Emily Boyd Lowe, 85, founder and director of the Keys Chorale, died Wednesday morning at her summer cottage in Lake Leelanau, Mich. She passed peacefully after a long battle against illness, surrounded by family including her husband of 63 years, Donald Lowe.
Lowe, born Oct. 1, 1926, in North Carolina, came to the Keys in 1989 after a 30-year career as professor of music and director of the faculty choir of the Eastern Michigan University Madrigal Choir in Ypsilanti. In Key West, she joined Florida Keys Community College as a voice teacher, and founded the Keys Chorale. The annual concerts she conducted at the Tennessee Williams auditorium and outdoor concerts at Fort Zachary Taylor State Park became popular cultural events for almost 20 years.
On her 80th birthday, she sang a recital in the Tennessee Williams Theatre foyer. Her last piece as conductor and choir director was Brahms' "Requiem" at St. Paul's in November last year.
Emily Lowe's first piano teacher was her mother. Her father, as a tobacconist, moved the family to Durham, N.C., to be close to Duke University, a school he wanted his three children to attend. Emily recalled that he once told her he thought she'd be as good a singer as the operatic soprano and actress Lily Pons. In high school, Emily won medals as best singer and best actress. She knew Handel's "Messiah" before she could walk, she said, and couldn't remember "not knowing Mozart." By the age of 16, she knew "all the arias and oratorios by heart."
At Duke University, she took voice and choral conducting. In 1948 she married a fellow Duke student named Donald Lowe, who'd first caught sight of her when she sang a solo at church on Easter Sunday. "She was so beautiful," he recalls today.
Donald is a fifth-generation Conch whose maiden aunt, May Sands, helped raise him after the death of his father; his grandfather and his mother were both born in the Abaco Islands in the Bahamas.
It was the start of a lasting marriage that gave Don and Emily three sons.
The newlyweds moved to Washington, D.C., where Don worked at the Naval Ordnance Laboratory. During the Korean War, Don's hours doubled. "These were bright young scientists on the way up," recalled Emily in a 2006 interview. "Wonderful people. In 10 years I never heard any gossip. It was all intellectual and political, but not partisan, something I've sought all my life."
Don was appointed a representative of ordnance attached to the U.S. Embassy in London, the beginning of a series of postings that would take him and Emily all over the world. He then got a job with Bendix, and he and Emily moved to Ann Arbor, Mich., where they spent the next 30 years. "It was the Athens of the Midwest," recalled Emily.
It wasn't long before she was asked to head up the faculty choir at the University of Eastern Michigan. Meanwhile, Don and some partners founded an environmental institute to develop remote sensing from satellites for non-military purposes, a business that would lead to even more travel for the couple and take him through to retirement.
They both became friends with the late Derek Hyde, a leading musical figure from Canterbury, England, who spent time with them in Ann Arbor and through whom they also got to know Britain's foremost living composer, John Rutter. (Some of Emily's singers actually traveled to sing in Canterbury, and some of their singers came to America to sing over here.) "I love the world," said Emily, who with Don eventually shared their love of all their grandchildren on trips to England or Europe.
In 1989, the Lowes moved to Don's native Florida Keys and settled on Cudjoe Key. Emily was determined to start a community choir in the Keys, and in January 1990, with the help of the dean of arts and sciences at Florida Keys Community College, she gathered a local group of pioneer singers. "I hit them with Haydn's 'Creation,'" said Emily, "and they took to it like fish to water. Their hearts were aching for it."
Since then, FKCC's mixed community chorus has benefited the community through two decades of outstanding education and performances. She twice traveled with the choir to the Bahamas' Green Turtle Cay to represent Key West at the Abaco Islands' Roots Festival.
Lowe's secret came from within. "I want students," she once told this reporter, "who want to do better. That's all. I have faith -- and there is spirit to this -- that they want to do well and will do their best." Over the years, chorale members displayed a fierce loyalty to her. They also enjoyed the way she dressed, with an elegance that revealed her grace while concealing her will. For Emily, it was a two-way thing: "I was fairly modest when I first came here," she said six years ago. "Key West has taught me something."
Local music critic Harry Schroeder said: "What Emily started has enriched the lives of all of us. On top of that, she was a quite wonderful friend. She gave real meaning to the idea of lifting up hearts, and everyone who knew her owes her memory a debt of gratitude. Requiescat in pace, Emily. You have more than earned it."
Lowe is survived by her husband, Donald; her sons, Keith, a plant geneticist in Des Moines who holds 23 patents (married to Heather), Scott, a professor of philosophy and religious studies at the University of Wisconsin (married to Mary Beth) and Gary of Cudjoe Key, with a master's in social work (married to Lori); plus six grandchildren, Molly, Lucy (married to Cory), William, Elissa, Trisha and Erick; and her sister, Eleanor Boyd Blackmon; and brother, Clarence "Bub" Boyd.
There will be a service in memory of Lowe in Key West in October or November, to be announced.