There was a whole lotta singin’ inside Camden Elementary School’s (CES) gymnasium on Friday morning as the city of Camden honored musician Julia Halford with the dedication of a Leaders Legacy bench across Laurens Street in the city’s Archives Park.
Music included a “flash mob” rendition of “O Happy Day.” Later, Halford herself leading those assembled in a rendition of the Irish Blessing.
The new bench faces CES about 20 feet from a monument dedicated to the old Camden High School (CHS) that stood on the grounds there. Halford taught music at CES (then covering grades 1 through 7) and CHS (at one point teaching all 12 grades, spending more than 30 years upstairs in Gym B teaching thousands of students. Halford also taught regular classes at the schools.
Among her former students speaking at the ceremony was Dr. Kay “Binky” Lillard Moore who said Halford “helped” her get through medical school. That help came in the form of -- and Moore sang out a line -- Gilbert & Sullivan’s song “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General” from the comic-opera “The Pirates of Penzance.” The lyrics, apparently, helped Moore pass a class, thus ensuring her graduation from medical school.
“During my medical career, I would meet patients at the hospital, or I would meet them in my office and a Camden connection came up,” she said. “And, usually, it would be about three moves before we got to Julia Halford. ‘Oh, yes, I sang with her. Oh, yes, I did this with her. Oh, yes, I did that with her.’ We all have our memories, and make sure you tell those memories, because they’re absolutely wonderful.”
Moore said among Halford’s many contributions was playing at weddings and funerals throughout the community, adding that she contributed so much musically that she is a “force of nature.”
At CES and CHS, Halford’s work in her choral music class led to performing on television and radio, at S.C. State Capitol functions, holidays, patriotic events, community organizations, churches and even Carowinds at the North Carolina/South Carolina border. Offshoots of her class include The Camettes, Choraleers, Single Swingers (a girls’ a capella group), Camden’s Heritage, and the original We Three of which Halford is a member of the current group with Phyllis David and Linda Higgins.
Famous former students include Sam Wright, the voice of Sebastian from Disney’s The Little Mermaid; Calvin Grant, who has contributed to Rent and The Rocky Horror Picture Show; Nashville professional musicians Mike and Pat Severs (a/k/a “The Twins”); and Los Angeles and Motown backup vocalist Gayle St. Gregory (a/k/a Gayle Stokes). Furthermore, local bands and church music ministries are filled with former students such as Sammy Dennis, Jason Missiouri, Lee Allen, Claire Bryant, Scott Smith, Danny Massalon, Buddy Harre, Leo Price, Hal Boykin, Clark Boone and Tim Bordner, as well as Halford’s son, Craig.
Halford is also directly and indirectly linked to the Fine Arts Center (FAC) of Kershaw County, especially through the Camden Community Theater (CCT), and serves on the board of the Kershaw County Music Association. Back in the days when Walgreens had a downtown location with a soda fountain, Halford is credited with convincing others to bring musical theater to Camden. That, in turn led to the CCT’s first musical production, “Oklahoma!” This was followed by such hits as “South Pacific,” “Annie Get Your Gun,” “The Sound of Music,” “Oliver,” “My Fair Lady,” “Jesus Christ Superstar,” “Godspell,” “The King and I,” and “Cool in the Furnace,” of which David said Halford would love to see a reunion show.
Among the groups Halford directs is Renaissance featuring herself, David, Higgins, Sammy Buckelew, Kershaw County Councilman Ben Connell along with special guests. The group performed the National Anthem a canella (without Halford, which David said is a rarity).
Following Moore’s comments, two of Halford’s former students, Sam Dennis and Jason Missouri (on keyboards) led the “flash mob” of “O Happy Day” just as David was going to begin her comments.
Once the singing stopped, David provided some history about Halford, who was born in 1931 in Great Falls and showed, early on, a love and talent for piano and voice.
“Ruth Pettis, daughter of the Cloninger’s Great Falls Mt. Dearborn United Methodist Church minister and a student at Columbia College, was her first piano teacher,” David said. “Ruth quickly recognized Julia’s potential and excellence and kicked her up to Ms. Margaret Richards … (who) had a firm hand.”
David said, someone ironically, that Halford’s son, Forrest -- who spoke after her -- also took lessons from Richards as he followed in his mother’s footsteps.
Richards lived in Camden and, David said, Halford was scared to ride down S.C. 97 from Great Falls to Richards’ house.
“Often, her hands were shaking -- like this -- especially if she felt she wasn’t ready that week,” David said. “Then, there was the time, as Julia was getting ready to take the bench for a lesson, she was startled by a nearby ruckus and voice shouting, ‘Catch this!’ Miss Richards had thrown a hymnal at Julia. Surprisingly, she caught the hymnal and Miss Richards sternly said, ‘That’s how you play. With just that much weight in your hands. Now, play!’ Julia still puts those words of wisdom into play today.”
According to David, Halford left high school at the end of 11th grade in 1947 because it was not until the following year that South Carolina required 12th grade for graduation. Halford entered Columbia College at the age of 17 with a piano audition and a competitive, written entrance exam.
Halford graduated from Columbia College in 1952 with a BAMusEd in piano performance (major) and voice and choral music (minor). She then took summer choral classes toward her master’s degree at the University of Texas. She earned her Masters of Music Education in 1973 from the University of South Carolina with her thesis, “A Study of the Music Problems Affected by the Changing Voice in Junior High School Age Singers.”
Back while attending Columbia College, she met her future husband, Hollis. They married after she graduated and he returned from the Korean War. Following a brief assignment in Arkansas, they moved to Camden in 1954. In addition to Forrest, their children include Julie (“Little Julia”), Hollis, Craig and Carrie.
Halford is currently a soprano in the Community Concert Choir and a chorister in Lyttleton Street United Methodist Church’s Chancel Choir. During her career, she has served many churches as pianist, organist and choir director.
As she concluded her remarks, David said that while it would be easy to think of Halford’s work as that of “just a music teacher,” she hoped her friend would hear the words of “community thanks, appreciation and love,” as well as the “beautiful music you have shared for so long.”
“So very many have been touched and molded by you in your 60-plus years of music in Camden, Kershaw County and beyond. You have done so much for our community. We simply cannot list it all on this very special occasion, nor can we ever thank you enough…. You cared about us. You invested in your time in us. You gave unselfishly -- over and over -- to us, and for that we are grateful,” David said.
In a Facebook message Monday morning, David said work to have a Leaders Legacy bench dedicated to Halford started back at the beginning of the year when she, Harriet Reid and Mike Eddings covertly used Halford’s address book to communicate with former students, friends and family members.
“Money for her project poured in from all over the world,” David said. “Why? Simply to show honor, love and appreciation for Julia for having given so much to so many over the last 60-plus years…. We’ve been relentless! Totally worth it. There’s no way to explain both the love and the energy that filled that space (CES) on Friday.”
Camden City Councilman Jeffrey Graham sponsored the bench on council.
Following her son, Forrest’s remarks, Halford was invited to the podium where she led the audience in the Irish Blessing: “May the road rise up to meet you. May the wind always be at your back. May the sun shine warm upon your face, and rains fall soft upon your fields.”