“It was the trip of a lifetime.”
Fifty years ago, nearly 80 Mason County High School choir members, chaperones and choir director Coralie J. Runyon Jones, loaded onto two buses, followed by a third packed with luggage, to begin a journey that would take them overseas to answer a challenge put forth by one student — were they really that good.
According to choir member Christy Clarke, who was a rising junior at the time, the challenge grew from a competition the choir entered at Morehead State University where it garnered numerous superior ratings. Reading the score sheets as the group traveled back to Maysville, Clarke said she told Jones, then “Mrs. Runyon,” if we’re that good, you need to take us somewhere to sing.”
“Maybe we will,” was her answer.
A few days later, information on the American Festival in Britain crossed the choir director’s desk and the challenge was accepted.
Clarke and George Day, another choir member, both recall the group taping a performance as an audition and sending it the festival’s headquarters in Michigan. When word was received in mid May that the group had been selected for the festival and would be traveling to England, things got a little crazy as they scrambled to prepare, Clarke said.
“We thought ‘Oh boy, how are we going to pay to get there,’” Day said.
“It was so wild,” Clarke said. A meeting was called for parents, supporters and local business owners, soliciting funding, The group put on several performances to raise money. Committees were formed for everything from fund-raising to choir apparel.
Clarke said Runyon was determined that every member have the opportunity to go on the trip and most did, with only those obligated to help get in their family’s tobacco crop missing out. Students rushed to secure passports and immunizations required for international travel.
So in late June, 1968, the buses headed north, where the group boarded planes in Detroit for a flight to New York City, the first airplane ride for many of the students. In New York, they boarded another plane for the flight to England. Plans were to land in Manchester, England, but a strike by pilots meant a change to Liverpool, home of the Beatles, a delight for students, Day said.
Once in Britain, the group made its way to Windermere in the Lake Region, where the choir would be headquartered for most of its stay. Students were paired up and stayed in groups of four at local bed and breakfast establishments. Lunch and dinner, along with “high tea” were primarily taken at the Windermere Hydro Hotel.
At the hotel, Jones and the students made friends with the hotel manager, John Tovey who visited Maysville several years later, Day said.
The choir followed a schedule that included performances at churches, on a lake cruise, at civic events and even at a school for the blind. They sang in a parish church which was the ancestral home parish of the first U.S. President, George Washington.
During their free time, students toured Dove Cottage, the home of poet William Wordsworth and the cottage of author Beatrix Potter, along with a trip to see a Druid’s circle, much like Stonehenge. The group also traveled to Edinburgh, Scotland.
Spending the 4th of July in Britain was a new experience for the students since it was not a holiday for the British, Day recalled. But the hotel went out of its way to serve hamburgers for the day, in honor of the occasion, Day said, although he thought the sandwiches were most likely lamb burgers and not the more traditional beef burgers.
Some of Day’s most vivid memories are from the time the group spent touring London and seeing such iconic sights as Big Ben, Windsor Castle, the Tower of London and the Crown Jewels. They attended services at Westminster Abbey.
Despite all of the history surrounding them, the students broke out in cheers when they spied a Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant in London, he said.
In all, the trip lasted about three weeks but the memories have lasted a lifetime.
“We always have fun talking about it when we get together,” Clarke said.
And while the history of the country and the opportunity to perform on foreign soil was amazing, it was the people who made the biggest impression, Day said.
“We had a connection because many of us came from the same place,” he said.