Saturday, July 14, 2012

Making the Acquaintance of a Prodigy

In attempting to widen the horizons of my search for the identity of those ancestors I’ve never met, I’ve spent the last several months examining the letters, news clippings, and photographs assembled by Agnes Tully Stevens. Everything from critical communications to ephemera stashed in her desk drawers has been held suspect for clues about her life.

Yesterday, I mentioned that, in her younger years, Agnes toured as a violinist. She belonged to a small group of musicians for whom classical music meant much.

I know from others who have had such experiences that that is the type of opportunity that is never forgotten. Perhaps because of lingering fond memories of her own, Agnes felt impressed to become part of the life of a young Ukrainian-Canadian girl whose own remarkable talents had brought her from her home in Winnipeg to study at the Conservatory in Chicago.

Somehow, in Chicago, Agnes made the acquaintance of the young Donna Grescoe. By the time of Donna’s “Farewell Recital” there in 1939, Agnes was in her early fifties and the mother of six children—the oldest of whom would be married within the year. Donna, by contrast, having been born in November of 1927, was not yet twelve.

Donna began playing the violin when just five—admittedly not unusual in these days of the popularity of the Suzuki method—but her native ability and requisite hard work saw her performing in public by the age of eight. Soon after followed studies with George Bornoff, Winnipeg native and violinist noted for his namesake study method—and, by the time of Donna’s venture to Chicago, founder of his own music school.

In 1938, Donna was awarded a five thousand dollar scholarship to study at the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago. Apparently, she had the support—as well as admiration—of Winnipeg’s music lovers, who provided financial support for her studies and tours through the next decade.

Whether Agnes’ Tully and Ryan relatives in Winnipeg were among those supporters I cannot tell. For whatever reason, once Donna came to Chicago, she made the acquaintance of the Stevens family. I don’t know that came about through neighborhood associations, through church membership, or through some musical connection. The telltale strands from family letters, though, make mention of her as if a familiar part of the Stevens household.

Frank, in particular, made mention of her in his letters. Donna was almost exactly three years younger than this son of Agnes and Will Stevens. Of course, at the time of Donna's stay in Chicago, Frank—my father-in-law—was a teenager. Perhaps that fourteen-year-old charmer had his mind on other matters than eleven-year-old violinists. But by the time he was serving in the Navy during World War II, he certainly appreciated her letters and the photos she sent him.

As Donna Grescoe’s career unfolded in the ensuing decade, her Ukrainian roots showed in her selections of music. Even at the recital given at the close of her studies in Chicago, the program was peppered with names which I—myself a conservatory student—hardly recognized. Oh, there was the more familiar Handel and Gounod. But these were followed by the barely pronounceable likes of composers such as Drdla and Wieniawski. Those composers, it turns out, while not from her ancestors’ Ukrainian homeland, haled from Eastern European cultures. Selecting some of these composers’ most notable works, Donna devised concert programs that not only displayed her technical brilliance, but also brought to life the musical gems of cultures with which her audiences might not have been familiar.

The more I learn about Donna Grescoe, searching through today’s internet resources, the less she seems to have in common with that Chicago Irish family I’ve been researching—other than that one strand of commonality embodied in their respective violin performances.

Perhaps Agnes, in meeting Donna, was reliving her own dreams and hopes—opportunities she might have wished to have had. Or perhaps, as a strong-willed mother whose purpose was to make a difference in the lives of those around her, she wished to have a hand in allowing someone else to pass along that gift of music in a way she no longer could, herself.

And sometimes, that is our role in life: to bring others forward as they, too, achieve the best they can be.

Assisting Artists
Leahfay Mead                                     Marie Therésè Gallagher
Pupils of
Mme. Herman Devries
Accompanist – Walter Inskip


  1. I am reminded of how I tease my niece who plays a viola in a chamber music ensemble about the pieces by composers "no one has ever heard of" saying that they do that on purpose so if they goof up and make a mistake, no one would ever be able to recognize it!

    I wonder if this is a classic case of "degrees of freedom' ala "Linkedin". Agnes may have known Donna Grescoe directly (as it does appear) - but perhaps she knew (and played violin with) one of the accompanist (or their parent(s))... Maybe mystery Sister Mary Patrick Dawson was a music teacher (as well as a scholar) and she taught someone that links them... a difficult problem to solve - with so meager to go on.

    A quick "google" on Marie Terese Gallgher shows her to be the daughter of Mrs. Ray Gallaher of Pleasant Avenue (a short road foudn not far from the place the concert was held).

    LeahFay Mead was an alumni of the Academy of Our Lady, class of 1939.

    Madame Herman Devries taught at the University of Chicago. Her husband is a famous music critic.

    Walter Inskip is most elusive! :)

  2. Yeah Iggy! He can find anyone!
    Your "search" is very interesting. Often times it seems like more puzzle pieces..someday they will all come together:)

  3. According to the book on Donna Grescoe, an Aunt Margaret was instrumental in getting Donna to Chicago. Was there an Aunt Margaret Tully (or Ryan) in Winnipeg? Its not clear exactly who's aunt this woman is..

    1. You have found so much on this episode, it is amazing, Iggy! I suspect the aunt in Winnipeg would be Donna's...although it would be helpful to check the book further. As far as Agnes Tully's relatives in Winnipeg go, the surname would be Ryan. There was a Margaret connected to that family, but I had lost track of that line in my research. I never could find her married name. Something to work on....


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