Of Note: A look back at 90 years of Department of Music alumni

To celebrate the 90th anniversary of our department, I set out to write a brief article highlighting some notable alumni from the University of Saskatchewan Department of Music. What was intended to be a brief article has now turned into an ongoing project to find and highlight alumni and stories from our past. We will have this project launched on our website in the coming weeks. In the meantime, here are few updates on just a few of our notable alumni:

Part 1: The Early Years – Graduates of the 1930s

The University of Saskatchewan College of Music (now department) was the first of its kind in western Canada when it was established in 1931. It is clear from early newspaper clippings that the classical music community was thriving in Saskatoon in the 1920s and ‘30s, with exceptional musicians coming out of Lyell Gustin’s and others’ private studios, and world-renowned musicians stopping in Saskatoon on their North American tours. It was not uncommon for musicians from Saskatoon and the surrounding area to end up studying in the US or Europe for a period before returning home or embarking on a professional performance career. Our college at the time was just a small slice of that scene, and Dean Arthur Collingwood made sure to minimize any sense of threat to the greater music community in his first address to the university:

Source: Star Phoenix, Feb. 25, 1931, “Collingwood Outlines Aims in Telling of New Chair of Music.” – with thanks to Terry Hoknes

The college’s first graduates were a small but mighty group of musicians and future music educators, convocating in 1934 and 1935:

Marjorie Wilson (’34)
May E. Benson (neé Woodley) (’35)
Vivian Foley (neé Collard) (’35)
Gertrude Greaves (’35)
Margaret L. Kippen (’35)

It is perhaps not that surprising that our first five graduates were all female, as music – like classroom teaching – was an acceptable career path for young women of the time. However, because of name changes due to marriage (including the practice of being known in public records by only your husband’s full name after marriage), it is often difficult to trace the lives of many of these women after they graduated from our program.

 Many of the first graduates of the College of Music BMUS program, while perhaps not achieving great fame and fortune, worked diligently teaching the next generation of musicians in Saskatoon and beyond. Graduates like Marjorie Wilson (’34 – our first graduate), May (Woodley) Benson, and Gertrude Greaves not only ran thriving music studios for decades in the city, but also took their turns as presidents of the Saskatchewan Registered Music Teacher’s Association. Newspaper records throughout the mid-twentieth century show regular advertisements for the studios of these three women, as well as those of later graduates, who generally ran studios that taught piano (and sometimes other instruments) and music theory. Scholarships in memory of both Marjorie Wilson and Dorothy Smith (’39) still help support BMUS students in the department today.

Source: Star Phoenix, Aug. 29, 1959 – Ms. Pomeroy graduated the department in ’47
Source: Saskatoon Star Phoenix 1936, with thanks to Terry Hoknes

While it is often frustrating to lose the trail of many of our early female graduates, some of our male alumni are easier to trace.  Our first two male graduates, both accomplished pianists, made up the class of 1936.

 Thomas R. Austen would go on to become a Flight Sergeant in the RCAF during the second World War. He would eventually settle in BC with his wife Mary, working first as a salesman, then as a teacher and music director in the Campbell River area. Mr. Austen also served as an usher at Walter and Ruth Christopherson’s wedding in 1939 in Saskatoon.

 Thomas R. Austen was the composer of the first known published piece of music by a University of Saskatchewan music graduate. His duo-piano piece “Keel Row,” based on an 18th century folk tune, was published by Galaxy Music Corp in New York in 1939. However, prior to its publication, “Keel Row” was a critically praised highlight of Saskatoon-born piano duo Bedford and Eby’s program as they made their debut in Chicago in 1938 and toured the eastern US and much of Canada through ’38 and ‘39.  

 As noted in the image above, Walter C. Christopherson completed training at NYU prior to returning to Saskatoon for his BMUS. It is possible he served in the war, but records are limited. Mr. Christopherson went on to become a “newspaperman,” first at the Winnipeg Tribune, followed by the Montreal Gazette and Montreal Star, where he worked as both an editor and classical music reviewer.

In 1936 the Universities of Saskatchewan, Alberta, and Manitoba developed the Western Board of Music. The University of Saskatchewan Department of Music oversaw all Western Board music examinations across the province up until 1974, when Western Board operations were centralized at the University of Alberta. Many of our faculty members taught, adjudicated, and helped manage the Western Board of Music before it merged with the Western Ontario Conservatory of Music to become Conservatory Canada in 1997. In Saskatchewan, up until 1997, Western Board Associate of Music and Licentiate of Music degrees were granted by the University of Saskatchewan, and appeared under the label of certificates and diplomas awarded by the University of Saskatchewan in the newspaper, though they were kept separate from the formal degree programs. Of course, records of these diplomas were not handled by the University of Saskatchewan itself, and so it is difficult to track those alumni. It appears as though Western Board students and College of Music students mingled and overlapped in and around the college, and that perhaps Professor Gustin’s studio work, Western Board work, and university work were not entirely separate entities.

 Further graduates in the 1930s included:


Minard G. McKenzie
Margaret D. Patterson
Florence M. Smeltzer


Katherine R. MacIntosh
Marie J. Turner
Laurence G. Wilson


Dorothy F. Smith
Tannis L. Turnbull

 Again, tracking many of our female graduates has not been particularly successful. Laurence Wilson, however, appears in media over the years.

 Mr. Wilson graduated with his BMUS in 1938, and is later noted as the Conductor of the CBC Orchestra in a performance in Vancouver in 1952 (he apparently freelanced in Vancouver and later Toronto as a composer, arranger, producer, and conductor throughout the 1950s). He became the assistant director of music for CBC Radio in Toronto in 1955, and by 1959 he was appointed the “assistant supervisor of variety.” When the CBC first launched their new bilingual FM radio network in April of 1960, Laurence Wilson became the first program office for the English CBC FM network, alongside Paul Roussell who headed the French side of the network.[1]   

 Speaking to the issue of whether the CBC’s FM programming would be too “commercial” for listeners tastes, Wilson noted “I would like to see the new FM network include programs that will appeal to that large minority of the Canadian population whose tastes lie somewhere between the highbrow’s and those whose tastes are tuned to the razzle-dazzle razzmatazz of today’s commercial radio.”[2]

[1] Canadian Broadcaster, March 17th 1960. Accessed via: https://worldradiohistory.com/CANADA/Archive-Broadcaster-Canada/60s/60/BCC-1960-03-17.pdf

[2] Moon, Barbara. “Barbara Moon makes THE CASE FOR adult radio.” MacLean’s Magazine, December 16, 1961. Accessed via the Macleans archive at https://archive.macleans.ca/article/1961/12/16/barbara-moon-makes-the-case-for-adult-radio.

Source: Angus, Robert. “What’s Wrong with American FM?” Popular Mechanics, June 1962. Accessed via: https://usermanual.wiki/m/3bccad6a4aff1035c7c77d9409996d4ec4ce2bfc08484cc13d947c3f9e2e5833.pdf

The Department of Music was just getting started in the 1930s, and these are just a few of our grads. We hope to highlight more interesting stories in future newsletters. If you have more information or great stories about any of our alumni, or you are an alumnus yourself, please contact us at music.department@usask.ca. We would love to hear from you!

Part 2: The 1970s

BMus graduate and voice instructor Marilyn Whitehead (1972) began Saskatoon’s Fireside Singers the year she completed university. Now in their 49th year, The Fireside Singers are a Saskatoon institution beloved around the country. The group started out small and now regularly sell out the Teacher’s Credit Union Centre (formerly the Centennial Auditorium) for their annual Christmas Memories concerts and spring operas.

In 2017, Shaw TV profiled the Fireside Singers for their 45th anniversary. For those in the know: spot the alumni! Whitehead’s granddaughter Kennedy Whitehead-Siba (interviewed in the video) is a current undergraduate in our BMus program.

Our own Dr. Glen Gillis (1979), composer, conductor, music education professor, and saxophone instructor completed both his BMus and BEd at the University of Saskatchewan before studying at Northwestern University and the University of Missouri. In addition to his numerous compositions and albums, Dr. Gillis has published numerous articles in Canadian Winds, Canadian Music Educator, and the Encyclopedia of Music in Canada.

Here is Dr. Gillis performing Fantasia in 2016, accompanied by Bonnie Nicholson (BMus 1983; MA 1986).

Ross Ulmer (1976) won the National Music Festival Finals in 1973 and was a semi-finalist in the 1974 CBC Talent competition performing a national concerto broadcast with the CBC Winnipeg Orchestra. After graduating from the U of S, Ross majored in trombone performance with a minor in jazz education at the University of North Texas where he completed his MA. Ulmer began working in the auto service industry in 1981, and in 1987 he opened Ulmer Cadillac in Lloydminster, Saskatchewan. Today, Ulmer Motors manages 15 car dealerships throughout Alberta. Ulmer continues to perform in the Saskatchewan jazz community, an won the Saskatoon Jazz Festival Special Recognition award in 2018.

 Here is a clip of Ross playing “Rob’s Tune” with the Saskatoon Jazz Orchestra, directed by Professor Dean McNeill, in 2016.

Winston Wuttunee joined the Department of Music in 1973 after 13 years as a clarinetist in the Canadian Guards Regimental Band. His recording career began to take off that same year. Born in Saskatchewan and a member of the Red Pheasant Cree Nation, Wuttunee went on to become a well-known recording artist, keynote speaker, and comedian, touring throughout North America, Europe, the Middle East, and Australia. Wuttunee opened for artists such as Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson, was a guest on Sesame Street, acted in several movies, and created a collection of First Nations music for elementary and secondary students that is used throughout the Canadian school system. Wuttunee has taught at the University of Brandon, and in 2019 received an honorary doctorate from the University of Manitoba. He received the Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2002 Canadian Aboriginal Music Awards, and a 2013 Indspire award for Culture, Heritage and Spirituality.  “Winston Wuttunee: Kitochikew, The One Who Makes Music,” a short documentary about Wuttunee, was released in 2008.

Part 3: The 2000s

Moving ahead a few decades, we recently learned a great story about two of our early 2000s grads who are celebrating their 20th wedding anniversary this year. Erin Romanyshyn (BMUS 2001) and Allan Parson (BMUS 2001, BEd 2007) were married at Wanuskewin Heritage Park in April of 2001, shortly before they graduated from the department. Scheduled for the same day, then-Chief of the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations, Perry Bellegarde, was also touring His Royal Highness Prince Charles, Prince of Wales, around Wanuskewin. This was of course prior to 9/11, so security was limited and thus both events were able to go ahead without concern. And that is how Prince Charles attended the wedding of two of our BMUS students!