(Photo Credit: University of Miami)
Before The Great Miami Hurricane brought them together in 1926, she escaped Armenia on the back of a camel, and he arrived in Miami “over the backs of alligators.” Their separate but extraordinary lives were briefly but forever entwined when they wrote the University of Miami “Alma Mater” together.
By Julia D. Berg
University of Miami News
Christine Asdurian (a.k.a. Christine Oviatt Asdurian Thompson), class of 1927, was a talented pianist whose journey from Armenia began at age 3 with her father, a clergyman, after the Turks reportedly killed her mother in 1896, according to an interview published in The Miami News on April 4, 1926.
She remembered her departure vividly, having been carried by her father on a camel in a basket lined with red satin. “They went to Paris, and then America. It was not long before her father died,” the newspaper said.
At age 7, Christine was adopted by two sisters, Sarah A. Thompson and Esther H. Thompson, of Litchfield, Connecticut (1900 U.S. Census), and her name was changed to Christine Oviatt Thompson. Education was a priority, and the sisters “gave her the best educational advantages,” according to The Miami News interview.
She sometimes used the last name Asdurian, her mother’s maiden name, for professional piano work. Such was the case when she enrolled for advanced musical studies at the University of Miami in 1926. She studied piano with Earl Chester Smith, was mentored by UM’s first music dean, Bertha Foster, and performed challenging piano works by composers Liszt and Godowsky “delightfully,” according to The Palm Beach Post (1927). The University of Miami’s first president, Bowman F. Ashe, often recruited her to perform for civic functions and donor appreciation events.
William “Bill” S. Lampe, named an honorary alumnus in 1948, was a spirited liberal arts student at the University of Pittsburgh in 1925 and “a full-time newspaper reporter from the time he was a freshman in high school,” says his son Seth Lampe, who lives in Michigan and spends his winters in Florida.
“Two weeks short of his graduation from Pitt, he was ‘rusticated,’ (my father’s word for it) for too much partying,” says Lampe. “He made his way to Miami in May 1926 in an old Graham-Paige, driving over 1,600 miles of unmarked mountainous dirt roads, and across the backs of alligators as he approached the city to join the Miami Herald as a sports writer.”
That summer he also helped UM promote its first football game, scheduled for September 17, 1926.
“He had a bunch of titles ranging from PR director, to assistant athletic director, and assistant to the president,” Lampe adds. “And he wrote just about everything about the school at the time. That included all the football cheers, program notes, signage…and the words for the University of Miami’s Alma Mater.”
William Lampe, who “couldn’t carry a tune in a basket,” according to his son, wrote the words on the back of an envelope of an overdue bill from a printer and tapped the gifted pianist Christine Asdurian to compose the music for the Alma Mater, forever linking their names to UM’s history.
The first football game was called off due to a Category 4 hurricane that ravaged the region just as the new university’s first classes were about to begin. That catastrophe most likely gave rise to the team’s name, the Miami Hurricanes. The Alma Mater premiered the following month, after Miami began its slow recovery from the storm.
Words by William S. Lampe
Music by Christine Asdurian
Southern suns and sky blue water,
Smile upon you, Alma Mater;
Mistress of this fruitful land,
With all knowledge at your hand,
Always just, to honor true
All our love we pledge to you.
Alma Mater, Stand forever,
on Biscayne’s wondrous shore.
Today, the Alma Mater is taught to all freshmen in their first week on campus and performed with pride at homecoming and athletic events. It is sung with emotion at every commencement ceremony and remains timeless after nine decades. Yet little is known about the authors who pledged us all to “stand forever on Biscayne’s wondrous shore.”
While pursuing a master’s degree in piano performance, Asdurian also worked as a statistician with the Miami Chamber of Commerce. Employing concise facts and charts, she analyzed and distilled complex data for publication in pamphlets that promoted to business owners the benefits of moving to the region. “I just fell into it,” she told The Miami News about her statistical prowess, stating simply, and “Music theory and harmony require mathematical abilities.”
She had earned Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Music degrees in 1916 from Converse College in Spartanburg, South Carolina and was voted “most talented” by the senior class. She had transferred there from Oberlin. As her Converse yearbook write-up stated, “Christine is remarkable for many things… as a mimic, actress, singer; for making five dresses during the holidays…and we consider her a genius at the piano. Versatility is her middle name.”
In 1917 she also earned a Master of Arts in English and Comparative Literature from Columbia University, and married a mechanical engineer, William Robert Suda. They had a son in 1920, but separated soon after (Philadelphia Inquirer, December 1924).
She supported herself from 1924 to 1926 as a staff pianist for Gimbels, a department store chain, performing throughout the New York tri-state area for a recurring radio show that broadcast throughout the region. Radio was a booming new technology, and department stores were in heavy competition to sell receivers. She was one of the first musicians in the United States to perform live over the airwaves. When she arrived in Miami in the spring of 1926, she was quickly put in charge of the radio programs at WGBU that broadcast from the Hotel McAllister (The Miami News, March 23, 1926).
After attending the University of Miami, Christine Asdurian returned to the New York area in 1929 and resumed her live radio performances until 1931. She also worked as an efficiency troubleshooter for the retail chain Macy & Co., and was one of seven chosen from a pool of 350 applicants to work for the New York Telephone Company to analyze and improve switchboard design and call routing during its rapid rise.
She stopped playing the piano after a serious back injury, according to a letter she wrote to Converse College in 1957, when she was about to retire. Her career had moved on to “designing and executing ballet costumes” she reported, harking back to her undergraduate years. She moved to Los Angeles, California, along the way and worked for a time with dancer-choreographers David Lichine and Tania Riabouchinska. “I’ve lived a full life…I’ve had a lot of fun,” she wrote.
On July 5, 1961 she wrote to the University of Miami’s second president, Jay F. W. Pearson, to congratulate him on a Time magazine story about the University’s desegregation and enrollment of over 70 African-American students for the very first time that summer and fall.
She closed the letter, “Do they still sing our Alma Mater?” President Pearson responded, “Yes, we still sing the Alma Mater, Bill Lampe wrote the words as you will remember,” and added, “We will always think of you as one of our fine musicians when we opened.”
Christine Oviatt Asdurian Thompson died in Los Angeles on April 29, 1963 at the age of 70.
Bill Lampe moved back to Pittsburgh two years after writing the words to the Alma Mater to marry his college sweetheart, Harriett, and became the “de facto editor of nearly every major Hearst newspaper in the country,” reports his son. He then became editor in charge of special projects for the Hearst Corporation.
“The most special project was his creation of the United States Interstate Highway System, meeting with President Eisenhower in the Oval Office every Friday for more than a year,” recalls Seth Lampe.
Hearst newspaper reporters across the country promoted the interstate highway idea to the public, and the rest is history. Thanks to Bill Lampe, driving from state to state is far easier today—with a better chance of avoiding alligators along the way.
In 1948, while Bill Lampe was the managing editor of The Detroit Times, he was named an honorary UM alumnus at a ceremony prior to a Miami Hurricane football game in Detroit Stadium. President Bowman F. Ashe wrote in the ceremonial notes, “Your part in the growth of this institution, undoubtedly, is more significant than you realize. Although professors and presidents come and go, with small chance of remembrance, your name will remain always, and for this I am deeply grateful.”
Bill Lampe made it clear that, like so many alumni, he thought it was he who should thank the University: “The University of Miami did so much for me, not just now but then,” he wrote to Ashe. “It made me friends, associations, and memories. I am, of course, grateful for your thoughtfulness and have been highly honored, but I feel that it should be I commending the university, not the university commending me.”
In 1958 he was told about a friendly campus debate about how to sing the Alma Mater and joked, “What scares me is that somebody may ask me to write a second verse.”
He was also named an honorary alumnus of the Band of the Hour, UM’s marching band, in 1990.
Bill Lampe created something else of significant importance, says his son: the Buick Open Golf Tournament at Warwick Hills Country Club in the early 1960s, which transformed the PGA from a sand lot group paying a couple hundred dollars to a world class organization paying the winner $5,000 in the first year…the first time that every pro tournament player was entered in the same tournament. “That was the first golf tournament broadcast coast-to-coast live, and throughout Europe. By that time he had moved on from the newspaper business and was the executive vice president of Communications Counselors, Inc., a subsidiary of the McCann Erickson advertising agency in Detroit.”
Bill Lampe died in 1992 at the age of 86.
Our University of Miami Alma Mater, in the hearts of all who are students, faculty, staff, alumni, and friends of the University of Miami, is a testament to the personal resilience and strength of Bill Lampe and Christine Asdurian Thompson.
Special thanks to: Koichi Tasa/University of Miami Archives & Special Collections; Jeffrey R. Willis/Converse College Archives & Special Collections; Jocelyn Wilk/Columbia University Archives; and Seth Lampe.