Meet the Composer of Our Alma Mater: James Beams

James Beams stands with Samuel de Champlain and the 1964 Champlain College yearbook.

If you are joining us on Saturday, May 3, 2014 for the 136th Commencement ceremony at Champlain College, you can expect to see James Beams, composer of the Champlain College song in 1964, perform the school song that he composed 50 years ago.

Last May I had the pleasure of joining Champlain College Registrar Becky Peterson in the singing of Champlain's alma mater at the 135th Commencement ceremony. Having attended Commencement the previous year, I was not surprised by the fact that no graduating students knew the tune to sing along to. Not only that, but I myself didn't even know the words or tune before Becky e-mailed me a demo.

The problem is that the song only surfaces twice a year: once at opening Convocation when we welcome first-year students, and again at Commencement when we acknowledge students' completed journey at Champlain.

The tune was first documented in the 1965-66 Champlain College handbook, The Rudder, where the music was credited to a J. Beams. The lyrics were then published in the 1966 yearbook, at a time when the College's Glee Club would be joined by the rest of the student body and perform the song at major events, and it was inconsistently referenced from there on out.

After spending a morning doing research in the Champlain College Library with archivist Erica Donnis, I learned a lot about the school through the 1960s, but did not have much luck identifying J. Beams. I did, however, learn how the College was run, saw many respected faculty and staff members of the past who have since been honored with residence halls and academic buildings in their name, I was introduced to a student body that was here on the hill for two years (as Champlain was still a junior college at the time), and I got to see a campus much different than the one we stroll through today.

With a failed search in the yearbooks, I turned to the white pages, hoping to find a local of the same name. I stumbled upon a James Beams in Richmond and worked up the courage to give him a call. I wasn't sure what to expect, until I was left a voicemail in response, "Yes, I did write the Champlain College song, but that must have been a hundred years ago!" This was our guy, the legend, Mr. James Beams.

Mr. Beams was invited to campus on Sept. 12, for lunch and a chat. Beams worked at Champlain for a brief stint as the choral director after graduating from the University of Vermont in 1963. Turns out he was in the 1963 yearbook in the Glee Club photograph, but he was mislabeled as A. Beams, his father's name.

"The lyrics were actually written by two students," Beams shared. "It had actually been a poem, and I made it the song." Frank Molinski '64 and J. Griffin were the authors of the piece of prose that became the College's Alma Mater.

Kayla Hedman and Becky Peterson sing the Alma Mater in 2013 at the 135th Commencement ceremony.

While I grumble about the song being performed only twice a year, for decades it went untouched. Until President Finney arrived in 2005, there was not a formal Convocation ceremony, and the tradition of the alma mater had since been long forgotten. It was resurrected about five years ago, and has been performed with pride semiannually ever since.

"I can't believe you still sing it. I hadn't heard anything from Champlain since I left in 1964," admitted Beams. He hadn't stepped on campus since, and was thrilled to see the changes and meet the students who populate the hill today.

Beams, a native Vermonter, traveled the world as a child, as his father served in the U.S. Army. They returned to Burlington, where he graduated from Burlington High School, class of 1955, in the building that now houses Edmunds School.

After graduating, he joined the Navy, where he was trained to be a pilot, before attending UVM to pursue a degree in music education. Now this is back when it only cost $250 a semester to go to college. Beams was a very involved student, and was on campus six days a week for various music extracurriculars, much to the dismay of his wife.

One of Beams' professors referred him to Champlain's staff to lead their chorus, where he spent two years directing a dozen or so women in the Glee Club. He then left the College to start teaching music in all the district schools for 20 years.

During this time he also performed as a solo tenor with the Boston Symphony, the Vermont and New Hampshire Symphonies, and even in the Met Opera Company in New York City for four years.

Now retired, Beams has come full circle. He owns an aircraft maintenance facility, JB Aero & Son, with his son Stephen. His daughter, Robynn, works as a videographer at WCAX in Burlington and is a Green Mountain Derby Dame roller derby athlete.

Beams takes a lot of pride in his accomplishments, loves telling his stories, and has a great sense of humor. He was a pleasure to host on campus, and we even managed to get him to sing the alma mater with us.

During my duet with Becky at last year's Commencement ceremony, I heard "mumble mumble mumble" from the audience throughout the entire tune, ending with SING OF OLD CHAMPLAIN! The song is the last thing that graduates do before leaving Commencement, and as a candidate for graduation in May 2014, I think it would be a powerful and gratifying moment if my class could sing along. Especially now that we are honored to have James Beams present to perform it with us.

Here are the lyrics to the Champlain College song:

Come join in festive song together,
As we sing of old Champlain;
Harken to the joyous chorus
And the sweet, sweet, ling'ring refrain.

We'll sing our song with spirit
and we'll wave the green and white,
Always onward never slowing;
Goals fore'er in sight.
Hold the name of Champlain sacred,
Praise it loud and strong;
We will march in vict'ry
As we sing our golden song.

Now our Alma Mater reigns,
The Queen of Destiny.
We will pledge our lives to duty,
Never failing thee.
Harken to the joyous chorus,
And the sweet refrain;
Join in festive song together,
Sing of old Champlain!

To watch James Beams, Kayla Hedman, and Becky Peterson sing the alma mater, visit http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8ICcECtsqd0

If you have any memorabilia from Champlain College's past that you would like to donate to the Champlain College Archives, please contact archivist Erica Donnis at edonnis@champlain.edu.

If you would like to schedule a research appointment to look through the Champlain College archives, you may also contact Erica Donnis to do so.


Since 1878, Champlain College has provided career-focused education to students from its hilltop campus in Burlington, Vt. Champlain's distinctive educational approach embodies the notion that true learning only occurs when information and experience come together to create knowledge. Champlain offers traditional undergraduate and online undergraduate courses, along with online certificate and degree programs and 11 master's degree programs. Champlain offers study abroad programs at its campuses in Montreal, Quebec and Dublin, Ireland. Champlain College is included in the Princeton Review's The Best 379 Colleges: 2015 Edition. Champlain was named a "Top-Up-and-Coming School" by U.S. News & World Report's America's Best Colleges and is ranked in the top tier of 2014 Regional Colleges in the North. For more information, visit www.champlain.edu


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