UNIVERSITY OF WISCONSIN River Falls
William "Bill" Abbott was an exceptionally gifted musician and chairman of the Music Department during its period of greatest growth from 1957-1969. Bill was born in 1921 in Lincoln, Nebraska, and graduated from Central High in St. Joseph, MO in 1938. He received the Bachelor of Music degree from Baker University in Baldwin, KS in 1942. He went to Northwestern University in Evanston, IL, for his Master of Music degree in 1946 and received his Ph.D. in Music Theory from Indiana University in 1956.
Bill joined the Music faculty at UW-RF in 1957 as the first Chairman of the Music Department. The university grew from a few hundred students during WW II to several thousand students by the mid 1950s. President Eugene Kleinpell had to find funds for new buildings, both classrooms and dormitories, as well as hire many new faculty. By the late 1950s, it was necessary to have separate academic departments with chairpersons and secretaries, something that had not been true previously.
Bill Abbott was the first chairman of the new, separate Music Department. He was given an office in South Hall along the corridor leading back to the band room; his secretary had the office next door. Among other tasks for the chairman, it meant that he was responsible for all hiring of new faculty; there were no hiring committees in those days. He was also responsible for the Music Department space planning for the great Fine Arts Building planned for the future. But meanwhile he had to watch over staff with offices and studios and practice rooms in South Hall, Hathorn Cottage, North Hall, and wherever else he could find space.
Bill was gifted and proficient on piano, clarinet, percussion instruments, and recorder. He taught courses in music theory, piano, and the art of piano tuning. He was the originator and director of the Piano and Allied Arts program and was a certified piano tuner-technician since 1970. Bill conducted the UW-RF Band from 1957-64 and the St. Croix Valley Symphony Orchestra from 1959-69. He performed with the campus Recorder Ensemble and played for a time with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. He was also a frequent adjudicator and clinician for music festivals in Wisconsin and other Midwest states.
Dr. Abbott developed a piano technology minor at UW-RF and conducted summer workshops at the UW-Extension Indianhead Center at Shell Lake. On campus he served on the Faculty Senate, the Graduate Council, the Termination Committee (all very important committees), and was the chairman of the Human Relations Committee, 1970-74. He devoted a great deal of time to the Parent Education Program for Native Americans and served minority and foreign students in many capacities. It was always very difficult to attract and retain minority students in River Falls, because of its location in the far north and west of the state. Bill worked hard to develop policies and practices to deal with this problem. Bill was a member of MENC (Music Educators National Council), the Wisconsion Theory Teachers Association, and the Wisconsin School Music Association.
Bill was a gifted, multi-talented musician who could play almost any instrument, had perfect pitch, and was a natural showman. Each year at Christmas, he and John Radd would give a special concert in which they improvised Christmas carols in the style of the classical composers. Every year on April Fools Day, he would join the faculty for a special scholarship concert. Although he was always in suit and tie while teaching, for this concert he would appear in bib overalls, with a fishing pole and tackle box, and perform a routine at the piano that would have impressed and delighted even Victor Borge. He could play anything and move from one piece to another seamlessly. He fell off the seat reaching for a far key on the piano; he fell asleep while playing "Happy Birthday," and much more. Students, staff, and guests were delighted.
In the early 1970s, he was part of a two piano team with his colleague, Carolyn Britton, performing a repertory which is not familiar, but which was very rich and beautiful. Each quarter brought another concert. As the New Fine Arts Building was about to open in 1973, Bill and Carolyn went to Steinway headquarters in New York to pick out two Steinway grands, which would be the center of concerts at River Falls for many years.
Bill and his wife Kay had a large home on Fourth Street, which was the scene of many delightful parties for Music faculty and others. They were a very gregarious and generous couple. They had three children: Geoffrey, Ellen and Brian.
At various times, Bill worked in radio and television, served as organist in churches and played in jazz bands. He played bassoon with the Fargo-Moorhead Symphony Orchestra, tympani with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, piano for Guthrie Theater productions, and served as accompanist for other musicians. Before joining the UW-RF faculty, he had taught at North Dakota State College and Southwest Missouri State College in Springfield.
Bill Abbott died of a heart attack on February 14, 1980. The concert hall in the Fine Arts Building was named in his honor, and Mary Barrett of the Art Department created a large mural/woodblock print of Bill in various activities for the wall outside the hall in his memory and honor.