Spend enough time with UNH professor of philosophy emeritus Duane Whittier ’50 and chances are you’ll hear him describe his discipline as “the sour note in the orchestra” of academia. “We question everything,” he says with a laugh. “All we philosophers ever do is sit around and talk.”
But Whittier, whose remarkable 58-year teaching career included 49 years at UNH, is providing a very sweet note for UNH’s actual orchestra, in the form of a significant bequest. The Duane & Joan Whittier Music Fund will provide scholarships for undergraduate students majoring in music, with preference given to those studying stringed instruments or piano. It will also support younger students attending the university’s well-known Summer Youth Music School (SYMS), which draws talented junior high and high school musicians from around the country.
Whittier grew up in Lebanon, New Hampshire, surrounded by music. His mother was the church choir director and a “terrifically talented” organist and his sister was an accomplished pianist. Though he dabbled in performance himself, playing piano as a young boy and flute in high school, his great love was listening to music — a passion to which his 6,000-album collection of classical music will attest. Over the course of his long UNH career, Whittier and his wife Joan, who died last year, attended hundreds of UNH and SYMS student concerts — including performances by choral and symphonic bands he proudly describes as “second to nothing that’s offered in New York or Boston. And our orchestra director is second to no one in the world.”
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It’s Whittier’s hope that the fund endowed in his name and that of his wife will attract a deeper pool of string players — violinists, violists and cellists — and pianists to the UNH orchestra, which is directed by music professor David Upham. And if the concreteness of that goal seems surprising coming from a man whose entire career was spent pondering abstractions, Whittier himself doesn’t see the contradiction. He’s gratified to have the opportunity to give back to the place that, with the exception of a stint in the U.S. Air Force, followed by graduate school and nine years of teaching at the University of Illinois and then Penn State, has been home to him since he moved into Englehart Hall Room 203 in the fall of 1946.
“The most important part of education is learning to think,” he says, “and nowhere is that more true than in philosophy. The beauty of philosophy is that it teaches the skill of thinking outside of the box — taking what I call the ‘God’s eye view.’ If you think of each of the academic disciplines as pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, that ‘God’s eye view’ is about seeing how they all come together to create the big picture, and how interconnected they really are. Philosophy is the one discipline that sticks its nose into every other subject.”
Including, presumably, music.
Originally published in IMPACT Spring 2018