Musical success forges friendship of nearly 70 years

Published 10:03 am Monday, August 31, 2009

IRONTON — A lot can be learned about the value and importance of a life-long friendship after spending just a few minutes with Helen Aldridge and Jean Howell.

Nearly 70 years after the two put the village of Hanging Rock on the national musical stage map by capturing the Ohio girls’ ensemble championship, both Aldridge and Howell have been able to reflect on how the victory and the bitter disappointment that followed, cemented an unbreakable friendship that has spanned six plus decades.

It is a friendship that the two were able to reflect upon during a reunion arraigned by friend Lowell Mullins last week at the Jo-Lin Nursing Center.

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The year was 1941.

Joe DiMaggio was hitting safely in 56 consecutive games, Walt Disney’s “Dumbo” was being released in theaters and the United States was finally drawn into World War II following the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor.

Locally though, three girls from Hanging Rock High School were making history themselves.

It all started out by chance and little luck while Aldridge and Howell were in the eighth grade.

As Aldridge tells the story, Howell and she were picked out from their school’s Glee Club to take part in learning ensemble singing, which at the time, was set up to have trios perform in local, regional, state and even national competitions.

Under the coaching Ruth Orr and then Marcella Spriggs, Aldridge and Howell, joined now by third member Ruth Watts, started making progress. Four years later, they had their melody and were ready to start their climb to the top.

“Ruth was the soprano, Jean was the second soprano and I was the alto,” Aldridge said. “We sang a cappella and our song for the competition was ‘Little Boy Blue.’”

First were the district championships in Wellston. When the scores were in, the trio swept first place honors and a spot in the state championships in Columbus where they would sing against 22 other schools from all points of Ohio.

Their arrival in the state capital did not go unnoticed both locally and in Columbus.

“Going to Columbus took money we didn’t have,” Howell said when remembering their arrival at the state championship.

“When we walked around the large (Ohio State University) campus taking in the sights we still were three little girls from Hanging Rock that were still wet behind the ears,” Aldridge explained.

Regardless of the intimidation of the large city, the campus or the other 22 teams, the “three little girls” from Hanging Rock were in tune that afternoon 68 years ago.

So much so, that after the last note was sung, the trio out of western Lawrence County was named state champs and earned a spot in the national championships in Chicago.

However, despite the incredible odds they overcame to win the title, the drive back home was not one of happiness and excitement. Instead it was one of accepting the realities of the present day.

“That was a far as we were going to go, Aldridge said. “We could not go to Chicago as there was not any money, plus they had gas rations due to the war effort. The school and our parents didn’t have any additional money either. It was bitterly disappointing.”

Despite not being able to showcase their talents nationally, the trio each got a heroes’ welcome back in their hometown with a letter from then Congressman Tom Jacobs and medals that both Aldridge and Howell still have in their possessions.

Fast forward to the present day and both still can still hear the sounds of the standards that served as their musical inspirations including artists like Perry Como, Bing Crosby, The Andrews Sisters and Frank Sinatra.

“Outside of my family, music has been my life,” said Aldridge who used to sing solos at area churches and even had her own radio show on WIRO.

“Even to this day I still like all kinds of music,” said Howell who added that both Aldridge and she invested in Bose wave radios to play music at all times of day and even at night while falling asleep.

It is no surprise that both enjoyed music and shared its sounds even after high school.

After graduation, neither Aldridge nor Howell ever lived more than a few blocks from each other. Their lives, their families, their passion for music have always been woven together and both were able to share that when sitting down last week.

They even were able to get together from time-to-time with Watts who eventually moved to California. Watts passed away in the late 1990’s

For both, music is all the same, regardless if it is winning ensemble championships in Wellston or Columbus or being voted winner of American Idol.

“Music is the center of the Earth,” Aldridge concluded.