At Wheaton College, 25 years of male voices
Mark McKone-Sweet recalls one of the moments in the early fall of 1988 when he and several other freshman males at Wheaton College in Norton discovered how much fun a cappella music could be.
The students, part of the first contingent of men to enroll at the college when it turned coeducational that year, were sitting on a couch in their dorm when someone got the idea for a group sing. They all joined in.
“We picked a song, ‘Blue Moon,’ ” McKone-Sweet said. “The harmony was great.”
The young men soon joined with several others to form the Gentlemen Callers, the first and still only all-male a cappella group at Wheaton, a 1,600-student private college in Norton.
On Friday and Saturday, Wheaton alumni who were members of the Gentlemen Callers are gathering on campus for a reunion to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the group and of coeducation at the college. Organized by the Gentlemen Callers Union, the event will include a concert on Saturday performed by current and past group members.
The Gentlemen Callers Union will use the gathering to promote its effort to create a permanent $100,000 endowment fund by June 2017. To date, $40,000 has been raised for the fund, which would help future Gentlemen Callers meet their recording, traveling, and other expenses, and support the alumni group’s events and networking.
The reunion, part of a yearlong series of events celebrating Wheaton’s quarter-century of coeducation, is also an opportunity to highlight the role that the Gentlemen Callers played in helping the campus adjust to the arrival of men after 154 years as a women’s college.
“The decision by Wheaton to go coeducational was controversial,” said Austin Simko, a 2009 Wheaton graduate and the union’s president. The original Gentlemen Callers “provided a face for the new men and I think made accepting Wheaton’s coeducational nature easier.”
The Gentlemen Callers past and present will also pay tribute to the two all-women a cappella groups at the college — the Whims and the Wheatones — that helped the fledgling all-male group get started. In addition to those three single-sex groups, Wheaton today also has two coed a cappella groups.
More than 40 of the 85 or so Gentlemen Callers alumni and the 10 current group members plan to join in the concert, scheduled for 7:30 to 9 p.m. at Cole Memorial Chapel.
“This is a really wonderful effort,” Michael Graca, Wheaton’s assistant vice president for communications, said by e-mail. “The Gentlemen Callers are an important part of Wheaton’s first 25 years of coeducation, and the alumni union is working to help ensure that the group will remain a vital part of the college’s future, too.
“Their interest and active participation as alumni in the life of the college is every bit as critical as the endowment for which they are raising funds. We’re grateful for their loyalty to the college and their interest in helping future students,” Graca added.
Juwan “Jay” Mimes, a junior and the president of the Gentlemen Callers, said the current members appreciate the interest and support the alumni are showing for the group.
“It’s like a fraternity,” he said. “There is very much a sense of connection. We have a lot of the same fond memories from being in the group as the original guys.”
The divisions on campus surrounding coeducation were evident to the freshman men when they arrived in 1988, recalled McKone-Sweet, who today resides in Needham and is pastor of St. Dunstan’s Episcopal Church in Dover.
He said one morning the men in his dorm awoke to find that someone had drawn with tape the stick figure symbol of a woman about every 10 feet along the hallways and on the mirrors in the bathroom, and had drawn the figure with chalk along campus walkways and on classroom blackboards.
“We were like, ‘Oh my gosh, we’re going to be run off campus,’ ” he said.
The change was also bracing for the women on campus, said Megan Russell-Witalis, a 1990 graduate who was a member of the Whims.
“I was a junior when the first men were admitted and I lived in one of the coed dorms. . . . The freshmen had been there a week already by the time we moved in and they had definitely made themselves comfortable and at home,” she said, recalling that the women arrived to the sight of “men in their underwear with pizza boxes and beer in open containers.”
McKone-Sweet said he is pleased that the Gentlemen Callers came to play a role in easing those early tensions.
His memories of the events that helped spawn the group also include a bus ride during orientation when several freshman men started singing together, and an occasion in which the then-dean of students had several freshman men join her on stage to sing “The Men of 1992,” a song she had written about the college’s first male students.
Inspired by the Whims and the Wheatones, McKone-Sweet and other men created their own group. The women’s groups offered encouragement and help — including conducting the initial auditions.
McKone-Sweet said that the Gentlemen Callers were able to build good will in part because it was respectful of the college’s traditions, which include a love of music.
“We were demonstrating that men could honor the history of the school,” he said. In particular, he said, the group was able to provide a comforting image to the all-female alumnae, showing them that “these guys aren’t so bad, that this coed thing could work.”
Russell-Witalis agreed that the group had a positive effect at that time.
“The nice thing about the Gentlemen Callers is that they really fit in on campus with the Whims and the Wheatones. They looked to us for advice and song selection and . . . they were classy. They wore their navy blazers and bowties and khaki pants and they sang. . . . We really appreciated that they were a good group of guys that were good students and that really cared.”