CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The diamond anniversary is usually associated with 75 years of marriage. The one being celebrated by the West Virginia Symphony Orchestra represents a different type of marriage, one that began with a chance meeting in 1939.
According to a 1982 account in The Charleston Gazette, William Wiant, a professional musician in need of a job, and Helen La Hon, a noted local singer, happened to meet in front of the Ruffner Hotel.
La Hon informed Wiant that the Charleston May Festival organization was looking for a new conductor. Wiant had recently left Huntington after founding a symphony orchestra there. He decided to apply. Wiant was hired. On Nov. 14, 1939, he conducted the first concert by the Charleston Civic Orchestra in the new Municipal Auditorium, and, as the saying goes, the rest is history.
That history has been filled with many more meetings of minds with the goal of musical enrichment for citizens, employment for musicians and friendships among like-minded people.
Those ensuing 75 years will be celebrated at a gala Saturday at the Clay Center, where the contributions and leadership of Patrick Bond and the McClaugherty family will be honored.
Wiant's tenure as conductor was short-lived; he was drafted into military service in 1942, according to an article by H.G. Young III in the West Virginia Encyclopedia.
Antonio Modarelli, conductor of the Wheeling Symphony and former conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony, became conductor, and the Civic Orchestra was renamed the Charleston Symphony Orchestra in 1943.
"To attract musicians during the war years the orchestra entered into an innovative alliance with the local chemical industry, which agreed to recruit and hire chemical engineers and chemists who were also symphonic musicians. This successful partnership garnered national attention," Young writes.
Among the other conductors who led the orchestra in the 50 years were Geoffrey Hobday, from 1954 to 1963, and Charles Schiff, from 1965 to 1977.
"Under the leadership of board president and Charleston attorney John McClaugherty, the orchestra experienced unprecedented growth in the final two decades of the 20th century," Young notes.
"Sidney Rothstein was appointed as conductor in 1980 and was succeeded in 1984 by Thomas Conlin, and Grant Cooper in 2001. Reflecting its expanding role throughout the state, the name was changed to the West Virginia Symphony Orchestra in 1988."
Young's article lists the accomplishments of the orchestra: The season grew to a nine-concert and three-concert pops series, a resident string quartet was created, operatic productions were staged, the Symphony Chorus was formed, and a new venue -- the Clay Center for the Arts & Sciences -- was built for its performances.
Although the Clay Center was John McClaugherty's vision, Sallie McClaugherty "was her husband's right hand and left hand," said Helen Lodge, who serves with Sallie McClaugherty on the orchestra's board of directors.
John McClaugherty died in 2003, just four months before the opening of the Clay Center.
"Sallie can stand on her own too," Lodge said. "When you lose someone as vibrant as John, she made a commitment to herself to get up every morning and continue. John's tenacity in getting the Clay Center was probably unequaled, but Sallie has worked just as diligently but more delicately. She's just a wonderful individual."