Former MSU professor to compete in worldwide piano contest
Former MSU chemistry professor William McHarris has written more than 150 compositions, 24 of which he said have been published. He played the organ, directed choirs at several churches and became an assistant carillonneur at Beaumont Tower in 1996. He has since composed at least eight pieces for the carillon. In May, he will be competing in the World Championship Old-Time Piano Playing Contest.
It will be McHarris’ sixth year participating and the contest will be held in Oxford, Miss.
“He has some pretty nice tunes that he’s written,” Ted Lemen, founder of the World Championship Old-Time Piano Playing Contest, said. “He’s a very dedicated listener, good sense of humor and a good sense of the melodies and the pattern that has to be followed in ragtime ... just a swell guy.”
McHarris said his grandfather bought him his first piano.
“I didn’t like to practice, but my mother was sort of a tyrant and forced me to practice and now I’m glad she did,” McHarris said.
McHarris attended Oberlin College to study the organ, choral conducting and composition.
There he meet his future wife Orilla McHarris, who later become a physicist at MSU. While McHarris was on the path to a life in music at the time, his path would soon change.
“I saw all my friends in music weren’t getting jobs and decided I could have more fun in music if I didn’t have to make a living at it,” McHarris said. “So I majored in chemistry.”
In the midst of Vietnam War protests, William and Orilla attended University of California, Berkeley for their graduate studies. McHarris received a doctorate in nuclear chemistry and was later hired to work on the then newly-completed National Superconducting Cyclotron Laboratory at MSU as the sole nuclear chemist on the team.
“We worked 90 hour weeks for the first 15-20 years, and it turned out to be a real success, although among the 14 original faculty there was something like seven divorces and four heart attacks,” McHarris said.
Katharine Hunt, a university distinguished professor in the MSU Department of Chemistry, said she took a quantum mechanics course McHarris taught.
“He’s a very intellectually curious person, very dedicated to science,” Hunt said. “A lot of the work he did was at the very deepest levels ... of nuclear science.”
McHarris retired from teaching at MSU in 2008, but still resides in East Lansing and has an office in the Department of Chemistry as a professor emeritus.
In addition to his musical endeavors, McHarris has contributed to a book about chaos theory.
As the years passed, McHarris gradually began to renew his interest in music.
“At times I do regret not going into music, but then again I see all of my friends in music are really struggling ... and they don’t have time to do the music they want to do,” McHarris said. “I’ve been relatively happy — you’re never satisfied completely.”