Ralph Rigby (1874-1955) was a professor at Berea College and Head of the Music Department for 39 years; his musical influence was not limited to the college, but spread into the community of Berea as well.
Ralph Rigby was born in Mechanicsville, Iowa in 1874, and was brought up on a 25-acre farm as one of five children. Growing up, he worked on his family’s farm during the spring and summer and cut ice during the winter. He also pursued an education at the village high school, graduating at age 21. Rigby went on to attend college at the Iowa State Teacher’s College, from which he graduated in 1901, while teaching part time. He continued his education through the Oberlin College School of Music where he studied for two years (Ambrose).
Rigby began his long career with Berea College in September 1905. Upon arrival, he was immediately assigned the position of Head of the Music Department. At the time of his hiring, the Music Department was new and not yet fully developed. It did not have either a band, or an orchestra. The responsibility for establishing such organizations was placed Rigby’s shoulders, and his first years as Head of the Music Department were not easy. He filled nearly every post in the Music Department, from teaching first grade in the Training School to seniors in college specializing in music. He also served as the only voice teacher for twenty years. In addition to his full time teaching responsibilities, he conducted voluntary sight reading classes twice a week, directed the Harmonia in preparation for its two concerts a year, and directed the Berea church choir, orchestra and band. In 1943 a Berea Citizen Newspaper article reported, “Prof. Rigby has not only headed the department of Music at Berea College, but has been an all round helper in all of its activities.”
One aspect of the Music Department that Rigby became particularly invested in was the Harmonia Society. He skillfully guided these students from not even knowing how to sing “parts” (alto, soprano, bass, etc.) to being able to perform challenging choral works. In the spring of 1908, under his direction, the Harmonia Society performed Handel’s Messiah. The program announced it the “First annual rendition of Handel’s Messiah.” The following fall, he announced that the Harmonia Society would perform it again during Christmas time that year, saying, “It is our intention to give this work once each year hereafter as a Christmas event.” Upon this declaration, the membership of the Harmonia Society increased thirty percent.
Rigby was not the first to present Handel’s Messiah to Berea’s campus. However, he did succeed in making its performance an annual Christmas tradition. In 1931, the Harmonia Society and the Eastern Kentucky Teachers College Chorus merged together to create an annual joint presentation of the Messiah around Christmas time. This tradition of performing the Messiah lasted for over half a century, long past the end of Rigby’s teaching career at Berea (Berea Citizen).
Rigby conducted the Harmonia Society over the course of 37 years. In addition to arranging the production of the Messiah, he organized the performances of several other oratorios, musical pieces and even musical theatre. In 1918, they performed Robin Hood, in which Rigby himself starred in the lead role.
In 1937, a year after his wife died in 1936, Rigby was remarried to Sadie Spink. He lived on Prospect Street in Berea, and his neighbors were eager to comment on his “excellent” gardening skills. He had two children: a daughter named Miriam, and a son named Harold, both of whom attended and graduated from Berea College. In 1944, Rigby retired from active teaching at Berea College, and taught Band at the Kingston and Berea High Schools. He also directed small local church choirs. A little over ten years later in 1955, he died at the age of 81 in the Good Samaritan Hospital in Lexington, Kentucky due to heart complications.
President of Berea College, Francis S. Hutchins, spoke at Mr. Rigby’s funeral. He praised him, saying, “Mr. Rigby brought to his work the power to coax, the enthusiasm to lead, and the willingness to serve.” In 1964, a rehearsal room on the lower floor of Presser Hall was named in memory of Rigby, and was formally opened with a concert conducted by Rolf Hovey, Rigby’s predecessor as head of the Music Department. The Ralph Rigby Memorial Scholarship Fund was also established by the Music Department faculty in honor of Rigby.
“Funeral Rites Held Wednesday for Ralph Rigby, Beloved Musician.” Berea Citizen. March 24, 1955.
Ambrose, Luther. “Ralph Rigby.” Berea Alumnus, Concert Series [Oct. 25, 1964]. June 1944.