Nellie Jeannette Scruggs Lipford (’49), the matriarch of Homecoming musicals and beloved voice professor for generations of students at Abilene Christian University, died Sept. 22 2020, in Abilene, Texas, at age 91.
A celebration of life service will be held later this fall under the direction of Piersall Funeral Directors (733 Butternut St., Abilene, Texas 79602).
Lipford was born Feb. 25, 1929, in San Angelo, Texas, the daughter of ranchers who lived in nearby Cristoval and the granddaughter of Texas’ earliest settlers who accompanied Stephen F. Austin. She moved to Abilene with her family at age 3.
She graduated from Abilene Christian High School in 1945 and from ACU in 1949 with a B.A. in education. She studied voice at Baylor University and Lipscomb University before earning an M.A. in education from ACU in 1987. She also did graduate work in music at Southern Methodist University and The Juilliard School in New York City.
Jeannette met classmate Harold Thomas Lipford (’50) in ACU’s A Cappella Chorus and they wed Sept. 3, 1948, in Abilene. She developed extensive teaching experience in Texas and Tennessee while Harold was a minister and working on graduate degrees in Waco and Nashville. She served as a music coordinator for the elementary division and taught second grade at Abilene’s Wylie Elementary School, and taught music for second-graders in the Ozona (Texas) ISD and kindergarten music at Otter Creek Christian Schools in Nashville.
The couple returned to Abilene in 1966, and she taught voice to approximately 2,000 students in the music and theatre departments from 1968 to 1992, and continued to instruct and coach scores more for the next 25-plus years. She received ACU’s Outstanding Part-time Faculty Award in 1999. Lipford was a member of Mu Phi Epsilon International Music Fraternity, the National Association of Music Schools, the Texas Music Educators Association, the Abilene Opera Association and the Abilene Harmony Club.
Jeannette endeared herself as a one-of-a-kind teacher and mentor in the lives of students and so many others in the university’s history. She retired in 1992 from full-time work as assistant professor emerita of voice, yet continued to teach voice lessons as time and health allowed. Her students went on to become Broadway stars, studio musicians, recording artists, music teachers and vocal coaches. Among them was Grammy Award winner Amy Grant.
Lipford was vocal coach for ACU Homecoming musicals for 47 years – from Fiddler on the Roof in 1972 to Beauty and the Beast in 2019 – and for Sing Song hosts and hostesses for 22 years. She also coached performers through Freshman Follies, Summerstage, the ACU Opera, singing groups Daybreak and Reflections, and countless senior recitals.
“I love her stories and I love her advice. I have never known anyone with such a profound faith. Her prayers are bold proclamations that stir your soul. She is sassy yet gentle. She is wise and dry-witted. She believes in the importance of lifelong learning,” said Dawne (Swearingen ’95) Meeks, assistant professor and chair of theatre, in a 2016 ACU Today magazine story about Lipford, “The Songbird Who Gives ACU Voices Their Wings.”
“She taught me to sing like so many but more importantly,” Meeks said, “she taught me to love, to listen and teach, and the importance of giving back.”
Harold and Jeannette were instrumental in establishing Mission Church in Abilene in the 1990s. He served as a deacon at Abilene’s University Church of Christ, where he and Jeannette were longtime members. They were beloved by thousands of talented students who found in the Lipford home an open door, a welcoming spirit, a love for God, and deep appreciation for the musical and theatrical arts.
They were active in ACU’s Alumni Choral Reunion, and performed with the Over the Hilltoppers group at Abilene Christian’s USO Show at Homecoming 1990 in Moody Coliseum. The Lipfords also supported the Abilene Opera Association.
The Jeannette and Harold Lipford Music/Theatre Scholarship Endowment was established at ACU in 1994. In 2000, Sing Song established the Lipford Award in her name, annually recognizing a person for exhibiting exceptional character, teamwork, dedication, and for raising the event’s standards to uncompromising levels. Jeannette was honored at ACU’s 2020 May Commencement with the annual Dale and Rita Brown Outlive Your Life Award.
At age 86, Jeannette gave brief but penultimate stage performances in Abilene.
In October 2015 as the Bird Woman in Mary Poppins, her alma mater’s Homecoming Musical at the Abilene Convention Center, she sang “Feed the Birds” and brought down the house. She reprised it at her 90th birthday celebration in February 2019.
“I stepped into a couple of [Homecoming musical] rehearsals to watch her and got pretty emotional, not only by her performance, but by the depth of her life experience,” theatre professor and former chair Adam Hester (’77) told ACU Today magazine at the time. “It didn’t take much for me to fill in the gaps between her life and the character. You couldn’t help but think of how she has given words of life to so many people.”
In November 2015 she performed with voice protégé Ben Jeffrey (’06), who portrays Pumbaa in Broadway’s The Lion King. Lipford rose from a seat in the front row of Fulks Theatre to sing and dance briefly with Jeffrey on Irving Berlin’s “You’re Just In Love (I Wonder Why)” during her former student’s one-man cabaret show fundraiser for ACU Theatre.
“To return and share that moment with her is something I will treasure forever,” said Jeffrey, who studied voice with Lipford for four years. “She doesn’t just teach students but invests in them, and not just as artists, but as people. Her office was always a place to sing and make music, but it was also a place to be loved and celebrated for being exactly who you were.”
Lipford was preceded in death by her parents, Guy (’27) and Bess (Allen ’27) Scruggs; Harold, her husband of 66 years; brothers Gene Scruggs (’46) and Robert Scruggs (’54); and a daughter, Susan Lipford (’77). Among survivors are daughters Cindy Hudson (’76) of Nashville; Amy Wright (’80) and her husband, Tommy, of Brownwood; and Croatian daughter Svjetlana Vuksic (’97) of Abilene; grandchildren Boone Haynes, Parker Haynes, Aaron Hudson, Marnie Kate Hudson and Zachary Hudson; and great-grandchild Kyelee Hudson.
Memorials may be made to the Jeannette and Harold Lipford Endowed Music/Theatre Endowment (ACU Box 29132, Abilene, Texas 79699-9132, acu.edu/giveonline).
— Ron Hadfield
Sept. 25, 2020