About the Author: Dr. James M. Shugert, Prof. Emeritus of Music, Central CT State University, was a student of Virginia Strait and credits her with giving him a lifelong love of music and music education.
For all these reasons, Joan and Jim Applegate and I, along with a great many of Virginia’s students created the Virginia W. Strait Music Award which has been rewarding outstanding Huntingdon high school students continuously since 1990; this year accepted with our gratitude for administration by the Huntingdon Area School District Educational Foundation; Robin Binder Heath, President. Special thanks and credit are due Jeff Miles, Principal of Huntingdon Area High School for facilitating this new arrangement for the assured continuation and future of the award.
Little more can be said except this writer’s memory of services at St. James Lutheran Church where I often sang in the choir, served as acolyte, reader of scriptures at Sunday evening services, and frequently took collection at Sunday morning services along with John Strait, Donald and Wid Guisler with Virginia at the organ, feeling both proud and humble to be in the company of such fine men. I was not alone as a congregant in seeing Virginia as an angel seated at the organ, playing her heart out.
Virginia was, without a doubt, an inspiration to her students, a devoted selfless teacher, a marvelous church organist and one of the most distinguished and loved Huntingdon figures of all time. In April 1968, Jo McMeen, in her popular Along the Juniata Column in the Daily News, wrote a feature article about “the three great ladies of Huntingdon (and, true to character, Jo did not include herself as the fourth as she truly deserves to be remembered): Virginia Strait, Janet Taylor and Miriam Steele…Virginia for her music, Janet for her brilliant mind and intellectual leadership, and Miriam for beautifying Huntingdon at more sites than can be recalled with flower, bush and tree planting that announced to every Huntingdon visitor nature’s blessings on this picture-book town. Nobody could have been better qualified than Jo to write such a glorious tribute to our real treasure; our pathfinders…those special people who defined the character of our citizens. Jo McMeen’s article appeared shortly after the passing of these three great ladies, friends and co-conspirators in making Huntingdon a great place to live.
Prior to Jo McMeen’s article (date uncertain), Virginia was publically honored by a surprise party at Swigart Hall for which an account was published in the Daily News: Piano Teacher is Paid Fine Tribute. This affair was initiated by Mrs. John R, Wald, Jr., Mrs. Phillip D. Patterson and Mrs. John N. Swan. Virginia’s daughter, Joan Applegate, her husband James and the three small Strait grandchildren managed to spirit Virginia to this affair, keeping it a total surprise until she arrived and found Swigart Hall full of friends and former students. The reception was described as “an occasion of far-reaching manifestation, that of successful and continuing life work, with its inspiration and guidance for scores of younger persons; of loving esteem; and of happily tendered testimonial.”
Distinction as a piano and organ teacher aside, Virginia’s mark was arguably greater as a founder and leader of the Huntingdon Music Club which existed from 1928 to 1967 and included children’s levels as well as adult. Countless recitals and concerts were presented within the club and for the community through the Huntingdon Music Club. Betty Swan as president and Virginia were prime movers in creating the club’s most significant contribution to the musical life of Huntingdon: The Chautauqua Scholarships starting in 1950, expending a total of $6,790 and sending 35 high school students to study music in the summers between 1950 and 1967. This is a matchless record of accomplishment in small town, rural America. This sum of money may seem paltry by 2010 standards, but it wasn’t. It represented total expenses for all these high school students for private lessons, music instruction, performance in large student ensembles choral and instrumental plus room and board for six weeks per student at one of America’s leading summer arts and music institutions. Individual records will show that most of these students went on to careers in music performance and teaching. The lion’s share of gratitude for the planning and accomplishment of this scholarship program goes directly to Virginia W. Strait.
Among her outstanding students was her daughter, Joan Applegate, who studied piano at the Eastman School of Music and Mills College in California. Joan, wife of James Applegate (deceased) taught piano at Shippensburg State University and continues to live in Chambersburg. There is no way to compare Virginia’s students by talent and accomplishment, but certainly Robert Swan, son of another Huntingdon piano teacher, Betty Swan (Mrs. John N. Swan), achieved an international reputation as a pianist and has returned to Huntingdon from time to time to give recitals at Juniata College, as has Joan Applegate. Sandra Guisler Antonelli is well known in Connecticut as a church organist, choir director and piano teacher. Joan Ciccarelli (deceased) is remembered as a fine pianist. Marion Sue McElwee continues as organist at Huntingdon’s Abbey Church. To go on naming high achieving piano-organ students of Virginia Strait would be, frankly, unfair due to lack of a complete record and the sheer number of musicians she taught. To be a former Virginia Strait student is an honor matchless in the history of music in Huntingdon.
No accurate count exists of the number of piano and organ students she taught, but it can be said that she taught generations of students within families. Both John and Virginia Strait were active in local musical organizations including public programs, both musical and theatrical. Both were charter members and officers of the Huntingdon Concert Association and the Huntingdon Music Club.
What was notable about her piano and organ teaching was not the number of students she taught, but their high level of accomplishment. She had an uncanny talent for bringing out the best in each student, and many, many of her students became professional performers and teachers. They won scholarships to some of the most prestigious music schools in America, including Eastman, Oberlin and Carnegie-Mellon.
Virginia studied music at Juniata and Cornell Colleges and then did graduate study in music education at American Conservatory of Music in Chicago where she studied piano with Louise Robyn. At Cornell she studied with one of America’s most noted music educators, Hollis Dann. In 1919, she became the second music supervisor in the history of the Huntingdon Public Schools where she taught four years and later taught part-time at Juniata College. Printed programs of school concerts presented during her teaching years reveal a tremendous diversity of music instruction throughout the grades in both choral and instrumental music.
In 1923, Virginia married the banker, John W. Strait; the beginning of her married life and end of her school teaching life. At that time, married women were not permitted to teach in the public schools. John was a member of the class of 1914 at Huntingdon High School; Virginia, class of 1915. John Strait was employed at The First National Bank, later called First Grange National Bank, then Penn Central National Bank and today again named The First National Bank. He retired from the Penn Central National Bank as President and member of the board of directors in 1962 after forty years of active service. Virginia’s rise to prominence as teacher of piano and organ, church organist, and community musical leader began in earnest in the years following her public school teaching. She was Huntingdon’s outstanding piano teacher for approximately fifty years and organist at St. James Lutheran Church forty years.
by Jim Shugert (December 17, 2010)
Virginia W. Strait was a legend during her lifetime and is now regarded as Huntingdon’s legendary music teacher and leader of all things musical. A lifelong Huntingdon resident, Virginia gained recognition in 1919 as a musical leader when she became a Huntingdon public school teacher. The 1955 Huntingdon High School Argus featured two photographs as historical documents of the high school Orchestra of 1919 and the Choral Club of 1921 in which Virginia F. Waite (her maiden name) can be seen seated amidst her students.
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