Appreciating Music: Frances M. Harley & Tri-M Music Honor Society

When I started my graduate assistantship at the Women and Leadership Archives, I was expecting to learn about strong and interesting women.  However, I was not expecting to have a personal connection to a collection.

I grew up in Park Ridge, Illinois and attended Maine South High School. I was very involved in fine arts, and by my senior year I was co-president of both the orchestra and Tri-M, an international music society.

Coincidentally, the WLA has the collection of Frances M. Harley, a co-founder of Tri-M!

The Tri-M Loyalty Song

Frances M. Mikkelson was born in 1914 and immediately showed an interest in music. A student at Mundelein College in the 1930s, Frances was heavily involved in Choir and glee club- where she met her future husband, substitute choir director Alexander M. Harley. Fast-forward to 1936, Frances M Mikkelson was Frances M. Harley and a recent graduate of Mundelein College. The couple moved to Park Ridge in June 1936, where Alexander was the chairman of the music department at Maine Township High School (now Maine East High School) and Frances was the director of four choirs and taught private lessons in piano, composition theory, and voice.

Shortly after their move, the power couple co-founded the “crowning achievement of Frances’ life,” the Maine Music Masters Honors Society. The society was created as a music example of a scholastic honor society to encourage “music students to become further involved in their music studies and hopefully, strive for a more professional approach to the utilization of their talents”.

The Tri-M Emblem

Using an old mimeograph machine, Frances and her husband sent out 900 letters across Illinois, getting only five replies; but that did not deter them from creating a supportive community for music students. Run almost exclusively from their home in Park Ridge, the society was primarily part of the Maine Township school district from 1936-1952, when it was expanded to the national level. Outgrowing the “Maine” part of their name, it officially changed to “Modern Music Masters”, and in 1956, it was recognized internationally. By 1972, there were over 125,000 members and honorary members from around the world.

A newspaper headline from 1994

Not much has changed from the original Tri-M group (Tri-M One based out of Maine East High School); the same loyalty song is sung at every new member initiation and the same three ‘M’ cutouts (pictured below) appear at every awards ceremony. The society is still largely student-led and offers a community for students from all musical backgrounds who are serious about their future. Chapters around the world are active in their school and outside communities through volunteering, fundraising, and leadership roles.

Me presenting awards to Tri-M members

I am proud to be a former leader of such a long-standing and inspirational group. I am even more proud to be a graduate assistant in an archive that holds the collections of strong and influential women like Frances Harley, a woman who did not just change Park Ridge, but changed the lives of music students around the world.

Come to the archives to check out Frances Harley’s collection, including her dissertation on Hungarian folk music!

More information on Tri-M can be found here.


Emily is a Graduate Assistant at the WLA and is in her first year in the joint Public History/Library Information Science program with Loyola University Chicago and Dominican University. She enjoys going on long walks with her puppy, visiting cool museums, and cheering on the White Sox during baseball season.

 


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