Irma Slocum is a Vancouver treasure. At 96, she’s seen the landscape around her evolve from rolling farmland to suburban housing and strip malls. She’s watched her five children and dozens of grand and great-grandchildren play and grow on her Felida farmstead. She’s been a quiet model for women’s empowerment. And she’s done it all with a thread of music weaving everything and everyone she loves together.
Born Irma Hershey in 1921 in Parker, South Dakota, she and her family eventually moved to Mitchell (yes, home of the famous Corn Palace) and it was there that she met her future husband, Bill Slocum. Irma was playing piano in the music practice room at the high school when he knocked on the door. She knew who he was because they had history class together, but they’d never spoken. She wasn’t allowed to have boys in the room with her, so she didn’t let him in, but they talked for a bit at the door before he handed her a poem and skedaddled.
The farm boy and girl began a sweet courtship and eventually got married in 1941 in a double wedding with Irma’s sister Hazel and husband Loren Wheeldon. Irma was in college at Dakota Wesleyan at the time and planned the whole wedding because her sister was teaching in Bismarck, North Dakota. They thought the idea of a double wedding sounded fun, so they went for it.
Soon after, Irma and Bill’s lives were changed by World War II. In 1943, Bill joined the Army and Irma wasn’t one to be left behind. She said, “After Bill went off to war I joined the Women’s Army Corps because I felt so bad that all the young men had to go, so if there was anything I could do to help shorten the war, I would do it.” After completing basic training in Iowa and administration school in Texas, Irma was sent to Fort Dix in New Jersey. She stayed there for two years, hopping from job to job before landing as a typing teacher for returning veterans. While Irma held down the fort stateside, Bill served as a corporal in the South Pacific before he was injured. He was awarded a Purple Heart before eventually heading home to her.
Irma and Bill were both talented musicians, so their next step after the army was a natural one. Irma said, “We decided to go to Juilliard after the war because I’d heard it was such a great school for music. I never dreamed I’d get to go, but then the G.I. Bill came along and we were both accepted.” Irma studied piano while Bill studied vocal performance and their first child, son David, was born in 1947 while they were living in New York.
After leaving Juilliard in 1948, Irma and Bill briefly moved to Portland to stay with Bill’s oldest brother Art and his family. They settled in Vancouver when Bill was hired on as the Choir Director at St. Paul Lutheran Church. The couple’s daughter Julie was born in 1949 while they were living in town, with siblings John, Becky, and Beth following once they established roots on a beautiful piece of land on Salmon Creek, which they called Bonny Slope Farm.
Initially, Irma wasn’t too sure about Vancouver’s mellow vibe. She said, “We were used to a wide variety of activities while living in New York. Soon after moving to town, we held a concert and the audience was overcome with joy. This was the start of our musical journey in Vancouver. Bill organized and led several musical groups starting with a small group of madrigal singers. Then he formed a group called the Choraleers in 1953, which practiced at the old Clark College campus. Eventually, it evolved into a larger choir called the Brahms Singers in 1963.”
Bill served as the Brahms Singers Director until his retirement in 1985 and from there, the choir grew and evolved, eventually becoming the Vancouver USA Singers in 1993. While all this was going on, Bill also performed as a tenor in operas and solo performances, was featured as the “Wand’ring Minstrel” on KPOJ Radio in the 1950s, was a private voice coach and taught music throughout Vancouver and Portland before retiring in 1975.
Lest you think it was all about Bill, Irma had a hand in things every step of the way. She shared, “I was involved in each of these musical endeavors and I also taught piano lessons for many years. I helped start a piano club that is still going today. I eventually taught music and kindergarten in the Evergreen School District.” She toured with the Brahms Singers throughout the United States, Canada, and Europe until finally retiring in 2008 at age 87. She remains one of their biggest fans and has been known to write thoughtful notes to the singers after performances.
Irma’s community involvement hasn’t been limited to music. She and Bill joined the First Congregational United Church when they moved to Vancouver, which she says “was a compromise between Bill’s Lutheran upbringing and [her] Methodist roots.” She quickly became an important part of the church community, and up until recently, could be found sitting on a special stool in the entry, greeting everyone as they entered services each Sunday. In May of 2016, the church suffered serious damage due to arson, and Irma has been active in supporting fundraising efforts to rebuild.
Irma sums up life in Clark County best, saying, “Vancouver was a wonderful place to raise our five kids. We loved it. It has changed so much over the years. It has gone from a small quiet little town to a sprawling city with all kinds of activities. It’s been a good place to call home for the past 69 years.”
If you’re lucky enough to know Irma Slocum (or be her granddaughter, in my case), you might just catch a snippet of her playing the piano in her living room, with a view of her little farmstead and Mount Saint Helens beyond.