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A Well-Centered Tone

Steve Charles—I knew Mary Lou Mielke mostly for her gentle hospitality the several times I visited the Mielke’s home to work with her husband, Professsor Emeritus Paul Mielke, on photo spreads for Wabash Magazine. The walls were covered with photographs of landscapes and friends, but as you made your way upstairs, the pictures were of children and grandchildren. Her health was declining and moving around the house was difficult, yet she never lost patience with me as I asked about the pictures, and she lit up when we got to those of the children and grandchildren, the legacy of love that survives her.

But I also knew her from Wabash archive photos that show her performing music at Wabash (most famously at a rally for 1968 presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy) where she played in various ensembles and taught students from 1957 to 1985. She leaves a legacy there, too, through the Mary Louise Denney Scholarship.

A memorial service is planned for December, but with so much time elapsing between now and then, it seems fitting to keep this wonderful woman in our memories, and her family in our thoughts and prayers. I asked Professor Emeritus of French Dick Strawn, who played music with Mary Lou for four decades (including as part of the “Flat Baroque Ensemble!) to write a brief recollection of his friend from the perspective of a fellow musician, just to tide us over until that service:

“The other day I listened to a tape of Mary Lou Mielke playing the flute. ‘Plangent’ came to mind. I had to look it up: ‘1. having a loud reverberating sound; 2. having an expressive and esp. plaintive quality.’ Number 2 was it, often; number 1 only when she joined some band or other, and she frequently answered appeals for help. Who else was so dependable, could read anything at a glance, and played like a charm? She claimed not too much like anything post-Beethoven, preferably post-Mozart, but she played with understanding anything put in front of her. For someone so short of breath for so many years, she sustained a tone and phrased musically like a professional. A well-centered tone, not piercing. Silvery. She passed that understanding to her students and to her oboe- and bassoon-playing children and was the pivot of many a chamber-music ensemble at Wabash and in town.”

Few have done more for Wabash in as many ways as Paul Mielke, and the abiding love he and Mary Lou shared seemed the foundation that allowed him that service. I look forward learning more about Mary Lou from those who knew and loved her best, and to celebrating her life at the memorial service. I’m told there may be music; perhaps a chance for us to hear that “well-centered tone” she passed along to her children and students.