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Wednesday, October 01, 2014, 10:15 p.m.
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Nancy and Ansley Fleming

Retiring Hendrix choir director, organist plan farewell concert

By Tammy Keith

This article was published April 27, 2014 at 12:00 a.m.

Nancy Fleming, longtime director of the Hendrix College Choir in Conway, and her husband, Ansley Fleming, the college organist, are retiring this year. Nancy will direct a farewell concert at 7:30 p.m. Thursday in Reves Recital Hall on campus, and Ansley will accompany the concert.

Nancy Fleming jokes that she and her husband, Ansley, moved around like gypsies for years but finally settled at Hendrix College in Conway.

She will retire this summer after 28 years as director of the Hendrix College choir; he after 15 years as the college organist.

Ansley joked that he had to “shove and pull and kick” to get his wife to agree to retire.

He accomplished it, though, and a farewell concert is planned for 7:30 p.m. Thursday in Reves Recital Hall at Hendrix.

It’s titled A Few of My Favorite Things and includes a handful of selections Nancy has enjoyed the most during her tenure at the college.

“It’s a mixed bag,” she said, but nothing too intense. “I wanted something light to end the year.”

Following the concert, there will be a reception in Trieschmann Gallery for the couple.

Nancy has conducted more than 200 Candlelight Carol services on campus, not to mention all the other concerts. Her faithful accompanist and husband has been with her for many of those.

“He’s a phenomenally good organist,” she said.

They each began their love of music as young children.

Nancy, 64, and her sister were born in Puerto Rico, where the family lived until Nancy was about 12, she said. Her father worked for Chase Manhattan Bank, and they moved to Philadelphia, Pa.

“We heard LPs all the time of classical music,” Nancy said, and her mother, whose father was a professional musician, made sure the family always had a piano.

Nancy started playing piano at age 5 or 6.

Ansley, 70, grew up in Atlanta, Ga., and he said that before he and his brother were born, his mother was in the Atlanta Light Opera Co.

“We have some wonderful pictures of her in costume on stage,” he said.

She played piano and sang, and Ansley said he could play by ear by the time he was 4. When he was 4 1/2 years old, she enrolled him in piano lessons.

“At my first piano recital, my mother had to have a little tuxedo made for me,” he said.

He went to the University of Oklahoma because of a world-renowned organ teacher, Mildred Andrews, he said. Ansley earned a master’s degree in piano at Oklahoma City University.

Nancy received a degree from Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts.

“I knew I loved the music, but I was interested in language, history and even math — until I hit calculus,” she said. “After my freshman year, I sort of had an epiphany. I realized the thing I loved most in the world was music.”

Nancy said she majored in music at the liberal-arts college.

“It occurred to me that the way I really liked making music was choir — the community of it, the making music as a group, which I still think is sort of magic,” she said.

Nancy earned a master’s degree at Westminster Choir College in Princeton, N.J.

Her first teaching job was at an Episcopal day school in Oklahoma City, and Ansley was on staff as chapel organist and instructor in piano and organ.

He was on the interview team when she applied. As they sat in her office at Hendrix, she asked him not to tell the story. He told it anyway.

Ansley said that when the day-school committee finished interviewing her, Nancy said, “I look forward to working with you,” and winked at him.

Nancy said she was young. “So unprofessional,” she said, shaking her head.

“She wanted the job!” he said.

“I also thought he was really cute,” she said, laughing.

He said he hightailed it to the headmaster and said, “This is who we’re going to hire.”

The couple met in August and got married four months later. In December, they celebrated their 39th wedding anniversary.

She worked at the day school for three years. Then they sold their home and moved to New York, also for three years. Ansley got a job as music director at a church, and Nancy went back to school to get a doctorate at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where she also served as a graduate assistant.

Ansley said he resisted getting his doctorate at the University of Illinois, so he worked at Red Lobster as a server. He said he would come home at 2 a.m. smelling like fried fish.

“I decided no matter how hard the program was, it would be better than waiting tables at the Red Lobster,” he said.

He enrolled in the doctoral program and completed everything except his dissertation.

Their next move — part of their gypsy life at the time – was to St. Louis, Mo., where she took a job at Lindenwood College (now Lindenwood University), and he worked full time at a church and taught at the St. Louis Conservatory and School for the Arts.

The Flemings stayed while she finished her dissertation, and the job at Hendrix became available.

She came on a one-year contract, and Ansley took a job as the full-time music director at a church in Little Rock.

“It seemed destined that we would be here, and 28 years later, here we are,” she said.

They lived in Conway, then Little Rock, and moved back to Conway again nine years ago.

“This has just been the perfect place for the two of us,” Ansley said. “Conway is a wonderful, wonderful place.”

In the beginning, Nancy taught courses such as Music History, Introduction to Fine Arts and voice. She also taught a course in Western Intellectual Tradition, “which was really a stretch,” she said.

“In a small department like this, we tend to wear lots of hats,” she said.

Each year, the choir consistently has 45 to 50 students, she said.

“The choir at Hendrix is a very interesting critter,” Nancy said. “It’s mostly made up of nonmusic majors. At most, we have 20 majors in instrument and voice a year. The flip side of that is they’re very dedicated about what they do.”

She said students must audition to be in the choir.

“Because of their willingness to go where I want to go, … we’ve done some remarkable things,” she said. “I feel good about handing it over.”

Nancy has been department chairwoman, area chair and was in on the creation of the Odyssey Program, serving as associate director for four years, then director of the Odyssey Program for four years.

The Odyssey Program is Hendrix College’s program in engaged learning, Nancy said.

“What it does — there are six different categories for engaged learning. To graduate from Hendrix, students have to do at least one project in at least three categories. They range from things already set up for them on campus to things they dream up on their own.”

She said the projects can include internships or trips out of the country.

“It’s an opportunity to apply what they’re learning in the classroom to real-world situations,” she said. “It’s really become a signature program of the college. It’s put us on the national scene.”

Being involved in so many aspects of the college is something Nancy said she has enjoyed.

“The college has been a very wonderful place to be. It has allowed me to follow different interests and grow and change,” Nancy said. “The college has been terrific about giving me the opportunity to stretch my wings in all kinds of directions.”

Ansley joined the faculty in 1999.

“I had already started playing for the Hendrix College Choir for candlelight services,” he said. He was then hired as the college organist.

He kept his job at the church in Little Rock for a while, then retired from the church and started teaching piano and organ at Hendrix.

“They’re entirely different,” he said of the two instruments. “I’m a better organist than I am pianist. I really enjoy piano.”

As much as the couple have performed together, it seems they might be of one mind.

They laughed at the question.

“I tell her what I think she should do,” he said.

“Sometimes we have these little discussions about how things should go,” she said. “There’s not just one way to do things. I would say we’re pretty collaborative.”

She will officially retire July 1, and she said Andrew Morgan of Minnesota will take over in August.

“He’s a charming young man, very talented,” she said. “He’s going to bring in fresh ideas.”

Robert Entzminger, provost and dean of Hendrix College, said the couple will be missed.

“For many people on campus and off, it’s hard to imagine the Hendrix music program without the Flemings,” Entzminger said. “Their Candlelight Carol performances during the Christmas season every year are a highlight, drawing alums and others back to campus yearly, but the other choral recitals are equally fine. Ansley’s organ accompaniments to our formal academic ceremonies, as well as the choir’s contributions under Nancy’s direction to so many campus events, have become an integral part of those occasions as well.”

Although it took some doing for Ansley to get his wife to agree to retire, they have big plans.

In October, they have a tour of New Zealand scheduled; and in February, they and their beloved dogs will take a vacation to Florida.

“We’re going to have to make an adjustment in our thinking,” Ansley said. “We are so wedded to Monday-through-Friday work.”

He said he wants to do more photography when they retire, and that he and Nancy did agility training with the dogs, and “we may get back into that.”

Nancy said she wants to brush up on her Spanish, and she might sit in on a Spanish class at Hendrix.

She volunteers at the food pantry at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, where they are members, and she has considered becoming a Master Gardener.

Ansley said he teases her that she needs to retire while she can still hear the choir, or before someone has to point her to the right building.

“I’m looking forward to it,” she said. “I’d rather go out on the top of my game.”

Senior writer Tammy Keith can be reached at (501) 327-0370 or tkeith@arkansasonline.com.

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