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Gazette Premium Content Colorado Springs tradition, the Shivers Celebration, nearing an end

By Jen Mulson Updated: November 25, 2013 at 12:27 pm

In a busy time of year, Peggy Shivers is busier than most.

The noted soprano is throwing a Thanksgiving party complete with entertainment by up-and-coming classical and jazz artists and music lovers, friends and family from all over the world.

The Shivers Celebration runs Wednesday through Sunday at the Antlers Hilton. This year's featured performers include soprano Diane Bolden-Taylor, Wayne Linsey, who plays keyboards for "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno," guitarist Michael Howell, who's played with Dizzy Gillespie and other jazz greats, baritone Nicholas Shelton, vocalist Leslie Simpson-Summey and a visit by Ambassador Tebelelo Seretse of Botswana.

"I like bringing people together," Shivers said, "and exposing people to classical music who wouldn't be exposed to it before."

Still, Shivers is walking away from the event she started 20 years ago with her late husband, Clarence. Through the years, the couple helped the local African-American community become a strong presence in the arts.

"As I work on it, I can tell I'm a lot older and I made a good decision to make it the last," said Shivers, 74, an accomplished classical and jazz singer. "But it is so much fun being in a hotel and having people dear to me in the next room or down the hall. I'm going to miss that. Oh, I'm going to miss that."

Many say her absence will leave a hole in the season.

"It's a place where Peggy brings so many of us together that maybe don't always get together otherwise," said Martile Rowland, founder of Opera Theatre of the Rockies. "I have met wonderful people doing beautiful things - not only in Colorado Springs, but artists from all over the country."

Peggy the singer

A sorority sister, Martha Poole, was one of the first in town to hear Shivers sing, and arranged for her to have her first concert at the Fine Arts Center in 1980, Shivers said.

Longtime local voice teacher Martha Booth was also delighted to hear the new voice.

"She had a beautiful voice," Booth said. "She's an opera singer, and I was very excited to hear her. I listen carefully, and I went to every concert. I didn't know Peggy, and it was exciting to hear a new voice."

That soprano voice has been a siren call to friends and strangers, who have spontaneously offered her auditions, jobs, teachers and performances.

"All my life things have just happened like that," she said. "I never had a real plan to be a performer."

Born in 1939 in Pittsburg, Texas, her family moved to Portland, Ore., when she was 5. In 1959, she graduated from Portland State University, where she attended school with the late Lawrence Leighton Smith, former music director of the Colorado Springs Philharmonic. With her undergraduate degree in education, she started teaching second grade - first in Portland and then in San Francisco - and kept singing.

One unsolicited invitation in her mid-20s led her to perform with Duke Ellington. A friend heard her sing in the musical "Lost in the Stars" in San Francisco and decided she should audition for the famous jazz musician. She wound up at a club with Ellington and his band, where he kept her waiting until the end of the night to sing.

"He turned to me and said, 'Stand up and start singing,'" Shivers said. "And I'm already perturbed. I said, 'If you want to go to the piano and treat me like a lady, I will sing for you.'"

He did and eventually the two went on to perform together at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco.

"I've always had good support, just like here," she said. "People who had no interest in classical music came (to the Thanksgiving day celebration). All my life, I've been able to bring people into classical music that would not otherwise come. I appreciate that support."

The talented singer had the same effect on folks in 1979 when she arrived in Colorado Springs.

"I'm one of her biggest fans," said Linda Weise, executive director of the Colorado Springs Conservatory. Its students often are supported by the Shivers Fund, an endowment the couple created to support local arts. "Anytime there's been an African-American child who wants to study at the conservatory, Peggy's been a strong advocate for support. Those are the things that go unsung about Peggy. She's very much like that. She doesn't look for attention or recognition."

The love story

Shivers sits at her dining room table in the house she shared with Clarence, still surrounded by his work. A portrait he painted of her hangs behind the grand piano, and another of slaves being transported to America hangs behind the couch. His sculptures are scattered about the place.

Photos of his warm, smiling face stand on counters in the kitchen and TV rooms, and in conversation, she still uses the pronoun "we."

Her face lights up as she settles in to tell their love story. It started in 1966, when she was 26 and a second-grade teacher in San Francisco. He was 42.

She drove all night to Vandenberg Air Force Base in Southern California, where her brother was stationed. He wanted to introduce her to somebody.

"I'd been up all night, and I had a granny cap on my head. I looked horrible, absolutely horrible," Shivers said. "But he's such a nice guy. He kept his word to my brother."

They married in 1968. A year later, he retired from the military, where he had trained with the Tuskegee Airmen, a black pilot fighter squadron in World War II, but finished flight school too late to experience combat, and Peggy Shivers retired from teaching.

They moved to Madrid in 1969 and lived there for a decade before winding up in the Springs.

Life in Colorado Springs

Clarence Shivers came through Colorado Springs in 1979 and immediately sent for Peggy. She was 40.

"I was sure I could talk him out of it. I usually got my way with him, but he stuck to his guns," Shivers said. "I'm so glad he stuck to it because I just love it here."

She had no ambition to sculpt a singing career in the U.S., she said, but once again, her voice made waves, both on stage and as a strong supporter of the arts.

When Clarence was commissioned by the Miller Brewing Company in the early '80s to do a calendar of civil rights leaders, they went to the library and couldn't find much about African-Americans.

"They came in and saw we could do better," Rowland said, "and instead of complaining or going around and saying this community doesn't have this or we need this or we need more attention paid to the African-American legacy to the library, they did something about it. They said if we're going to live here, we're going to make it better, and it has grown into something that will last forever for all of us."

They created the Shivers Fund at the Pikes Peak Library District in 1993 - a few thousand dollars earned from one of Clarence's art shows has grown to an endowment of more than $100,000. Profits from the Thanksgiving celebrations have gone directly into the fund through the years.

The fund established the Shivers African-American Historical and Cultural Collection at the PPLD, a collection of about 1,000books, audio books, reference materials, DVDs and CDs by and about African-Americans. It grows by about 15 percent every year, said Dee Vazquez Sabol, community engagement and outreach officer at the PPLD.

The fund also provides about $3,000-$4,000 in scholarships and grants to young people in the arts every year, Sabol said. Regular donations also are made to local arts organizations.

"We've collaborated with the Shivers Fund," said Thomas Wilson, music director of the Chamber Orchestra of the Springs. "Their help is critical. They've supported the chamber orchestra over the years and helped provide artists for programs."

Moving forward

Little Peggy Shivers, as people often called her in her younger days, clearly is beloved by many.

"Peggy's a party waiting to happen," Rowland said. "It's a whole celebration all the time. This one part is just a reflection of Peggy and how she lives her life every day."

Shivers speaks in a sweet-sounding girlish voice, with lots of "Oh yeahs," "Ooohs" and "Oh my goodnesses." Her giggle is infectious. But she's tired these days. She's on oxygen and has spinal stenosis, a narrowing of the spinal column that causes pressure on the spinal cord. It gives her frequent and increasingly bothersome back pain.

Along with her, the friends and family who were regulars at the celebration have gotten older. Many have died. The event that used to draw a couple of hundred people will have about 75 attendees this year, she said.

"I've gone to part of every one," Booth said. "I love the music. I love the people who are there. She has place cards at the table, and she mixes people up in a beautiful way. You meet new people, and it's great. It's much like Peggy who wants people to know each other and get together."

She's not giving everything up, though. The Shivers Celebration ends this year, but the Shivers Concert Series will continue. It is scheduled in the off years of the biennial Thanksgiving week event and features four concerts by classical and jazz musicians.

"I think her work will never end," said longtime local arts supporter Kathleen Fox Collins. "I think Peggy will always be at the bottom of things and making things happen. This may be the end of one chapter, but it's not the end of her making things happen. We as a city need to be proud of her as one of our long-term citizens. She's not going anywhere so we'll be all right."

Shivers doesn't sing as much anymore and hasn't performed as a solo act in the past decade, but she still makes time for her lifelong passion.

"I don't say I miss it," Shivers said, "but when I get on the stage and do something, I miss it still."

A couple of years ago, she formed her own choir, called the Celebration Multicultural Ensemble. The group of 25 rehearses every Saturday. She's also been invited to perform in mid-December with her church choir, the Peoples United Methodist Church. And she'll continue to oversee the Shivers Fund.

"The city has benefitted greatly from her quiet benevolence," Weise said.

"She's changed more lives than a lot of people realize and resonates that message that every single person has that same opportunity to elevate the city one young life at a time. She's an incredible role model." -

Contact Mulson at 636-0270.

Shivers Celebration Finale
When: Wednesday through Sunday
Where: Antlers Hilton Hotel, 4 S. Cascade Ave.
Tickets: $225, includes all activities, single-event tickets available; 593-8400, ppld.org/whats-new/join-us-shivers-celebration-finale-nov-27-dec-1

EVENTS
• Welcome reception and registration, 8 p.m. Wednesday, $25/$10 tax-deductible
• Thanksgiving Gala and acknowledgement of outstanding youth, 2 p.m. Thursday, $65/$20 tax-deductible, reservations required
• Sightseeing tour of Pikes Peak Region, 9 a.m. Friday, $25/$10 tax-deductible
• Reception with Ambassador Tebelelo Seretse of Botswana, “Evening of Classical Song” and meet the artists dessert reception, with performances by soprano Diane Bolden-Taylor, baritone Nicholas Shelton and pianist Susan Grace, 6:30 p.m. Friday, $75/$15 tax-deductible
• Workshop for youth, 2 p.m. Saturday, free
• Evening of Elegance Banquet and Jazz Concert, with performances by pianist Wayne Linsey, guitarist Michael Howell, vocalist Leslie Simpson-Summey, drummer Harold Summey, saxophonist De’Sean Jones and music director Brad Bietry, 8 p.m. Saturday, $75/$15 tax-deductible
• Spiritual service and brunch, 9:30 a.m. Sunday, $35

“Glory in the Highest” Cantata
Who: With Peggy Shivers and the choir from Peoples United Methodist Church
When: 3 p.m. Dec. 15
Where: Seventh Day Adventist Church, 1305 N. Union Blvd.
Tickets: Free; 578-5616

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