Past presidents reflect on Guild of the Greenville Symphony Orchestra’s evolution

Guild of the Greenville Symphony marks its 60th Anniversary

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Nancy Stanton, Karen Lawton, and Dot Grimball Photo by Will Crooks/Greenville Journal

Sixty. It’s a notable number by any stretch.

This year, the Guild of the Greenville Symphony Orchestra celebrates its 60th year of serving the community and the symphony through grass-roots support and fundraising efforts.

The story of the Guild and how it came to reach this milestone year is best told by those who have served and led the organization. So, as the arts group prepares to celebrate its Diamond Jubilee Anniversary gala this weekend, a few of the women who have served as Guild presidents sat down with the Greenville Journal to share their stories and to shed light on the past, present, and future of the Guild.

Dot Grimball

1961-1962

When Dot Grimball joined the Guild of the Greenville Symphony Orchestra in the late 1950s, both she and the Guild were relatively new to the Greenville scene. Grimball, a transplant to the area and a newlywed, was interested in music. So when the Guild was established in 1958, she looked to add her talents to the organization.

“I guess, at that time, I saw it as a great opportunity to become more involved in the community,” Grimball says. And involved she became; by 1961 she became president — and would be the fourth of more than 50 Guild presidents through today, remaining involved with the Guild consistently over the years. She clarifies that involvement simply: “I think once you’ve ever been involved and struggled through the early days of building a group, that you remain even if you’re not active; you have an ongoing interest in it.”

Back in the early days of the Guild, membership cost $1; the group did everything by hand and by grass-roots organization; there was no publicity as the group took music education into the local schools. But no matter how much time has changed the Guild, the mission is the same: to promote, support, and assist the Greenville Symphony Orchestra.

Back in the ’60s, however, when Grimball and her peers ran the Guild, they focused on education. They didn’t have the large swath of donors then that they have now; there was no money to provide financial support, and so the members of the Guild went to work doing what they could — creating future donors and future music enthusiasts by going into the schools to teach music.

“For many children, and I think it is even true today, they had no idea what a bassoon was or a French horn,” Grimball remembers. “It just was not in their life at all.” And while some refer to Greenville’s past at that time as a “cultural desert,” she refuses to agree. “I would say that the symphony was not the popular thing then that it is now. To call it a cultural desert … I don’t agree with that, but it certainly was not the scene that it is today.”

Karen Lawton

1985-1986

A little more than two decades later, Karen Lawton served as president of the Guild, under very different circumstances. (Lawton went on to become the only woman who served as both president and executive director of the symphony itself.) At that time, the arts climate in the Upstate had changed, due at least in part to the acquisition of large international companies like Michelin that had moved into town.

“It was much different; Greenville was starting to evolve into this wonderful place where nothing was too difficult to do, and we had attracted people from all across the U.S. who were really interested in having an orchestra here,” Lawton says. “We knew that these companies wouldn’t really want their people in a place where there was no culture.”

The symphony, along with other local assets like the Greenville Little Theatre, provided a portion of that culture to the international community in the days before the Peace Center and Greenville’s many cultural options scattered through downtown and the West End.

During this period, the Guild began to see a shift in giving. Where the Guild of the ’60s and ’70s was relegated to giving of its time (“They were in a stranglehold then; they didn’t have any money to give,” Lawton notes.), the Guild of the ’80s began to focus on fundraising as a major part of its efforts on behalf of the symphony and began to donate everything it brought in directly to the symphony. Its addition of the Symphony of Homes tour further strengthened its fundraising abilities and provided substantial funding for the symphony. It even took a cue from larger organizations and, with the help of the Hyatt and the local Fox channel, held a televised auction for three years.

“I think we were fearless,” Lawton says, and Grimball adds, “We didn’t know we couldn’t do it, so we did.”

Part of their success, Lawton notes, was due to the fact that the Guild wasn’t closed to newcomers or their ideas. They brought their ideas from wherever they were from, and the organization was truly open to implementing new — or sometimes radical — ideas.

“That was one of the most interesting things,” Grimball says. “We, as a group, continued to grow and welcome anyone — there was no ‘you had to live in a certain part of town’ or ‘had to do this, that, or the other.’ If you were interested in becoming involved, you got involved.”

Even with all the growth that happened through the ’80s and ’90s in the Guild — from wider acceptance from the Greenville community to the Holiday at Peace concert that filled the newly built Peace Center — the most important thing, Lawton says, was that it was never boring.

“That’s what was so interesting for me; it was never dull,” she says. “The Guild stayed alive and grew and grew and as it was growing and flourishing, then it was copied.” For Lawton, imitation truly is the sincerest form of flattery. “It’s a nice thing that we had other organizations copy what we had done,” she says.

Nancy Stanton

2007-2008

When Nancy Stanton joined the Guild in 2004, she had just retired from a long-standing career in the financial services industry. Just a few years later, in 2007, she became the Guild’s president.

As before, the Guild had grown over the decades, but still, its mission was unchanging. Fundraising and education still drove its efforts.

“We are the chief arm of the symphony’s fundraising, and everything we do is to support the symphony,” Stanton says. By her time in office, the Guild was able to fulfill an annual pledge made directly to the symphony; with funds left over, projects could be determined and implemented under the Guild’s control. “For several years we used it to pay down our endowed chairs. At one point we used some of those funds to fund a summer Lollipops concert [for children].”

Through all that work, the Guild of the Greenville Symphony Orchestra is one of the few in the country to have its own administrative assistant and its own office space, currently housed in McAlister Square.

Still, education remains a large part of the Guild’s mission, and it is a part that has grown massively since the Guild’s origins. Each year, Guild volunteers go into each of the 53 elementary schools in Greenville County; they reach an additional 4,000 students through the Michelin Children’s Concert and the annual middle school concerts.

Most of the students that will travel to the Peace Center for those children’s concerts, Stanton notes, are Title I schools; a grant to the Guild pays for the bus transportation.

“We are exposing these children to downtown Greenville, to the Peace Center, to live orchestral music, and this is an experience that they probably would never get by any other means except through the program,” Stanton says. “Even if we only reach one child, we have done our job. We have gotten them interested in something that they had no clue about.”

She adds, “Education is a very important piece of our work. We’re really building our future.”

There are many more women — and men — who comprise the Guild of the Greenville Symphony Orchestra, going back now 60 years. And it’s the members and volunteers of the Guild that make it unique.

“Without people like Dot who laid the foundation, we would have had nothing to build on; it was those people who came first that gave us the bricks that we needed to start building the organization,” Lawton says. “And that’s the beauty of the Guild past presidents; they are a special group of women … and two men.’

While all of the women agree that their most precious achievements through the Guild are the friendships they’ve been able to cultivate during their time there, there is one more thing that truly makes the Guild — and its presidents — special.

“They care deeply,” Lawton says. “It doesn’t just start with their initiation and end when they step away from it and hand the gavel to the next president … which is unique, I think, for any organization.”

For more information about the Guild and the celebration of their 60th anniversary, visit www.guildGSO.org or find the Guild on Facebook.

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