Good teachers, good friends: Margaret Myles

Professor emerita of music
Taught at Puget Sound 1945-1978

By Mary Boone

For decades, Tacoma's Christmas season officially began when Margaret Myles' lovely contralto rang through the Puget Sound Field House, performing the famous aria from George Frideric Handel's "The Messiah:"

He shall feed his flock like a shepherd
and he shall gather the lambs with his arm, with his arm
He shall feed his flock like a shepherd
and he shall gather the lambs with his arm, with his arm
and cary them in his bosom
and gently lead those that are with young
and gently lead
and gently lead those that are with young.

Joined by 250 college vocalists, and church and high school choirs, Myles was a central fixture in a holiday event that drew as many as 10,000 people.

"It was such a marvelous, unifying thing for the city," she recalls. "It was lovely to be connected to such a glorious event."

Performing "The Messiah" was just one of Myles' many career highlights. Born in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, Myles and her family moved to Tacoma when she was 10 years old. The daughter of Scottish immigrants, Myles' voice developed when she was 12 and began performing professionally when she was just 17.

As a young woman, she worked as a soloist at Seattle's Plymouth Congregational Church and First Congregational Church in Tacoma. It was while she was singing for First Congregational that Myles was introduced to former Puget Sound President R. Franklin Thompson.

"He asked me to teach at the university, but I told him I didn't want to teach until I was an old lady and couldn't sing anymore," recalls Myles. "Those who knew Dr. Thompson know that he was very persuasive. My heart was saying 'no,' but my head was nodding 'yes.'"

With much of the music faculty off at war, Myles became a part-time voice instructor in 1945 and joined the staff full-time in 1948; she retired from the university in 1978.

"I remember my early teaching days like they were yesterday. Probably because I was scared to death," says Myles. "I was absolutely horrified when my first student walked in: It was Ruth Lemming, my junior high English teacher. In addition to worrying about teaching, I was so conscious about my speech. I didn't dare misplace a preposition or end a sentence with a participle: I was a nervous wreck."

Grammar concerns aside, Myles survived and thrived during that first semester--and the many that followed it.

"I learned to teach by demonstrating," she says. "I found I could use all these fancy words and tell them what to do, but they'd always get glazed looks on their faces. I was most successful when I told them 'Do what I do,' and then I showed them."

During her association with Puget Sound, the college built its national reputation by having Myles and other faculty members perform across the country. Decked out in beautiful evening gowns, she performed annual recitals at the school and several times was featured soloist for the Seattle Symphony.

In 1963, just two months before his assassination, Myles stood a few feet from President Kennedy and sang the national anthem prior to his speech at Cheney Stadium. She also sang for General Douglas MacArthur and then-General Dwight D. Eisenhower.

"I'm proud of many of my performances," she says. "But those three were definitely special."

David Lukens '62 has known Myles for nearly 47 years. Myles was on the scholarship committee when he auditioned in 1957. In the years since that meeting, she became his voice instructor and friend. Now Lukens, a Tacoma osteopath, is Myles' physician.

"She is a wonderful lady--still sharp as a tack," says Lukens. "When she taught, she had certain things we all had to learn: German songs, French songs, Italian songs--all in the original language. She expected a lot of us but she also put her heart and soul into her music and her students. We were her family; she still treats me like that."

Myles says she feels privileged to have been a part of Puget Sound's music faculty. "We honored each other," she says. "I didn't have all the degrees that my colleagues had, but they admired my talent and what I was doing. I miss the friendship of my fellow faculty members."

After retiring from Puget Sound, Myles taught for several years at Tacoma Community College. She also continued to perform and teach private voice lessons. Now, at nearly 91, her voice remains strong but poor eyesight limits her ability to read music. Stairs keep her from singing with the choir at Tacoma First Presbyterian Church.

"These days I find comfort in believing that singing in the congregation encourages others to sing a little louder," she says.

Interested alumni can write to Professor Myles at 206 Tacoma Ave. S., Tacoma, WA 98403.