.
He paused and smiled. “Oberlin was quite an awakening. In South Haven, I’d been a musical star; at Oberlin, I was just another student. My first real lesson in humility.”
Spelman spent six years at Oberlin (1922-28), earning a Bachelor of Arts degrees in both art and music, as well as a Master of Arts in art history. In 1925, as a 22-year-old junior, he also passed the examination for Associated of the American Guild of Organists (AAGO).
Spelman left Oberlin in 1928 to begin teaching at William Woods College in Fulton, Missouri. During the first year there, he married his first wife, Muriel. In the second year, at the age of 25, her became music director when the incumbent went elsewhere.
During his student years, Spelman also attended summer sessions at the University of Michigan, where he met his special friend, Bill. “My wife knew about him, as we visited one another over several years. I felt no guilt about the relationship, as I thought of sex with men as occupying a separate compartment of my life.”
One summer Spelman signed up for a class in Buddhist sculpture simply because it offered a respite from the summer heat on the way back from the outlying earlier class. It turned out to be an extremely significant “accidental” decision.
“I didn’t know anything about Buddhism or much about sculpture or much about the Orient. But I quickly became interested, and as a result also became very friendly with the professor, who was both a Buddhist and an Episcopalian. That seemed like a strange combination, but he had no problem keeping the two straight. I visited him in his home many times as my introduction to Buddhist sculpture led me to questions about Buddhist thought, philosophy and religion.
“When the summer term ended, I wanted to know more, not only about sculpture, but even more about Buddhism itself. I asked the professor where I could find the best examples of Buddhist sculpture in this country, and he mentioned Boston, Kansas City, and Toronto, Canada. So I traveled by bus to all these cities.
“He said also that if I went to Boston I must look up Ananda Coomaraswamy, the head of the Oriental Division of the Boston Museum. So I made an appointment, thinking it would be a brief courtesy call to introduce myself and to convey my professor’s good wishes. Instead, that visit changed my life.