That’s the one word which seems to come up over and over again when people try to describe Ulysses S. James, music director for the Mount Vernon Orchestra.
He was recently honored at the 15th Annual Mount Vernon Gala as Mount Vernon District’s Citizen of the Year.
“He’s such a humble guy,” said Jan Hamlin, Mount Vernon Orchestra Association board member.
“He’s probably the most humble person I’ve seen in my life,” said Gala Committee co-chair Carol Coyle. As the organizer of this event for the past several years, she sees different crowds depending on who’s being honored.
“The camaraderie was something we hadn’t seen before. It was a much warmer atmosphere,” said Coyle.
Watching James at the event, which was held at Fort Belvoir Golf Course’s Club House, one gets the sense of his humility.
In his acceptance speech, he said how he couldn’t have done any of this if it wasn’t for his friends and supporters. He was overwhelmed at how many people came out for the event — many just because of him.
“One wonderful lady, Ellen Goodwin, came. The only connection that she has with me is that she escorts a 90-year-old woman, Edith Asher, who revels in The Lyceum concerts. The first thing she told me was that Edith wanted to come, but couldn’t,” said James, with the sound of awe in his voice.
WHAT JAMES HAS DONE for Mount Vernon and surrounding communities is immeasurable. For the past 18 years, James has conducted the Mount Vernon Youth Orchestra and for the past 17 years, has been the music director of the Mount Vernon Orchestra Association as well.
It’s a job for which he was well trained; he graduated cum laude from Brown University with a degree in music in 1958. A sense of responsibility to his new bride, Nancy, directed him to a 20-year career in the U.S. Navy, putting his dreams of conducting or composing on hold.
A successful career as a Surface Warfare Officer took him around the world, but he and Nancy came to Alexandria in 1979 with their three children, Ulysses Stevens, David and Elizabeth.
“The first thing I did was go out and get a trombone,” said James, who hadn’t pursued anything musical during his Navy years.
He joined Arthur Young and Company as a consultant and could have remained busy doing that, but fate intervened when his daughter, Elizabeth, started playing the violin.
James found that through her playing, he fell in love with the cello. One thing led to another, and James became acquainted with H. Stevens Brewster, Jr., conductor for the Mount Vernon Youth Orchestra. When Brewster was killed in a car accident, James stepped up to the plate and took over the job.
THE FOLLOWING YEAR, the Mount Vernon Orchestra began to unravel. Because of his experience as an organizational development consultant, he offered to put it back together. He had no intention of conducting the group, indeed he hired a conductor.
“He came three times and left,” said James. Once again he filled in and in December, the board took a vote and asked him to stay on as the music director.
“If anybody had ever said that would happen when I left the Navy, I would have told them that they were crazy,” said James, who let his consulting business diminish and his orchestra position flourished.
James is proud of what the orchestra has accomplished, but still feels that they can go so much further.
The fact that this is the first time that somebody affiliated with an arts organization has received the Citizen of the Year award is encouraging.
“I’m very pleased that the Citizens’ Association thought it was important to award this honor to a person associated with the arts. A strong orchestra can pull together communities in ways that other activities can’t do if it becomes the centerpiece of the community. I hope the process makes people more aware of what they have. It needs to flourish enough so that when I leave it, it will continue long-term,” said James.
WHOMEVER FILLS James’ shoes when the time comes will require high energy — and their own income. Ul James has never received a penny for his work with the orchestra. Even the one year when there was money in the grant to pay him, Hamlin said that he signed the check back over to the orchestra.
James does some professional conducting, debuting at both the Kennedy Center Concert Hall and New York’s Carnegie Hall in 1990. He has had numerous appearances at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater. From 1986-1991, James was the music director and conductor of the National Philharmonic, a professional orchestra located in the Washington metropolitan area.
Yet, his heart is in Mount Vernon and he said, “I’m the luckiest guy in the world to think that these things that we do are important to other people and make a difference.”