It is not unusual for Lamar Alexander to come home…to his home in the mountains, his hometown of Maryville, to friends and family here. However, on March 27, when Senator Alexander comes to the Clayton Center for the Arts for its grand opening, he will be making a homecoming pilgrimage of multiple dimensions and a particular depth.
He will come to play the Steinway nine-foot grand piano he and wife, Honey, purchased for the Center in honor of his parents, Andrew and Flo Rankin Alexander. His father was principal at the West Side Elementary School that was located where the Maryville Municipal Building stands today. His mother operated a nursery school behind the family home on Ruth Street. Through their educational and civic contributions, the Alexanders were a prominent and beloved couple. The Steinway is a particularly apt memorial to the parents who instilled in him the love of music that will be expressed in the opening of the Clayton Center.
Alexander said his parents enrolled him in a piano program called “experimental piano lessons” long before the Suzuki Method came to the United States. His instruction came from Lennis Tedford, a well-known and respected piano teacher. And it was his parents who purchased from Dr. Verton Queener, Maryville College professor, an upright piano for $25.
Dr. Queener’s upright was not the only Maryville College connection of Lamar Alexander to music. Andy Alexander and Flo Rankin met at Maryville College in the fall of 1931. Hers was an old family of Blount County, but she came to Maryville from Newton, Kansas. The Great Depression forced her to return home before she could complete her education, but Andy stayed at the College, distinguishing himself as member of the Dixieland Vagabond Quartet, among other ways. Distance did not weaken their relationship, and they eventually married.
Lamar’s first experience with a concert pianist occurred when his mother brought him, at the age of four, to the campus to hear one of a series of world-renowned artists presented by the College. As a high school sophomore and junior, he participated in a competition sponsored by the Tennessee Federation of Music Teachers and won the Jaco Cup the first year and the Buxton Cup the second.
Any thoughts he may have had of pursuing a concert career himself were dampened when he learned from a noted pianist that a career as a performance musician entailed ceaseless travel. Travel was one thing young Lamar Alexander had no interest in.
Senator Alexander’s choice of music for his first performance on “The Alexander Steinway” will be “Ivory Palaces,” a hymn dating from 1915, written by Henry Barraclough.
Henry Barraclough was the accompanist of Charles M. Alexander, a Maryville College student, a world-renowned and world-traveled evangelical song leader, and second cousin twice removed of Lamar Alexander. While at Maryville College in the 1880s and 1890s, Charles Alexander helped organize a marching band, taught a music class, and directed a concert of noted singers.
When Lamar Alexander sits at the piano dedicated to his parents, demonstrating his own musical accomplishment, on the campus where his introduction to classical piano performance occurred, and where so many of his family have studied; when he plays a beloved hymn written by the colleague of his famous musical relative, he will be home in so many ways.