“If you dare to dream, things will happen,” said Choirmaster Geoffrey Ward, when asked about the surprise donation of $4 million to the University Choir by alumni Christina Vial Comer (C‘95) and Patrick B. Comer (C‘96). Acting Vice-Chancellor Nancy Berner announced the gift at the reception following January 28th’s choral Evensong service, stating that, “the Comers’ vision is that the gift honors the contributions of choristers across the decades and ensures the viability of the choral program as a center of excellence for Sewanee for many years to come.”
Both of the Comers majored in music at Sewanee, and Patrick double majored with theater. Both were also heavily involved with the choir. Christina served as choir president, soprano section leader, and soloist, while Patrick led the tenor section. After Sewanee, Christina went on to study opera at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Patrick went to Columbia Business School, becoming an entrepreneur involved in tech startups. He was the founder and CEO of Lucid, a data collection company, and he sold the company to a Swedish tech firm in October 2021 for $1.1 billion.
Ward said that the Comers’ donation was the “largest gift made by a living donor to the University, not just the choir,” emphasizing the significance of the donation for Sewanee as a whole.“The Comers were so passionate and so full of love for Sewanee and their experience with the choir, so that’s what inspired the gift. The choir is the catalyst for the gift, but anyone in Sewanee can benefit from the gift,” Ward said. Also, students of all majors are represented in the choir. “90% or 95% of the choir are not music majors,” said Ward. This means that any student, no matter their major, can take advantage of the opportunities provided by the choir and by this donation. It is a gift that benefits the whole university.
Ward said that the donation is structured as an endowment fund, and that “essentially, five years from now the account will be full and there will be income paid out every year.” The $4 million is not immediately accessible by the University or the choir, but is a gradual gift paid to the University over a certain number of years. The Comer’s gift will be used for scholarship, recruitment, and outreach purposes, which help support the choir. “First and foremost, [the donation will go towards] scholarship money for students to sing in the choir. That’s really going to be the big focus for us and that’s something the donors are really keen on as well,” Ward said. Tours are also an important use and source of choir funding – the President of the University Choir, Snooki Higgs, said that, “through the choir’s outreach through tours, it was easier to connect to alumni like the Comers.” According to Ward, the choir has at least 1,200 alumni, likely more. Connecting with alumni can help increase Sewanee’s endowment, which, in turn, can generate more scholarship money for students. Ward also said that using donations to help pay for choir tours can “provide tour opportunities that are educational, recruitment opportunities (such as visiting high schools), and current members in the choir can celebrate what they’re doing and just have a good time.” Higgs was able to speak to this personally, saying, “I would never have been able to afford the England trip without the donations of other alumni and people who value the choir.”
Higgs also stated the importance of “having the infrastructure to catch up with how many students are interested in singing,” explaining how beneficial the donation will be to support the expanding body of the choir, an organization that draws many students to Sewanee. “We [currently] have about 50 members and are outgrowing the space that we are using…. hopefully [some of the money] will go towards renovating the choir room or getting a bigger space and just different equipment that the choir needs.” Ward agreed that the choir’s growth in size has become a challenge, but said that, “that’s a good problem, because the program is experiencing growth and is vibrant both musically, academically, and spiritually.” He noted that choir is an accredited course at Sewanee, so the program does fit into academics. Higgs also said that having a new space just for the choir would help the group feel valued and supported. “The choir puts so much work into singing, at least five hours of rehearsal every week… to know that that work is recognized will do a lot for long-term morale.”
The University Choir is itself a gift to Sewanee, because it encourages music, fellowship, and community and because of its importance to the University’s Episcopal background. Higgs says that the choir is “so essential to the character of the University,” as it is one of the most unique and important aspects of Sewanee’s culture. According to the choir’s Engage page, “the choir is the oldest student organization on campus and has a distinguished tradition of performing in services that contribute to the Episcopal history of the University as well as to the benefit of the broader Sewanee community.”
For Higgs, the announcement of this donation makes her hopeful and excited for the choir’s future. “It’s exciting as a senior to know that the organization that I’ve put so much into will keep being okay and keep being a center for music at the University,” she said. “Choir has always been a pretty self-sustaining community, [but this gift] will make it easier for choir to flourish.” For Ward, the donation is meaningful because it represents decades of passion and work put into the organization, going back to long before he became Choirmaster in 2016. “The choir was the inspiration for the gift. It’s not just me – all of my predecessors, people who have led worship in All Saints’, all of the choir students can take credit for this and really be proud,” Ward said.“Dr. Delcamp, my predecessor, was very emotional when I told him about the gift. I’ve never heard his heart filled with so much joy and love, so to be able to share that with him in that way was very special.”