Dorothy Rowledge attended her first Upper Island Musical Festival in 1937. At the age of six she was competing in singing, dancing and what they called at the time, elocution.
“I can remember St. Andrew’s being almost full of people … As a young child I remember singing and the place was two-thirds full, even in the afternoons,” she said, looking back.
While she concedes she was “never a star,” she still enjoyed participating for the experience, despite performing in front of what was sometimes a tough crowd.
“Adjudicators in those early years came from Britain and they were often very caustic and not too, well, I think they thought they were bringing culture to the hinterlands,” she added.
Twenty years after that first experience Dorothy joined the organization’s general committee and served in various roles until 1967 when she became chairwoman for the vocal discipline, holding that position until 2012. She said she chose to go from performer to organizer because she wanted to share the happiness she once felt as a student herself.
“I just enjoyed it so much that I thought other people would enjoy it, too,” she said.
“So when I became a music teacher in the schools … I put choirs in the festival and put soloists in the festival as well. It was something I felt was worthwhile for young people.”
For the last 40 years Dorothy has been overseeing the annual honours show, where musicians selected by adjudicators conclude the festival with a performance. This year, for the first time, honours night is taking place at the Port Theatre.
Dorothy said $400 in bursaries were presented at the first honours show in the mid-’60s. Last year she said prizes – all donated by individuals and organizations – totalled $20,000.
“It’s always been a thrill to see some child that you can obviously see with talent, maybe six or seven years old, and then watch them grow each year,” she said.
“My two kids have been in the festival and my granddaughters and my daughter-in-law was an adjudicator here one year. It’s just all in the family.”
Dorothy’s husband Bob joked that he was dragged into the musical festival after they married. Bob, a former director of finance for the City of Nanaimo, has been the festival’s auditor for the last 40 years.
He said the two accomplishments he’s proudest about are the executive members’ ongoing camaraderie and co-operation and his ability to keep the festival financially stable during his tenure.
“I’ve always prepared their budgets so they’re self-sustaining,” he said.
“They have never gone to the city or the province or anyone else for one nickel. They’ve always financed themselves and looked after themselves. Two exceptions were the city gave us a small grant that was for the 75th celebration and I have an application in for assistance for the 90th.”
Bob said he favoured user fees during his time with the city and it’s a philosophy he carried over to the festival to ensure that taxpayers would not be charged for expenses like facility rentals.
“The budget itself I would suggest in my time has grown from – this is apart from the bursaries – around $10,000 up to $100,000. That’s their operating cost.”
The 90th annual Upper Island Musical Festival begins on Feb. 17 with the speech and drama performances. Even though the Rowledges have been a part of the festival for much of its history, they remain modest about their own contributions.
“We’re very proud that we’ve had a small part in it,” Dorothy said.
“Very intriguing,” Bob said of the milestone.
“There’s not many you see get up to that age. I’m a 63-year member of the Nanaimo Lions Club; we just celebrated our 70th. So it’s interesting to compare old times with new times … and in this case watch the youngsters coming up. That’s the joy.”