Clarksville, TN – On a gray November afternoon in 1970, a young pianist named Sharon Mabry received a frantic phone call. The Austin Peay State University (APSU) Music Department needed her help.
The program’s popular voice professor, Jack Hurt, had died suddenly that week, and someone had to take over his classes and finish out the semester.
“Dr. Cowen knew I had the degrees and could teach what Jack was teaching,” she said. “He called me on a Friday and asked if I could start on a Monday, and I did.”
It was only meant to be a temporary assignment, but 52 years later, Sharon Mabry is officially retiring from Austin Peay State University, earning the designation as the longest-serving employee in University history.
During that five-decade-long career, she has mentored thousands of students, enhanced the cultural life of the Clarksville-Montgomery community, and helped transform Austin Peay State University’s music department into one of the top programs in the Southeast. She also received the University’s first Richard M. Hawkins Award – APSU’s top award for scholarly and creative work – in 1979 and Austin Peay State University’s Distinguished Professor Award in 2003.
“It’s pretty overwhelming thinking about 52 years of service and employment at a single place and the impact that has had on our school in general but specifically our department,” Dr. Jeffrey Williams, APSU associate professor of music, said. “Sharon and George have been associated with this department and this school for so long that as soon as you say Austin Peay, you think of the Mabrys in the same breath. That’s only been a positive thing for us.”
In the years following that November phone call, Sharon’s reputation as a gifted vocalist and teacher has spread across the globe, and this long, storied career began, of all places, on a farm in the hills of East Tennessee.
‘Haven’t I seen you somewhere before?’
The City of Newport, Tennessee, is tucked into the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains, about 25 miles east of Gatlinburg. The community’s first settlers arrived in 1783, and by the 1940s, only a few thousand people called this town along the Pigeon River home.
“We lived on a farm when I was very little, but we moved to Newport – the city – when I was about five,” Sharon said. “My mother says that I was constantly running around and screaming around the house, so I guess I had to channel that somewhere. Somehow, they knew that I needed to be in music.”
In the small town of Newport, across the street from Sharon’s house, lived a Julliard-trained musician named Eleanor Hickey. For the next 12 years, Sharon went to Hickey’s house to study piano and voice.
“She was an incredible teacher to be found in a small town like that,” Sharon said. “I started playing piano, but she discovered I had a voice and said I should do voice and piano. I was very fortunate because she was just terrific.”
When it came time for college, she applied to the University of Tennessee and auditioned for one of the school’s prestigious music scholarships. That afternoon in Knoxville, she stood next to a handsome young man from Chattanooga named George Mabry. They didn’t speak, and when Sharon returned home to Newport, she decided to go farther south for college.
“My band director in high school suggested I go to Florida State, so that’s where I went,” Sharon said. “The first day of school, I walked into the building and George was sitting on a little rock wall, and he looked up and said, ‘Haven’t I seen you somewhere before?’ That’s how we first saw each other and met.”
‘The fickle finger of fate’
At Florida State University, Sharon majored in piano intending to become a concert pianist. She continued to sing, and after her freshman year, decided to double major.
“The more I studied piano, the more I knew I didn’t want to be a concert pianist,” she said. “Especially when I heard I had to practice 6-8 hours a day. The voice just doesn’t last that long.”
With her voice growing stronger, Sharon found her way into the theater. She auditioned each year for Summer Stock and spent those warm months performing in musicals and a few operas. Instead of being a concert pianist, she now harbored dreams of singing on Broadway.
Sharon’s focus turned to music education, and after graduating, she and George – now married – headed to Nashville. While in Music City, she taught high school music for a year and then became music editor of what was then the Baptist Sunday School Board.
“I was still singing and playing the piano all the time,” she said. “I worked one year there and then I was offered a full fellowship to get my master’s at George Peabody College (now a part of Vanderbilt University). George was getting his doctorate, and we were enjoying Nashville.”
One afternoon in August 1970, a friend heard about a job opening in Clarksville. Austin Peay State University was looking for a choral director. Classes were set to begin in a few days, so the Mabrys headed north for George’s interview. He met with the faculty and sang for them while Sharon played piano.
“They hired him the next day, right before school started,” she said. “He took the job and we moved to Clarksville, where I taught private piano lessons.”
Three months later, Sharon received that frantic call from Dr. Cowan, asking if she could teach music education and voice at the University.
“The fickle finger of fate,” she said. “I applied for the full-time job and got it. I started teaching music education and voice, and I discovered immediately that what I loved to do was teach voice. So no more studying piano.”
While teaching at Austin Peay State University, Sharon went back to George Peabody College and earned her Doctor of Musical Arts in Vocal Performance. In the late 1970s, she traveled to Austria to study at the Franz-Schubert-Institut, where she earned a performance certificate. Around this time, she also embarked on a more than 40-year career as an award-winning professional singer, performing as a recitalist and soloist with symphony orchestras across the globe.
“I think it’s really important for teachers who are teaching at this level to have experience in lots of different things to help students know what is out there and get prepared for it,” she said.
By 1980, the girl from Newport, Tennessee, had a renewed focus. She and George would build the APSU music department’s vocal area into a world-class program.
‘George and I were shocked and honored’
In the 1970s, the APSU Department of Music occupied a few crowded rooms in the Clement Building’s basement. The Mabrys, walking down those cinderblock hallways to their offices, dreamed of a more professional, inviting space that attracted more vocal performance students. Until such a place existed, they’d have to use their charisma and talent to entice talented young singers to study at Austin Peay State University.
“We just started to work to build the voice area, and we worked for years doing that,” Sharon said.
Their focus on providing more opportunities for their students had a secondary impact on the entire Clarksville-Montgomery County community. Suddenly, this small town on the Tennessee/Kentucky border became home to several high-caliber musical events, including the Broadway-style Cabaret Night, the Christmas Madrigal Feast and the Dimensions New Music Series.
“I was just blown away by the quality of the musical performances,” the late Evans Harvill, a long-time APSU supporter, said in 2011.
What surprised Sharon the most was how people responded to the Dimensions Series, which ran for 27 years.
“The community came out like crazy to hear new music,” she said. “We had the most well-known, continuous new music series in the region, if not the state. We brought in 60 composers over 27 years.”
The department’s popularity eventually led to that dream facility – a $9.5 million, 76,000-square-foot Music/Mass Communication Building at Austin Peay State University. The centerpiece of that new building was a 590-seat concert hall that became known, according to the Robb Report Entertainment Magazine, as one of the top 10 “premiere concert halls” in the nation.
Harvill, an avid concertgoer and the son of an APSU president, decided the hall needed to be named after the couple he and others in the community felt most responsible for its existence. In 2011, he said “I have watched over the years how that music department has grown, not only in numbers but in quality and reputation. I know numerous students who have come to the University because of George and Sharon Mabry.”
Harvill organized the Mabry Legacy Campaign, which quickly raised $500,000 in scholarships to rename the venue. On November 11th, 2011, the space officially became the George and Sharon Mabry Concert Hall.
“George and I were shocked and honored when people got together to give money and name the hall after us,” Sharon said. “They were always supportive of everything we did, concerts we gave. We’ve made a lot of friends.”
She shouldn’t have been surprised. In addition to enriching Clarksville’s cultural life, she’s taught thousands of students over the last 52 years, making relationships that span generations.
In 2011, the daughter of a former student became her pupil. Briana Larsen grew up hearing how influential her mother’s vocal teacher had been, so when she graduated high school, she headed to Austin Peay State University to meet Mabry.
“She was 90 percent of the reason I decided to come to Austin Peay,” Briana said in 2011. “People come from all over the country to study with her, and she’s absolutely fabulous. And fun. We spend a lot of our lessons giggling.”
‘The greatest challenge’
In 2003, George retired from Austin Peay State University and began his second career as director of the Nashville Symphony Chorus. He fully retired in 2012 and began writing and producing original musicals, such as “An Elegant Obsession” with retired APSU history professor Richard Gildrie.
Sharon, who contributed a column for 25 years to the prestigious NATS Journal of Singing, continued teaching, performing and writing, publishing “The Performing Life: A Singer’s Guide to Survival” in 2012. Her first book, “Exploring Twentieth Century Vocal Music, was published by Oxford University Press in 2000 and issued in paperback in 2009. That’s a busy schedule, but by March 2020, all that work seemed so effortless. The COVID-19 pandemic changed everything.
“The last two years, trying to teach singers during COVID has been the greatest challenge I’ve had to personally deal with,” she said. “The first year it was mostly teaching on Zoom – a student sitting in a dorm room and you’re at home. I had to learn all kinds of technology I never wanted to learn, but I learned it. Teaching voice over Zoom is not something anyone should do.”
Over the last two years, vocal teachers across the country have left the field, frustrated with teaching online or through facemasks.
“Singers are the ones who spread it the most,” Mabry said, “so you’ve got people singing double masked. You can’t really hear what they sound like.”
For Mabry, 52 years felt long enough. She announced her retirement earlier this year, which oddly still came as a surprise.
In the fall 2022 semester, someone else will occupy her office on the third floor of the Music/Mass Communication Building.
“For me being her colleague, I’ve been here for eight years, and so being her next-door buddy for the last eight years, you sort of get a sense of her impact,” Williams said.
He couldn’t let the retirement pass without some sort of recognition. On April 29th, the APSU Department of Music hosted “A Retirement Celebration in Honor of Dr. Sharon Mabry.” The concert, in the Mabry Concert Hall, featured performances from six of Mabry’s former students.
“Uncovering all the things I have through this process, you think you know the impact someone has, but then you see all the pictures, the recordings, the videos,” Williams said. “It’s amazing.”
As for Sharon, her plans after retirement are a mystery – literally. Stay tuned this fall when Thorncraft Publishing releases her first mystery novel, “The Postmaster’s Daughter.”