Inspired to a career in music education by her long-standing love of music, Marilynn J. Smiley, PhD, learned to play the piano at 7 years old and the flute at 12 years old. In 1954, she achieved a Bachelor of Science from Ball State University and began her career as a public school music teacher in Logansport, Indiana. Remaining in this role until 1961, she continued her studies throughout this period and earned a Master of Music from Northwestern University in 1958 and a certification from the Ecoles d’Art Americaines in France in 1959. In 1961, Dr. Smiley became a faculty member in the music department of the State University of New York at Oswego, where she would remain for the rest of her career.
Recognized for the excellence of her scholarship, Dr. Smiley was presented with a scholarship from DKG International for 1964-1965 and was a State University of New York Research Foundation fellow for the summers of 1971, 1972 and 1974. By 1974, she had risen to the position of distinguished teaching professor and went on to chair the music department from 1976 to 1981, where she oversaw the department’s accreditation through the National Association of Schools of Music. Three years later, she was awarded a grant from the American Association of University Women, which was followed by a grant from the National Endowment of the Humanities from 1990 to 1991. After 53 years of teaching, Dr. Smiley was recognized as a professor emerita of SUNY Oswego in 2014.
Attributing much of her success to having inspirational teachers, Dr. Smiley notes that her favorite part of her career was getting to see her students excel. Today, she brings her expertise in a wide range of music styles, ranging from ancient Greek to Baroque to Modern, to the Oswego Opera Theater, where she has been a member of the board of directors since 1978 and the president since 2009. With the theater, she has been closely involved in ongoing research into the music of the Oswego area in the 19th and 20th centuries. Most notable has been her research into the music of Holocaust refugees at Fort Ontario in Oswego, which has helped to shed light on then-President Roosevelt’s only acknowledgment of the Holocaust.
Dr. Smiley’s work also led to the discovery of “The Golden Cage,” an operetta by Charles Abeles, an Austrian composer, and Miriam Sommerburg, a German artist and author, both of whom lived at the Fort Ontario refugee shelter from 1944 to 1946. The operetta was written in 1945 and premiered on New Year’s Eve that same year. As a result of Dr. Smiley’s efforts, the Oswego Opera Theater was awarded a $25,000 grant to stage the first production of “The Golden Cage” in over 50 years, which will open in November 2022. Dr. Smiley is currently responsible for publicity as well as conducting further research into the operetta, and she maintains contact with the nephew of the composer, Charles Abeles, who is living in Germany and played a crucial role in the rediscovery of the musical score.
Over the past decade, Dr. Smiley has given many lectures on this topic and presented conference papers at the American Musicological Society over the course of her career. Remaining active in her retirement, she maintains membership in the Oswego Historical Society, the H. Lee White Maritime Museum at Oswego, the Alpha Iota chapter of DKG International, the Safe Haven Society, and the American Association of University Women, where she spent time as co-president of the Oswego branch. When she is not working, Dr. Smiley enjoys traveling, photography and collecting flutes.