Amid festive holiday decorations and lively piano accompaniment, residents and alumnae gathered with special guests at the Martha Cook Building’s 57th annual Messiah Dinner, held Saturday night.

Paul Wong
Martha Cook residents mingle with University faculty and alumnae during the 57th Annual Messiah Dinner Saturday.

The evening began with a receiving line that included members from the board of governors of the Martha Cook Building, Marion Scher, coordinator of the event, and Nancy Short, a resident of the residence hall and the Messiah Dinner chair.

Short said that about 50 to 60 of the 140 students who live in Martha Cook attend the Messiah Dinner each year. “The residents play a major role in planning the dinner. There are a variety of talents that are needed and the residents help with everything from the decorations and invitations to the piano music and the coat check,” she said.

A mingling hour before dinner gave the residents a chance to speak with many distinguished guests, including Robben Fleming, who served as president of the University from 1967 to 1978, and also as interim president in 1988.

“It’s a very nice (residence hall) and the dinner is a special event to have around Christmas time just before everyone goes home for the holidays. The Messiah performance is also very popular and it always draws a big crowd,” he said.

Though the Messiah Dinner has grown into a large event that requires many months of planning, it has very simple beginnings. Olive Chernou was a student living in Martha Cook in 1945, when the first dinner was held. She explained that the house mother at the time, Mrs. Dickema, had invited the director of the musical program to dinner. When she learned that the musical director had previous dinner plans with four soloists from the Messiah performance, she invited them along also, and the custom began.

“It’s nice to come back every year and see the blend of tradition with the new. Each group of girls brings fresh ideas to the event,” said Chernou, who currently serves as the building’s director and is the only director who was also a former student.

Marilyn Mason, who was also a student at the first dinner and is now a world-renowned organist, added, “It’s a very historic tradition and a very good dinner!”

The Messiah Dinner holds significance for newer alumnae as well. Marion Davis resided in the building from 1988-1991. She said she believes that it is an important part of the Martha Cook tradition. “It’s representative of the values of arts and culture and it celebrates the full dimension of the academic experience.”

The buffet dinner ended at 7:30 to allow guests with tickets to attend the Messiah performance at 8 p.m. The performance by the University Musical Society, which features a variety of Christmas music, was moved to the Michigan Theater this year. Hill Auditorium, the performance’s traditional venue, is currently undergoing renovations.

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