Those of you who think Rock Hill was a sleepy little country town had better peruse its history again.
Back in late August of 1941, the Keyser family made a daylong trip from Hot Springs, Va., to Belmont, N.C., driving a little 1939 Woodie that carried not only the three of us but a wardrobe trunk holding clothes for the year. Few of which I used, since uniforms were the call of the day. My parents were on a mission to enroll me in a school that had been researched for over a year, and finally decided that it was the very one for this only lonely child.
We arrived late in the afternoon and drove through the gates of the Sacred Heart Academy, where a new life was to begin for me. I was introduced by Sister Columba to students my age. Parents went off to settle accounts, and I was taken to the third floor, where most of our lives started in the dormitories in the early morning when a loud bell rang and Sister Stephen's voice filled the hall with, "Hail Mary Full of Grace."
I was given my uniforms that I absolutely hated from the first sight, brown jumpers with the SAH emblazoned on the pocket and tan Peter Pan collar blouses. We also had a black serge, pleated horror decorated with stiff white collars and cuffs to be worn on Sundays when we made our weekly trip to the great cathedral at the Belmont Abbey for the Sabbath Service. It was there that Father Abelard played the grand pipe organ, the first one I ever heard and learned to appreciate. It was the beginning of a learning curve that has continued to enrich my days in one way or another for more years than I care to count.
It was in Rock Hill that I saw my first opera. In Belmont, I learned to jitterbug, use pancake makeup and hear, for the first time, the Glenn Miller Orchestra with Tex Beneke singing "Chattanooga Choo-Choo," and made the huge discovery that the library was the best room in the house.
It was in that very room that I discovered the Encyclopedia Britannica and the Dewey Decimal System, all under the tutelage of Sister Helen, who spoke gently and taught me that curiosity is the key to learning,
I was introduced to another culture that has stood me in good stead; I became friends with a plethora of saints. If I lost something, I appealed to Saint Anthony, and if I was getting ready to fail a math test, I simply implored St. Joseph. He really never came through for me, but knowing him on a personal level made life more comfortable and safe. In fact, in my car today is a discolored St. Christopher that I bought at a school bazaar for my father that Christmas. That nice old saint took care of him and has been looking out for me since 1957 when it was transferred to my car.
The Latin class could never be forgotten. It was taught by Sister Kevin, who spoke English with a Southern drawl accented by an Irish brogue. If you can conjugate the verb I love, amo, amas, amat, mixed in with a little Gaelic, you will understand the delight in looking back.
It was a place of extreme courtesy and social habits. Legs were never crossed; backs were never turned when exiting a room with adults present; and one never remained seated when an adult entered the room. Indeed, there was much to learn, and it all came quickly, for we were taught in a gentle and caring way.
It was in the great Benedictine Cathedral in Belmont that I heard Father Abelard, professor of music and organist for the Abbey, call out at about two or three in the afternoon on that fateful Sunday, Dec. 7, 1941, that Pearl Harbor had been attacked. "Poppa Jack" Howern, choir director for Sacred Heart and the Abbey brought the practice to a halt, and we all knelt and prayed. I am sure none of us realized the magnitude of what we had just heard. That came later when three of the Abbey students who were singing that day did not live through the awful war.
The other cultural events that enriched my life were many times enjoyed at Winthrop College in Rock Hill. It was there that I saw Gounod's "Faust," presented by the San Carlo Opera Company. Imagine, a little farm girl from the mountains of Virginia, hearing an operatic tenor for the first time and thrilled when the soprano reached notes that absolutely boggled my mind. I decided then and there that I would write an opera. So, for a few days, a friend, Mary Francis Kabas, and I sang our conversations. It was a passing phase in our lives since the good nuns made note of the fact that we were disturbing the refectory with our "noise."
So, indeed, Rock Hill and York County are not new to me. I was here before malls and coffee shops. I was here when Winthrop girls wore uniforms. I was here when there was no museum, and I never, in our bus rides through town, saw a Harris Teeter or a McDonald's. I was here when grand opera was presented by a traveling opera company that enjoyed nationwide fame from 1913 to 1955.
Small town, phooey, it was a cultural Mecca to me, and when I decided to escape the horrors of a Pennsylvania winter in 1978, I headed straight for, you bet, Rock Hill, S.C., and there I stayed for 20-some years. After all, they had opera.