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Friday, March 30, 2012 - Matilda and Friends

by Gillian Ellis

Every spring Music, Theatre and Dance invites friends and family to gather and celebrate the hard work and achievements of the students receiving the department’s prestigious MaTilDa Awards. The awards are named after Matilda Dodge Wilson who may be considered OU’s very first friend. It was she who donated the land and the seed money for the university.

Matilda Rausch Dodge Wilson was born in 1883 in Walkerton, Ontario to German immigrant parents. In 1884 the family moved to Detroit, where her father ran a downtown bar and her mother kept the boarding house next door. In 1902 she started work as a secretary in the office of John and Horace Dodge’s fast growing auto parts business. She and John fell in love and were married in 1907. In 1920 both Dodge brothers fell ill. John died in January and Horace in December of that year.

Matilda moved to the Rochester farm that she and John had loved, and in 1925 she married Alfred Wilson and they made the farm their home. That same year, Matilda and her widowed sister-in-law Anna sold the Dodge Brothers Company to investment bankers for $146 million, making them two of the richest women in the world. Between 1926 and 1929 the Wilsons built Meadow Brook Hall in a style inspired by English country manor homes.

Matilda had strong ties to Michigan State University. University President John Hannah and Vice-president Woody Varner asked the Wilsons to donate land for an MSU Oakland campus in December 1956. “I think we can do that,” replied Matilda.
On September 21, 1959 classes began at Michigan State University Oakland (MSUO) with Woody Varner as president. By the time the first 146 students graduated in April 1963, MSU had been dropped from the name. Matilda held a party at Meadow Brook Hall and gave all the first graduates a diamond class ring. In 1970 the Michigan Legislature recognized the maturity and stature of the university by granting it autonomy. Matilda died in 1982 at the age of 95.

With the MaTilDa Awards we are proud to honor her importance to our university, and her contribution to education and the Arts.

Other old friends are remembered during the ceremonies, as awards in their names are given out to the students chosen by the MTD faculty. Four Gittlen Awards are offered: one for achievement in acting (Lauren Knox), one for Theatre Design and Technology (Jeffery Block), one for Musical Theatre (Allie McCaw), and one for Theatre (Sam Rohloff). This last general award goes every year to a student who is not a senior. Alex and Ruth Gittlen were the parents of Adeline Hirschfeld-Medalia, professor emerita, whose distinguished career at OU is catalogued in a fascinating article she wrote for the Oakland Journal. The article also chronicles the early days of the theatre program. You can read that article here.

In May, 1972, Adeline became the first female chair of a department at OU, the Department of Speech Communication, but she continued to work for the development of a true theatre program, and the Gittlen endowment was established specifically to support theatre in an academic setting. Adeline writes, “When I learned [my parents] were closing out [their] endowment, I asked that the remaining funds be given to Oakland to be used to support the emerging Theater program. Of course, they were easily persuaded, loving parents that they were. Getting the news about the awards every year is always welcome, and I have happy memories indeed about being able to attend the ceremony just before I moved to New York. Congratulate the awardees for me!”

The other named theatre award was established by Pat and Mercedes Nicosia. The 2012 Pat and Mercedes Nicosia Meadow Brook Estate Award will go to Lauren Keen. Pat Nicosia worked at OU for 31 years and retired as director of budget and financial planning. He and his wife Mercedes love musical theatre and have supported the activities of the department’s students for many years. In setting up their MaTilDa award, their aim was to continue that support in perpetuity.

There are two named music awards. The Joyce Adelson Piano Ensemble Award commemorates the life and teaching of one of the department’s most revered former piano faculty. Along with her twin sister Joanna, Joyce Adelson enjoyed a career as an internationally recognized duo pianist. This year the award is shared by three young musicians: pianist Lanjiabao Ge, violinist Piaras Kent and violist Danish Ali. Joyce Adelson influenced many young musicians. “I think everybody loved Joyce,” says former department chair David Daniels. “She was a warm-hearted and lovely person, and a terrific musician.”

The second named music award, the Jennifer Scott Memorial Award, is named in honor of Jennifer Scott, who was a piano student at OU when she was involved in a fatal car accident in 1980. Her parents, William and Jean Scott, established the award and continue to support it. Their purpose was to honor a student who best exemplified Jennifer’s qualities of scholarship, musicianship and willingness to serve others. This year’s recipient is Stephen Komer.

The Maggie Allesee Distinguished Dance Student Award bears the name of one of Michigan’s most extraordinary philanthropists. Maggie Allesee serves the Michigan community in many roles and donates her time to many organizations. And she is one of OU’s truest friends. Her strong support of the dance program manifests itself not only in this MaTilDa award, but in summer scholarships for dance students to travel and study, and in other ways. She also serves on the board of the Eisenhower Dance Ensemble and on the board of visitors for the School of Nursing. Her lifelong record of service and giving is extraordinary and exemplary. In May 2011, in recognition of her generosity and commitment, the university gave an honorary degree to Maggie Allesee. This year, the dance award that bears her name will go to Catherine MacMaster.

For a complete list of all this year’s award winners and for more information please click here.

The MaTilDa Awards evening is on Monday, April 16 at the Royal Park Hotel in Rochester, with a cash bar at 6 p.m. and dinner at 7 p.m., to be followed by the presentation of awards and entertainment by some of MTD’s most accomplished students. Tickets are $40; $20 for students, and can be purchased online.

Friends old and new are all welcome to attend this open event. Even if you are unacquainted with the work we do at Music, Theatre and Dance, we invite you to gather a couple of your friends and join us for what is always an evening of fun and celebration. New friends very welcome!

Photo: Guests at the MaTilDas 2011. Photo by Elyse Curatolo.