Florence Gillam Hobin Birdwell
Yukon - Florence Gillam Hobin Birdwell was born September 3, 1924 in Douglas, Arizona to Grace (Gillam) and Warner Hobin. She died peacefully in Yukon, Oklahoma on February 15, 2021. She and her younger brother Bill were raised in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and Lawton, Oklahoma. Florence graduated from Lawton High School in 1941. A promising vocal artist, she received a scholarship to Oklahoma City University (OCU), where she earned a Bachelor's of Fine Arts in Voice in 1945. She later received a Master's degree in Music in 1969, became Assistant Professor in 1976, and full Professor in 1988. While at OCU she met the love of her life, Robert Lee Birdwell, and after his return from submarine duty in World War II they married in 1945. They settled in Oklahoma City to raise their family.
Florence's life at OCU never really ended. Her dream of performing on Broadway was waylaid by a throat condition that permanently altered her approach to singing. As told to the Daily Oklahoman, "When I called in tears to my teacher (legendary OCU voice professor Inez Silberg) she said, 'No, no, you must not cry. You cannot sing now, maybe, but you can certainly talk.' Well, I did. And I'm still doing that. I am talking. Can you hear me? Oh, yes. Yay!"
Thus began an OCU teaching career that spanned seven decades. Her impact as a teacher of voice cannot be overstated. She touched countless lives. Notable alumni include Tony winners Kristin Chenoweth and Kelli O'Hara (each of whom thanked Florence in their acceptance speeches), Tony nominee Lara Teeter, Miss America 1981 Susan Powell, and Barbara Fox DeMaio, Associate Professor of Voice, University of Central Oklahoma. Each of her students recalls her passion, her dedication, and above all the manner in which her teaching influenced every facet of their lives. She was inducted into the Oklahoma Higher Education Hall of Fame in 2012 and was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Musical Arts by OCU in 2016.
She is predeceased by her loving husband Bob (2003), and her younger son Todd Albert Birdwell (1980). She is survived by her daughter Robyn Birdwell, son Brian Birdwell, grandchildren Hayden Rockson, Ned Rockson, Sophie Birdwell, Colin Rockson, Fletcher Birdwell, Thomas Birdwell, and Grace Kathryn Birdwell, and one great-grandson, Truman Posterro. Her indomitable spirit and life lessons are carried on by her loving family and the hundreds of students whose lives she changed at OCU. In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations be made to the Wanda L. Bass School of Music at OCU, that her voice may echo through those walls for years to come.
In the words of Martha Graham: "There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique."
In the words of Florence Birdwell: "'To do is to be.' That's Socrates. 'To be is to do.' That's Plato. 'Doo-bee-doo-bee-doooo.' That's Sinatra!"
Published in Oklahoman from Feb. 16 to Feb. 17, 2021.