It began with a love of music.
Eleanor Stewart was a newly recruited vocal music instructor when she joined the D.C. public schools in 1967.
“I loved coming to school and hearing the children singing first thing in the morning,” Stewart recalled. From James Weldon Johnson to Francis Scott Key, she began teaching the students not only to read the words to the two national anthems but to sing the lyrics as well.
In 1993, she started a choir for elementary school boys. The year before, there had been 451 homicides in the District — mostly young black males. A morgue full of choirs.
She grabbed her first 25, calling them the D.C. Boys Choir.
“We kept them out of the streets because once we formed that choir, we were singing all the time,” she said.
That was 25 years ago. And she’s still at it, having taught more than 700 boys how to hold a note, not a gun. Carry a tune, not a grudge. Breathe life into a song, belt out arias and jazz standards in half a dozen languages, enriching themselves and the lives of all who hear them.
Her love blossomed into a passion for teaching.
“I am a dedicated music teacher,” Stewart said.
Not a brag. Just a fact.
She is 80 years old. On July 12, she hopes to lead the choir on what probably will be her last international tour — this time, to perform in South Africa. She’d taken the choir to England, Austria, China, Italy, the fundraising efforts requiring as much time and effort as the rehearsals.
A GoFundMe page shows they’re far from reaching their goal to make their latest journey.
“I thought [fundraising] would be easier this time, since it’s an anniversary year,” she said.
Despite the years of accolades, the international recognition and the personal successes, inspiring support for the organization continues to be a challenge. The Washington region has never been wealthier, but it’s still a ways off from becoming a truly supportive community.
Stewart continues to do her part, though.
Her boys turn out to be outstanding young men, such as Alvin Hough Jr. He played piano for the choir — starting as a fifth grader.
Hough, who graduated from Banneker High School, won a full scholarship to Harvard University through the D.C. Boys Choir. Keyboard talent aside, he opted to study atmospheric sciences. He’d built a weather station in his back yard as a child and his fellow choir members would routinely ask for the forecast, which he gave — mostly correctly, too.
After Harvard, Hough received a master’s degree from Georgia Tech and hoped to become a TV weatherman. During visits to the District, he continued to play piano for the Boys Choir.
“One day, Alvin called to say, ‘I put my résumés out and I can’t find a job, so what do you think about me trying out for Broadway?’ ” Stewart recalled. “I told him that I would support him no matter what he decided.”
He went to Broadway. In 2013, he played keyboard for “Motown the Musical.” In 2015, he was associate conductor for “The Color Purple,” and in 2017 he was conductor for Broadway’s “Once on This Island.”
Stewart believes the D.C. area could produce a lot more Houghs if music and art were taught in every school. She hopes one of the choir members will follow in her footsteps and become a music teacher.
“I had a fabulous music teacher,” Stewart recalled. The teacher, Eleanor L. Harris, taught at Adkin High School in Stewart’s home town of Kinston, N.C., in the 1950s.
“I admired her so much I said, ‘One day, I would like to be a music teacher like Mrs. Harris.’ She was my inspiration.”
Stewart majored in voice music education at Hampton University, graduated in 1960 and went to work in Berryville, Va., near Winchester. She got married, had two children and began teaching music in Prince George’s County public schools before landing a job at Powell Elementary in the District.
“The beauty of the District schools at that time was that every school taught music, and all the music teachers were very close,” she recalled. “We had instrumental and choral music. We had lots of kids that were well-versed in reading music and loved singing because we were good teachers.”
And the Boys Choir received lots of support from the school system. At least in those early years. They made trips to New York and sang with the Boys Choir of Harlem. They began visiting Morehouse College in Atlanta and struck up a years-long association with the choir of the historically black men’s school. They partnered with male choral groups at local churches, such as Asbury United Methodist. Joe Coleman, a professional singer formerly with the Platters, took the choir under his wing and put on benefit concerts to help raise money for the boys’ trips.
The boys were becoming so attached to the choir that they didn’t want to quit. As elementary school-age students, they sang in higher octaves — alto or soprano. And some would begin to cry when their voices began to change.
“Things got to the point that I just had to figure out how to teach them to sing in all the registers — alto, soprano, tenor and bass,” Stewart recalled. “What I found most amazing was that they learned to do it.”
At a recent fundraiser, the group sang the Jackson 5 hit song “I’ll Be There,” which showed off the full range of voices in a most spectacular fashion.
Stewart had groomed them, from sounding like angelic boys to confident young men, one vocal cord at a time.
By 2005, however, music was falling out of favor in the public schools. Students were spending so much time on test preparation that there was no time left for much else.
But Stewart had shown what could be done. She’d brought to life the enormous potential that was being untapped, gasping for just a chance.
“It makes me happy to know I have touched the lives of so many young people in a positive way,” Stewart said. “I like hearing the boys talk about how the choir saved them from the streets. But also, how music opened up their minds and gave them an opportunity to see more of the world.”
To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/milloy.