For a year and a half, Lorraine Wilson watched and waited as Cogswell Hall—her musical home at Indiana University of Pennsylvania—was transformed from a well-worn building to a state-of-the-art facility.
For three semesters, students, faculty, and staff from the Department of Music found themselves spread out to ten different locations on campus, often lugging tubas and percussion equipment from place to place in snow and rain and wind.
“They never complained. Never whimpered,” Wilson, the department chair since 2000, said. “No matter what the weather, they kept moving faithfully along, because they had their eyes on the prize.”
Rebuilding and renewal have been a theme for Wilson, not only in her life at IUP but also in her hometown of New Orleans. When Hurricane Katrina swept in to devastate the city and its people, Wilson felt a personal loss.
The hurricane destroyed the home Wilson and her husband, Jim, owned in the city, but she also worried about the loss of a unique and rich culture that had shaped her life. As the months have gone by, her worries have turned to conviction.
“I’ve gained that spirit of renewal,” Wilson said. “We’re going to rebuild. I know it’s going to take a very long time.”
For Wilson, New Orleans will always be home. Her family has deep roots in the city.
“In the summer, as a child, I felt deprived,” Wilson said. “All of my classmates were going to rural areas to visit relatives. I could only go uptown or downtown to see my relatives.”
As a young girl, Wilson was surrounded by music. Her neighborhood was filled with musicians, including banjo player Johnny St. Cyr, who played with Louis Armstrong.
Nobody in her family played professionally, but there were “music lovers in my family. They enjoyed listening to music. Later, my children would play clarinet, cello, violin, French horn, and flute while attending elementary and high school. In college, my daughter Arianne played French horn, while Angele pursued classical ballet lessons.”
Growing up in a devoutly Christian family, Wilson always heard hymns being sung in her home. “My beloved mother and grandparents, dearest uncles and aunts were the strong motivators and supporters of my formative years,” she said. “They helped me seek unlimited possibilities in my quest for educational achievement and ultimately professional pursuits and accomplishment.”
When she was seven, her mother bought a piano from a neighbor, and the young girl began lessons. She played the piano through elementary school. But when she got to ninth grade, Wilson had aspirations to play other instruments. She took up the glockenspiel first. Then, a year later, the school purchased two French horns. She volunteered to learn how to play.
“I liked the French horn’s beauty of design and the rich, brilliant tone quality,” Wilson said. She gave up Saturdays to take private lessons in the French Quarter with the second hornist in the New Orleans Symphony Orchestra.
“Practice became just a way of life,” Wilson said. Soon she was auditioning at universities. Wilson would end up majoring in music close to home at Xavier University in New Orleans.
She has used that education to spread a love of music to young people of all ages. Over three decades, Wilson worked within the New Orleans public school system. She taught elementary instrumental music. Then she coordinated a program to find gifted and talented students in the arts.
Finally, she served as the supervisor of music for the entire school system—180 schools in all. “I was a staff of one,” she said.
Along the way, Wilson earned a master’s degree in music education from Loyola University New Orleans. In 1987, she was drawn by an acquaintance from Loyola to Ball State University in Indiana to complete her doctorate. A chance meeting in the state of Indiana would bring her to IUP.
While Wilson was studying at Ball State, an IUP psychology professor was visiting for a workshop. He asked her to send him her résumé and said he’d pass it on to the music department. Wilson did not think anything would come of it until she got a call from IUP in the summer of 1991.
She interviewed at IUP on her way to Thailand for a Fulbright group study-abroad program. “I liked what I heard about the music department and the beauty of Western Pennsylvania,” she said.
That fall—after returning from Thailand and getting to New Orleans in time to pack her things—she started teaching music education courses at IUP. Over the years, she has taught both undergraduate and graduate courses in the department. She also developed a class about the history and culture of New Orleans.
Wilson last taught the course in the summer of 2005. “I will teach the course again in September, 2006,” Wilson said. “That was a very difficult decision for me to confirm I would really teach the course again.”
The class will change, of course, probably looking at the city in the past, present, and future. “I’d also like the class to look at alternatives and strategies for rebuilding,” Wilson said.
If anyone can talk about rebuilding, it is Wilson. After all, Cogswell Hall has swelled from four classrooms to six. It has twice as many practice rooms as before.
One room is large enough to fit the entire department—350 students plus faculty and staff. In the music library, electronic bookcases can open and close at the touch of a button.
There’s room to spread out and room to grow. “We’re on the site of the old,” Wilson said, “but it’s in no way the same.”