Rebel to Choir Master

February 24th, 2011

Hiram Hershey, class of ’50

Hiram Hershey laughs at recalling that he didn’t fit the Mennonite mold in 1941-42 when he was a student at what was then Eastern Mennonite School (EMS).

Hershey had not been raised Mennonite. His ancestors on both sides of his family had left the Mennonite church in the late 1800s over what they viewed as its strictness and legalism.

After being homeschooled until his teens, Hershey ended up as a boarding student at EMS in 1941 because his mother knew Myra Lehman, the wife of Chester K. Lehman, and trusted putting Hershey in a school revolving around the likes of the Lehmans. (Chester was the first dean of Eastern Mennonite College and Seminary, 1923-1956).

Hershey says he spent a lot of time walking up and down the hillside beside what is now Eastern Mennonite Seminary. That was his punishment for such infractions as not buttoning his shirt up to his neck. After Lancaster Mennonite High School opened in September 1942, Hershey finished his high school degree there.

Despite his rebellious spirit, Hershey chose at age 17 to be baptized into the Mennonite church.

At the end of World War II — which saw him laboring on his family’s fruit farm for three years — Hershey returned to Eastern Mennonite as a mature college student.

He studied music under J. Mark Stauffer from 1945-47. Hershey confesses he and Stauffer did not see eye-to-eye on many things, but “I learned to love hymns from him.” Hershey sang as a baritone, with solos, in the Stauffer-directed annual production of “The Holy City.”

In search of broader and deeper choral training, Hershey transferred to Westminster Choir College in Princeton, New Jersey, in 1947. By 1953, Hershey had completed a BA and MA at Westminster. He continued studying through the 1970s with choral masters, including several stints with the famed Robert Shaw Choral Workshop. He also did private study with Julius Herford, considered one of the most influential conductors in American choral history.

Hershey became friends with Alice Parker, a composer, arranger and conductor close to Robert Shaw. He introduced her to Mennonite church music and arranged for her to visit EMU. Parker felt moved to write the opera “Singers Glen,” based on the life of Joseph S. Funk (see page 8).

Hershey became an accomplished choral conductor in southeastern Pennsylvania. For four decades, he conducted the Franconia-Lancaster Choral Singers, in addition to sometimes conducting other choirs and orchestras.

Of a 1966 performance directed by Hershey, a Philadelphia Inquirer reviewer wrote: “The chorus, whose members are from Montgomery, Chester, Bucks and Lancaster counties, was obviously well trained and enthusiastic. The singers, of all ages, performed with gratifying unity of ensemble under the careful direction of Hershey, a Harleysville businessman whose first love (and training) is music.”

Hershey and his wife, Mary Jane Lederach, have long supported themselves (and earlier their four children) with a real estate business in Harleysville, a community on the northwest outskirts of Philadelphia. He retired from choral conducting a dozen years ago – except for a reunion gathering in 2005 and 2007. That last one saw about 80 singers gather from his former choirs. They performed Handel’s Messiah to a full house at Souderton Mennonite Church.

Hershey and Mary Jane are members of Salford Mennonite Church in Harleysville.