LC in History: Remembering Helen Wood

Dr. Clifton W. Potter Jr. LC History Professor~

Last Sunday afternoon my wife and I attended the unveiling and dedication of a Virginia Historical Marker celebrating the life and contributions of Helen Pesci Wood to the Commonwealth’s musical heritage. It stands near her former home on Fort Avenue which is one of the busiest thoroughfares in Lynchburg.

After the ceremony, the sizable crowd adjourned to the Fort Hill Woman’s Club to hear four of her former students share their memories of this remarkably talented artist. Her son, Robin Wood, closed the program with his own warm and personal remarks about his mother. The room was filled with her friends, former colleagues and former students—including my wife and me.  She was a master teacher in every sense of the word, whether you were one of her voice students, a member of her music appreciation class or were lucky enough to attend her Italian lessons for singers.

Mrs. Wood was part of our faculty for twenty-three years.  In addition to her duties at Lynchburg College, she performed all over the country, sang on the radio and was the featured soprano in the choir at Court Street Methodist Church.  She was one of the founders of the Grass Roots Opera Company which introduced much of rural and small-town Virginia to that form of musical expression.  The opera companies that flourish today in Virginia’s larger cities are lineal descendants of her pioneering efforts.  Each year, The Night of Opera, under her direction, was one the high points of the spring semester. Her voice students would present an evening of scenes from famous operas, and sometimes they would present an original score by a local composer.  One such event was  my first opportunity to experience opera in live performance.

As Colonial Williamsburg began to expand its programs, candlelight concerts were held at the Governor’s Palace.  From 1950 until 1964 Helen Wood was one of the featured soloists at those elegant evenings that drew tourists into the world of the eighteenth century. My wife, Dr. Dorothy Potter, fondly remembers attending one of those performances when she was a student at LC—she said that “it was magic,” Helen Wood’s particular kind of magic.

When you next enter the Helen Wood Recital Hall, turn to the right and look at the exquisite portrait of Mrs. Wood.  It is a remarkable likeness, but it really does not do her justice. She was vivacious, elegant and talented — no, talented is not an adequate word.  Helen Wood gave up a promising career in grand opera for marriage and family; then in 1941 she joined LC’s faculty to open a new world for our students. As I was preparing to begin my first year at LC, a friend who had just graduated told me not to miss a single musical event on campus, and he was right.  I experienced my first Mozart opera in Hopwood Auditorium, thanks to Helen Wood.  My ambition is to hear all his operas in live performance—and my wife and I are well on our way.  We lost Helen Wood to cancer, but we did not lose her legacy.  It has been said that angels in Heaven sing Mozart’s music for pleasure—perhaps sometimes the Maestro accompanies Helen when she performs his arias.