Mimi McClellan Krebs, 96, died Feb. 5, 2019, at her home in Marblehead, Mass. She was an accomplished pianist and composer whose works were performed at Centre College during the 1970s and 1980s, when she lived in Danville.
Throughout her life, wherever she landed, Mimi McClellan Krebs made music. “I liked Mimi’s extravagant 10-minute piano endings best,” said Jim Krebs, a childhood friend who married her in 2006, when she was 83 years old and he was a “younger man” of 81.
She and her first husband, Sam McClellan, lived in Danville from 1974 to 1998. She loved her home and garden on Chrisman Lane outside of town.
She taught piano at Centre (1975-86) and over the years enjoyed collaborations with several Centre faculty members who performed her music.
“Mimi’s work is not simple,” said Barbara Hall, a singer and Stodghill Emerita Professor of Music at the College.“But it is very appealing to audiences. It has colorful chords and dissonances, and enough unusual melody that it is never trite or clichéd. Sometimes, it is achingly beautiful.”
In “Quilt Songs,” which went on tour in Kentucky and Pennsylvania, she used the poems of Jane Wilson Joyce, Luellen Professor Emerita of Classics at Centre, set to voice and piano. “Beyond the Blue Mountains,” a narrative set of poems by Joyce for which Krebs wrote and arranged music, was performed in concert and as a play with music. In “The Kitchen Songs,” she wrote choral music for women’s voices, again for Joyce’s poems.
Krebs also produced two commissioned works in Danville. She wrote the first, a piece for chorus, organ, trumpet, and handbells, for the installation of Michael F. Adams as Centre’s new president in 1989.
In 1990, she wrote “Three Pieces for Cello and Piano” for an annual convention of Kentucky music teachers. That year, she won an Al Smith Individual Artist Fellowship for creativity in music composition, a $7,500 award.
Open, nonjudgmental and generous to all, “she was unmatched in friendship,” said Hall. “She made friends with everyone she met, and she never lost a friend.”
Krebs was born Mildred Nolte in Duluth, Minn., in a household that was alive with music, poetry and drama. Growing up near Minneapolis during the Great Depression, Krebs and her siblings would entertain the neighborhood with puppet shows and piano accompaniment. To create the effect of loud applause as the curtain fell, someone in the family would reach into a big bowl of marbles and swirl them around.
She graduated from the University of Minnesota in 1941 with a bachelor’s degree in music, summa cum laude, and enlisted in the WAVES, the naval women’s reserve during World War II. She was commissioned an ensign and ordered to Houma Naval Air Station and blimp base, southwest of New Orleans, La. She and four other WAVES were issued .45 Colt Revolvers and their own jeeps; their key assignment was decoding classified military messages from planes, ships and blimps, trying to keep Nazi U-boats out of the Gulf of Mexico.
In her spare time, She formed a swing band, “Nolte’s Naughty Nine,” that played nightly at the officers’ club. She wrote songs and improvised on the piano; in return, some of her fans taught her to fly.
After the war, now at lieutenant junior grade rank, she used her G.I. Bill benefits to study music at Yale University; Paul Hindemith, the German composer, was her professor. She obtained a master’s of music degree from Yale and taught music fundamentals at the University of Minnesota and Vassar College for several years.
In 1952, she married Sam McClellan, a Harvard-trained psychiatrist, and together they embarked on a 45-year love affair with the international Baha’i Faith, drawn by the core belief that all religions and peoples are one.
From 1953 to 1973, the McClellans’ house in Cambridge, Mass., was a beehive of activity for the Baha’is. Hundreds of people of diverse races, nationalities and social classes, many of them university students, attended the couple’s Friday evening “firesides,” where they discussed Baha’i views on science and religion, racial discrimination, world government and the equality of men and women.
In Cambridge, when she was not raising three children of her own or baking cookies for her “fireside” guests, she was writing music for the Baha’is, including eight musical dramas, three for children and five for adults.
“She was a natural musician and she had an incredible grasp of language,” said Maggie McClellan, who sang in her mother’s musicals as a child. “With the fewest notes, she could create a beautiful melody that carried along the listener and was something to remember and to love.”
“The Education of Henry Halifax,” a musical comedy about a young man who is learning the Baha’i laws from his girlfriend, was performed before an audience of 3,000 at a national youth convention in Oklahoma City in 1973. It was her best-known work; she wrote the lyrics, cast and rehearsed the production and played the piano during the show, which got a standing, whistling, stomping ovation. “I never had more fun in my life,” she told the crowd.
After her first husband’s death in Danville in 1998, she eventually moved east and married her childhood friend Jim Krebs. She immediately impressed her new family with her piano playing (Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” and J.S. Bach’s “Inventions”); her extraordinary vocabulary (“Please butter the interstices of my English muffins”); her mischievous invitation to chat (“Sit on down and shut on up!”); and her boundless appreciation for “Jimmy’s” sly humor.
“She was a world-champion laugher,” Jim Krebs said. “I’d get her started and then after a while I’d inject another word and she’d keep on going. It was very gratifying.”
In addition to her husband, she is survived by her three children, John McClellan of Hatfield, Mass., and Charlee McClellan and Maggie McClellan of Seattle, Wash., and two grandchildren, Elizabeth and Julia. A memorial will be held sometime in June.
Story submitted by Leslie Krebs
February 25, 2019
Photos by Jim Krebs: Mimi McClellan Krebs in 2016 and playing the piano; her daughter Maggie McClellan is second from right.