Capitola Dickerson

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Capitola Dickerson
Capitola Dickerson Summit NJ.JPG
Background information
Birth name Capitola Dickerson
Born (1913-09-21)September 21, 1913[1][2]
United States Urbana, Ohio, USA
Died June 15, 2012(2012-06-15) (aged 98)[2]
Occupation(s) Teacher,
Music educator,
TWIN award 2009[3]
Instruments Piano
Years active 78

Capitola Leodra Dickerson, also known as Cappie Dickerson,[2] (September 21, 1913 – June 15, 2012) was an American piano instructor in Summit, New Jersey and graduate of the Juilliard School in Manhattan who was notable for teaching several generations of students. She was revered by local authorities for her volunteer service and civil rights contributions and community leadership.[1][3] Some of her pupils have become renowned such as Tom Varner and Lawton C. Johnson, and she was friends with renowned jazz singer Bill Robinson. In 2011, she was presented with a Key to the City by Summit mayor Jordan Glatt.[1][2] According to business executive Frank Bolden, she was a "quiet, unselfish person" who lived by the Golden Rule of treating others as one wished to be treated oneself.

Early life[edit]

Dickerson with one of her pupils, Samuel Sulcer.

Dickerson was born in Urbana, Ohio to Amanda and Lee Dickerson, but she made Summit, New Jersey her home where she lived for more than 78 years.[1][4] Her mother died when she was a teenager, and she lived with her father until she graduated from high school in 1930. She lived with relatives including her grandfather, Benjamin, an ex-slave, who had witnessed a Civil War battle at the age of ten in the state of Virginia. She was denied entrance to the Diller-Quaile School because of racial discrimination but studied piano with Helen Chrystal Bender of the Summit School of Music. She worked as a domestic, and at one point, she worked at Bell Labs before becoming a music teacher. She attended Columbia University[2] and New York University and graduated from the Juilliard School in New York City.[1][2] She was a member of the Wallace Chapel A.M.E. Zion Church for 80 years and served as the church's historian.[2]

People on couch watch two people play the piano.
Capitola Dickerson (third from right) in January 2010 at a celebration of her piano students' accomplishments. She has taught several generations of students.
picture of plaque with key
Dickerson was presented by the city of Summit, New Jersey with a "key to the city" in acknowledgment of her many contributions.

Music educator[edit]

Dickerson teaching a young girl the piano.
Piano student Samuel J. Sulcer performs at the memorial service for Dickerson in 2012.

Dickerson taught piano to thousands of students[2] over a period of seventy-eight years. She emphasized precision, sticking strictly to piano compositions as written, and practice; in 2004, she was quoted in the Los Angeles Times for stressing the benefits of practice.[5] She taught New Jersey preschoolers in Cranford[6] and Millburn and she taught music to the hearing impaired.[2] According to one estimate, her students live in all fifty states in the United States.[2]

Dickerson taught some notable students. She taught local resident Lawton C. Johnson of Summit who became a church organist as well as a locally recognized educational administrator; in 2004, the Summit Board of Education decided to rename the middle school after him.[4] She taught Graeme Cowen and composer Carolyn Schmidt, who became director of the musical group named the Hickory Tree Singers.[2] She taught piano to New Jersey's French hornist Tom Varner[7] who formed the Tom Varner Quartet.[8] Varner wrote "I loved my teacher Ms. Capitola Dickerson–she would play 78s of Art Tatum for me."[8]

Dickerson loved teaching children, including kindergartners and preschool children.[9] She taught music to hearing impaired children at the Summit Speech School for thirty years.[10] She taught preschoolers at the Westfield Day Care Center from 1978 to 2000, teaching rhythm, movement, songs and music appreciation to thousands of children.[11][12] Sally Rogers, one of her pupils, wrote:

"I remember singing in kindergarten and how important that was. And I also remember a woman in our town named Capitola Dickerson. I went to one class she did at the Y where she was sharing rhythm instruments with us. When she handed me a tambourine, her manner communicated kindness and inclusion. It may seem hard to believe because of how young I was, but she changed my life. I actually sought her out ten years ago and called her up and put her on the CMN quilt. She respected me, shy kid that I was, and modeled how to invite children to come into music their own way."[13]

Honors and recognition[edit]

Dickerson was regularly honored by the city of Summit. She played on Martin Luther King day in 2008.[14] She played piano and sang along with the protégé performers in honor of one of the Tuskegee airmen George Watson, in a program of remembrance, sponsored by Summit Supports Our Troops.[15] She received a Keeper of the Dream Award from the city of Summit, New Jersey.[2][16] In 2011, she was honored by the City of Summit; in a speech before the Common Council, Mayor Glatt described how Dickerson, who was in a shelter during a power outage, made a phone call from the shelter to ask if her neighbors needed help.[1] Mayor Glatt said: soon as she sat down, she pulled out her phone to call her neighbors to see if they had heat or needed help. This type of concern for others is typical of Dickerson, who has lived in Summit for more than 70 years.

— Mayor Jordan Glatt, December 2011[1]

Dickerson's contributions have been honored by various organizations including the Summit Area YMCA, The Connection for Women and Children, the United Way, the Tri-City Branch of the NAACP, the Summit Chamber of Commerce, Church Women United, Soroptimist International, Links, The Boy Scouts, The A.M.E. Zion Church, and the Wallace Chapel A.M.E. Zion Church.[2]

Civil rights and community service[edit]

Dickerson was described as a strong leader in efforts to promote affordable housing in Summit in cooperation with the first Sponsors Committee.[2] She led by example[2] and attended many committee meetings and active demonstrations.[17] In mid-century, she was one of the first African-American women employed at Bell Laboratories.[2] She encouraged women to "develop and use their gifts and talents in every aspect of society," according to a report in the Star-Ledger.[2] She worked with Habitat for Humanity.



  1. ^ a b c d e f g Barbara Rybolt (December 7, 2011). "Capitola Dickerson given 'Key to the City' of Summit". Independent Press. Retrieved June 5, 2012. ... Capitola Dickerson receive the “Key to the City” from Mayor Jordan Glatt. ... 
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q "Capitola "Cappie" Dickerson -- obituary". The Star-Ledger. June 18, 2012. Retrieved June 17, 2012. Miss Dickerson was born on Sept. 21, 1913, in Urbana, Ohio. ... 
  3. ^ a b "Trinitas Chief Development Officer lauded for fundraising accomplishments". Suburban News. January 19, 2010. Retrieved 2012-06-05. ... TWIN award are honored as outstanding women who serve as exemplary role models for the youth of our area ... Tribute to Women in Industry (TWIN) Awards .... Other 2009 TWIN honorees include: Capitola Dickerson, music educator and community leader.... 
  4. ^ a b "Summit Middle School renamed in honor of Lawton C. Johnson". Lawton C. Johnson Summit Middle School. September 15, 2004. Retrieved 2009-11-07. Lawton Johnson ... He received piano lessons from Capitola Dickerson of Summit. 
  5. ^ Liz Cox Barrett (March 30, 2004). "The L.A. Times Discovers Mrs. Dickerson". Columbia Journalism Review. Retrieved 2009-11-07. Mrs. Dickerson might want to consider leaving the piano lessons business to sign on as a $1,000-a-day campaign consultant. 
  6. ^ "Children's Music Workshop Here This Evening". Cranford (N.J.) Citizen and Chronicle. 1971-02-04. Retrieved 2009-11-07. workshop directors will include ... Capitola Dickerson of Summit, 'Singing and Rhythm' 
  7. ^ Allen Huotari (June 1999). "Interview with Tom Varner". all about jazz. Retrieved 2009-11-07. I saw Duke Ellington with my Mom and my piano teacher, Ms. Capitola Dickerson, in 1970... Later, at my Mom's funeral, Ms. Dickerson sang "There Is A Balm In Gilead." 
  8. ^ a b Santosuosso, Luigi (2002). "Tom Varner interview". Frank Tafuri. Archived from the original on March 23, 2002. Retrieved 2009-11-07. We all (I have two older sisters and one younger brother) took piano lessons also, starting around 8 years old. I loved my teacher Ms. Capitola Dickerson (she would play 78s of Art Tatum for me), but I was a terrible pianist! 
  9. ^ "Day Care Kindergarten Celebrates Graduation" (PDF). This Is Westfield. June 6, 1991. Retrieved 2009-11-07. ... songs prepared by the children under the direction of Mrs. Capitola Dickerson... 
  10. ^ "Capitola "Cappie" Dickerson". Star-Ledger. June 18, 2012. Retrieved 2012-07-19. 
  11. ^ "Day Care Center Passes Half-Way Mark in Fund Drive". The Westfield Leader. 1979-02-01. Retrieved 2009-11-07. ...newly introduced music program under the direction of Mrs. Capitola Dickerson. 
  12. ^ "Archives". The Westfield Leader Newspaper. July 13, 2000. Retrieved 2009-11-07. 
  13. ^ Sally Rogers (2007). "Magic Penny Interview–An Interview with Sarah Pirtle". Sarah Pirtle and the Discovery Center. Retrieved 2009-11-07. I also remember a woman in our town named Capitola Dickerson. ... 
  14. ^ "Keeper of the Dream Award Recipients–2009". Shaping Summit Together. 2008-01-18. Retrieved 2009-11-07. Olivia McDougal and Capitola Dickerson present The Program of Remembrance. 
  15. ^ "Keeper of the Dream–Award Recipients 2009". Shaping Summit Together. 2009-01-10. Retrieved 2009-11-07. Music and song performed by Ms. Capitola Dickerson and protege performers. 
  16. ^ "Warp and Weft–Keeper of the Dream Award". 2009-11-07. Retrieved 2009-11-07. Mayor Jordan Glatt was among the award recipients this year. Past honorees include ... Capitola Dickerson, long-time piano teacher.. 
  17. ^ September 25, 2015, TAPInto Summit, A Lifetime of Service, Retrieved September 24, 2015, ".... 78-year Summit resident Capitola Dickerson, Juilliard graduate, piano teacher, devoted volunteer, and civil rights contributor...."